Democracy in Mexico

(Tikkun, March/April 2000)

In the middle of November, Hector Laug Garcia, an obscure mid-level functionary in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), leapt to notoriety across Mexico when his photograph appeared on the cover of the country's leading news magazine, Proceso. And what a photograph it was: Laug Garcia is shown with his silver-plated pistol drawn, leading several lackeys out of a polling station in the city of Puebla, carrying a ballot box containing votes cast for a dissident candidate in the PRI's first-ever presidential primary, held on November 7, 1999. The image, accompanied by a headline entitled "The Lies of the PRI," triggered a political firestorm, and Laug Garcia, a high-ranking PRI official in Puebla state, was forced to resign a few days after Proceso hit the streets.

Pistols? Stolen ballot boxes? Electoral fraud? Such things are supposed to be part of the PRI's ignoble and sordid past, not its present. When President Ernesto Zedillo announced in March that the PRI had decided to jettison the dedazo, or big finger--the long-standing ritual in which the sitting president appoints his successor--in favor of an unprecedented open primary, the international response was immediate and effusive. "Moving to a broad-based national primary will contribute to a healthy opening of Mexican political life," gushed a New York Times editorial, which concluded that "Mr. Zedillo is well on his way to building a legacy as the president who brought real democracy to Mexico after decades of manipulated candidates and fraudulent elections."

A similar perspective shaped the Times' news coverage of the primary itself. "The vote," the Times' Mexico correspondent, Julia Preston, wrote from Mexico City on election day, "was regarded across the political spectrum as a historic advance toward democracy in Mexico." Her story contained vague references to accusations of fraud, but its general tone was decidedly upbeat. "They are not imposing leaders anymore," Preston quoted one young voter as saying. "They are letting us decide."

Proceso and the Times put forth radically different interpretations of the primary, and one of these accounts is presumably wrong. What happened in Mexico on November 7? Was the primary a "democratic advance," as the Times insisted? Or was it, as Proceso argued, just another lamentable footnote to the PRI's history of deceit and chicanery?

It is unwise to discuss the PRI primary without first considering a set of essential questions: What is the PRI? How has it sustained itself as the world's oldest ruling party, one that has clung to power since 1929? How is it structured? What is the internal logic by which it operates? In 1969, reflecting on the PRI's fortieth anniversary, Octavio Paz provided succinct answers to these questions, and his views are still relevant. "It is not a political organization in the proper sense of the term," Paz wrote in his book The Other Mexico. "It is a bureaucratic organism that performs political-administrative functions. Its principal mission is political domination, not by physical force but by the control and manipulation of the people through the bureaucracies that direct the labor unions and the associations of the peasants and the middle class." But Paz concluded that the party is also "an organ for exploring the conscience of the people and their tendencies and aspirations," and in the process illuminated both the PRI's flexibility and sophistication, and its parasitic tendency.

By ignoring the historical specificity of the PRI, and by treating it like any other political party competing in elections, the international press missed the real story of the November 7 election. Most foreign correspondents and think-tank denizens were taken in by the trappings of what appeared to be a "free" election: the U.S.-style debates among the four PRI aspirants, whose efforts are aimed at the presidential elections in summer 2000; the sleek voter registration cards; the razor-sharp TV commercials; the snappy campaign jingles; the huge rallies; the avalanche of leaflets and posters. In fact, the entire proceeding was a simulated performance, 2 a grotesque pantomime, intended to convey an atmosphere of democratic change and effervescence. The international community fell into the trap, while the PRI tacticians rejoiced.

In Mexican political circles, however, there were few illusions about the primary--or about the inevitable victory of Zedillo's hand-picked successor, former Interior Minister Francisco Labastida Ochoa, a loyal custodian of the system for three decades. Indeed, in the months leading up to the primary, it was widely understood, on the left and the right, that the dedazo had simply assumed a more insidious form, and that the primary was a farce. A few weeks before the vote, in his weekly column in the widely read daily Reforma, independent Senator Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, an influential member of the opposition, spoke for many when he noted that "Labastida was chosen by the governing elite and anointed by Ernesto Zedillo. To legitimate him they designed a primary whose inevitable result is his triumph."

