Mexico City. 1 July 2006.
As a gringo, the first thing you learn upon arriving in Mexico City is that you do not take unauthorized taxis. In 2003, Mexico had the second-highest number of kidnappings in the world, with some 3,000 reported cases. The second thing you learn is that all the studying in the world will give you at best a cursory understanding of this country’s electoral politics.
Here, on the eve of what could be considered only Mexico’s 2nd multi-party democratic election in the last seventy years, feelings run unbelievably strong on all sides. With the fact that 94.5% of all eligible Mexican citizens are registered to vote, one gets the sense that the newfound democracy the country has created over the last six years is taken with more sobriety than we tend to give it in America. Aside from holding the election on a Sunday, a law is in place called La Seca which forbids the consumption of alcohol during the day before and the day of the election.
The top two candidates are reminiscent of what you would find back in the States.
There is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador better known to the locals as AMLO. He represents the PRD, the Party of the Democratic Revolution. AMLO, an unapologetic leftist, is the former Mayor of Mexico City, and is running, according to locals we’ve talked to, “on a promise of hope.”
On the other side, you have Felipe Calderon Hinojosa, the former minister of energy under the current president, Vincente Fox. Calderon could be considered the typical favorite of the elite in any country – he was educated at Harvard and a lot of his rhetoric revolves around more neo-liberal economic themes.
After the Calderon campaign hired foreign advisors, an attack campaign was launched against Obrador – the likes of which has never been seen in Mexico. The ads, blasted over the airwaves, were evocative of American style electioneering and appeared very similar to the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry during the 2004 Presidential election in the United States. One of the ads went so far as to compare AMLO to Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela. There were also ads saying that if AMLO were elected people would lose their homes. Eventually, it was taken too far and the federal election commission, IFE, had to step in.
Call it the typical fight, promises versus fear.
This somewhat American approach to winning an election seemed to work. For months Obrador led the polls with double digits. But following the negative ad campaign, a change in polling methodology, and other factors including AMLO’s audacious decision to forgo the first round of debates with Calderon – his numbers steadily dropped. Now, only hours before the voting booths open, he is just a few percentage points ahead of his opponent.
Needless to say, back in the U.S. President Bush is likely to support Calderon, while, not surprisingly, President Chavez, an outspoken critic of Bush, has come down on the side of Obrador. It is in this microcosm that the larger question of which way world politics will swing in the new Millennium is being fought.
Will more candidates with the promise of a new form of Social Democracy start convincing the majority of poor people that another world is possible if they partake in their civic duty of voting? Or will the dominant capitalist democracy of which the 20th century has largely been defined by, continue to reign? Either way, which system fulfills the role of government best? Assuming of course, that one can agree the role of government is to make sure the people who pay taxes are able to live in relative peace and prosperity.
We arrived in Mexico City late last night. As the plane was landing, we asked the fairly conservative Mexican woman sitting next to us which candidate she preferred in the election. Her answer was solemn and obvious, “Felipe.” When asked why, her response was, “Because Obrador is a crazy man, just like Chavez.”
In truth, the support from Chavez was neither wanted nor did much to help Obrador’s campaign. And given the fact that many of his advisers worked under Salinas, one of the men accredited with catalyzing support of NAFTA, Obrador is hardly a radical Leftist. But, all things considered, he is understood as a populist and one of the main tenets of his campaign was reaching both the urban and rural poor.
Outside the airport, probably because we are white, we were whisked to the front of the very long taxi line before realizing what was happening, and quickly found ourselves at the Hotel Isabel, where some of the more hard-core journalists who cover Mexico and South America are staying. Among them was John Gibler, who has been traveling with the Zapatistas throughout Mexico for the past six months. If one is truly looking for a radical voice in this election, John has his finger on the vocal chord. Running an un-official campaign, called La Otra Campana (The Other Campaign), Sub-Commandant Marcos and the Zapitista movement is using this election not as a way to gain office, but as a platform to promote what are considered by many to be radical ideas and possibilities for how a society could be governed.
Tonight, we go to a rally of The Other Campaign, to hang with the Zapatistas and continue to search for a deeper understanding and sense of which way the wind is blowing.
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John Buffalo Mailer is a playwright, actor, and Editor At Large for Stop Smiling Magazine. He is the author of Hello Herman, and co-author of The Big Empty.
Matt Pascarella is an award-winning reseracher and producer for investigative journalist Greg Palast. You can view his reports at www.GregPalast.com
If you are interested in Central and South American politics and its effect on the rest of the world, look for more dispatches from The Gringos Project.
To see photos from the 2006 Mexican Election see here.