Before the vote, Zedillo insisted that all four candidates would compete on a level playing field, but the process was rigged from the start in Labastida's favor: the powerful, semi-official TV networks fawned over him; the PRI elite rushed to embrace him; and the electoral rules were designed to guarantee his election. For instance, victory did not go to the candidate with the greatest number of votes, but rather to the contender who captured a majority of electoral districts--a rule designed to neutralize independent-minded voters in the capital while favoring the PRI machine, whose real strength is in the provinces and rural areas. Indeed, winning elections is what the PRI does best: thirty years after Paz's analysis, the party, despite important gains by the opposition in recent years, still controls nearly every popular organization and trade union, as well as a huge cross section of the poor. By mobilizing and directing these constituencies on election day, the PRI becomes an unstoppable machine whose millions of members march in lockstep. I myself witnessed a blunt demonstration of its strength on November 2, when the PRI bused tens of thousands of militants to downtown Mexico City for Labastida's massive closing rally. Most of the participants, who belong to the PRI's various unions and organizations, had no choice but to attend the extravaganza, where their task was to shout slogans for the official candidate and allow themselves to be photographed by the press. Labastida's advisors knew they had the full weight of the system on their side, which is why they boasted to reporters a few days before the vote: "This election was over a month ago."

The three other candidates, however, complained loudly every step of the way, denouncing the entire process as "a sham." But they were powerless to stop the party apparatus. In the weeks and months leading up to the election, PRI officials at every level bribed voters with cash, chickens, cement, and bicycles. On November 7, the PRI not only mobilized a colossal army of 800,000 volunteers to get out the vote for Labastida, but fell back on all the old tricks: PRI supporters were trucked to the polls; independent-minded voters were hounded and threatened; and poll workers were bribed with cash from mysterious envelopes. Labastida's vanquished rivals documented electoral fraud all over the country, and noted countless irregularities in the voting. For instance, in a large number of polling stations, the number of marked ballots vastly exceeded the number of registered voters--an old gimmick in the PRI's book.

These tactics enabled Labastida to win a crushing victory: he obtained 272 districts, while his nearest rival, Roberto Madrazo, who ran a bare-knuckled insurgent campaign, received only 21. The entire purpose of the primary was to unify the party for next year's elections. The strategy was successful, but the dirty tricks enraged powerful sectors of the PRI rank and file. "This was the biggest fraud in the history of the country," one livid Madrazo supporter told Proceso a few days after the vote. (That legitimate anger was nowhere to be found on television, which broadcast propaganda footage of Labastida and his family in the days after the vote.) The opposition took a similar view. In a post-election interview with the press, the leader of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), Luis Felipe Bravo Mena, assailed the primary as a "farce," while Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the presidential candidate of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) remarked: "There was no surprise, because Labastida was the candidate chosen by Zedillo many months ago. The only surprise is that he didn't win 100 percent of the districts." So much for Julia Preston's assertion in the Times that the vote was "regarded across the political spectrum as a historic advance toward democracy in Mexico."

For millions of Mexicans in the opposition, the most important political story of 1999 was not the PRI primary, but the protracted negotiations throughout the late summer and early fall between the PAN and the PRD to create an opposition alliance for the July 2000 elections. The PRI controls approximately 40 percent of the electorate in presidential elections, while the PAN, PRD, and a series of small satellite parties divide the rest. A PAN-PRD coalition, therefore, is the best way to break the PRI's seventy-year stranglehold on power, and polls showed that 60 percent of the population supported the concept of a left-right alliance.

In the end, it was not to be: the immense ideological malice between the PRD and the PAN, who occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum, and the difficulty of choosing a single presidential candidate doomed the negotiations in late September and guaranteed Labastida's election in 2000. Many analysts angrily blamed the PAN, which pulled out of the talks, for the outcome; others affirmed that Cardenas, who resigned as Mexico City's mayor, is determined to make his third run for the presidency, even though his standing in the polls is no more than 12 percent. Writing in Reforma, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser called the opposition stalemate "the failure of the century," and focused his ire on the intransigence of both the PAN and the PRD: "In spite of its failure, sooner or later an opposition alliance will prove to be a necessity. One hopes that when it does come to pass, the political opposition in this country will be led by those who have the maturity, the generosity, the political skill, and the patriotism to attain it."

And Hector Laug Garcia? An investigation by Proceso unearthed a lengthy history of thuggish behavior. In a municipal election in Puebla in 1998, for instance, journalists found him in the streets buying votes for 300 pesos each, and he responded by threatening the reporters and seizing their camera.

In spite of his activities on November 7--stealing ballot boxes and pointing his pistol at voters--Laug Garcia appears be in no immediate danger, because federal and state officials told Proceso they have no plans to prosecute him. The smug foreign correspondents who produced sonorous accounts of the PRI's "historic advance toward democracy" have thus far evinced little interest in Laug Garcia's case, but the Mexican opposition, with considerable justification, views it as an ominous portent: "If this type of behavior occurred during the PRI's internal elections," a high-ranking member of the PAN nervously remarked to Proceso, "what is going to happen in next year's presidential elections?"