Vol. XLII No. 28 July 15, 2018

Mexico: An Election of Hope

Shatam Ray

I: The Night of Tlatelolco

October, 1968. The world had descended to Mexico, the “young adult” of the world, as spectators and participants to the first ever Olympic Games being hosted in South-Central Americas. This was not an ordinary feat for a nation that had defied all predictions of doom and gloom to emerge as a politically stable (under the absolutist one-party rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, better known through its Spanish acronym PRI) and economically buoyant destination. To the outside world, Mexico City of the Olympics was adorned with color; bright confetti and banners brightened the first in-color broadcast of the Olympics. This jubilant, fiesta spirit worked hard to conceal the bloody events that the city had witnessed less than two weeks before the formal inauguration of the Games.

On October 2, 1968 an estimated 10,000 students representing a nationwide alliance of over 70 universities and colleges had assembled on Plaza de las Tres Culturas, a square in Mexico City that commemorates the confluence of its three historic legacies – indigenous, Spanish and mestizo. That year, a spate of radical student movements had burst open on university campuses across Berkeley to Prague, Paris to (then-) Calcutta. Universities in Mexico too were affected by this global trend and the PRI, anxious to avoid any embarrassment to its legitimacy at the upcoming Games, had responded to student uprising with brute force. Fearing the growing clout of the National Strike Council (CNH) the PRI-backed military had held the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN) under siege, killing a dozen students and abducting many more. The October 2 congregation at the Plaza on Tlatelolco hill was filled with another festive spirit; a spirit of defiance, of an impending revolution. In those heady hours, the students paid scant attention to the growing military presence around the perimeter of the neighbourhood, rolling tanks and then, a short green fume going off. The green fume, it was later realised, was a coordination sign among the different armed contingents to indiscriminately fire upon the gathered crowd, jammed as they were on square with no easy exit lanes. On that night of terror, hundreds of young, dreamy Mexicans lost their life and was the most emblematic episode of PRI’s “Dirty War”.

II: The Night of Amlo

50 years after the Night of Tlatelolco as the world stands preoccupied with yet another global sporting event, Mexico City was witness to another massive congregation. Of students, of professors, of workers, of shopkeepers, of human rights activists, of political activists. They were there to celebrate the landslide victory of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or Amlo as he is popularly known. Amlo is the former mayor of Mexico city and a widely popular leader of the Left- leaning Morena, short for National Regeneration Movement. Morena forged ahead in the elections with an anticipated ease but given the country’s history with drug cartel sponsored violence, election fraud and pervasive mistrust of its political class, not even the dyed-in-wool supporter of Obrador had taken his victory for granted. The spectre of political murders loomed large over these elections. The latest estimate from CNBC, claimed that 112 politicians had been murdered in the run up to the Sunday elections.

Amlo supporters had seen back in 2006, when Obrador made his first bid for presidency, how his unrivaled popularity had been lost due to an election system that was skewed in favour of those who had curried favors from the drug cartels or had personal wealth at their disposal. Obrador’s often tempestuous personality too played a role in alienating some sections but his probity in public life and efficient image as the mayor of Mexico City’s governor already cut him as someone distinctive from the stereotypical Mexican politician.

Actually, what is most remarkable about Obrador’s elections is how improbable it was. While Mexico City has long been considered politically more progressive, the writ of state runs thin in other districts. In the elections to the office of governor in the 16 million populous México State last year, Morena’s candidate had lost narrowly in an election that revealed just how deep the criminal-politician nexus runs, even in the heart of the country. Drawing from a complex web of grassroots actors, PRI mobilised support through intimidation, coercion and bribery. Then, PRI’s Alfredo del Mazo Maza, a cousin of the outgoing President Peña Nieto and whose father and grandfather had both served as governors of Estate de México, claimed victory in a widely disrupted election. International election observer group #NiunFraudeMás reported widespread voter coercion (for del Mazo) and blatant buying of votes in the city neighbourhoods.

Despite such unsurmountable challenges, winning the Mexican election would seem like the easier part. The country has a poverty rate that hovers around 50 percent and the “neoliberal reforms” of past years has only exacerbated the living conditions of millions. His own motley alliance is rife with those who belong to the old power structure. This has indeed forced at one level, Obrador to personalise the Morena movement while at the same time, millions to project their own expectations of a noble, caring state on his campaign.

III: “Hope for Mexico”

Questions have been asked about how best to characterise Obrador. At his core Obrador is defiantly a Left-wing nationalist whose popularity surged further due to his acerbic rebuttals to US president, Donald Trump and his administration’s anti-Mexican policies. He claims to be inspired by Benito Juárez, the first indigenous president of the region. Obrador ran a campaign centering pension benefits for the elderly, State support for sex workers and students, fight against corruption and the ruling drug cartels of Mexico. Though the PRI went out of its way to paint Obrador as a Hugo Chavez- style dictator, the man betrays a greater similarity to Brazil’s Lula da Silva and the rising hero of the British Left, Jeremy Corbyn. His party is affiliated to the international Foro de São Paulo, a collective of workers’ and socialist parties of South America and the Caribbean; an initiative of Lula. The election of Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, former member of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a leading environmental activist as the first female mayor of Mexico City signals Morena’s ability to build on a wide array of essentially socially progressive agendas.

Detractors on the Left point out to his alliance with the right wing conservative, Social Encounter Party (PES).However, the lines that distinguish the right from the left in the European context are often blurred in Mexico.Sergio Aguayo, writing in The Guardian, has pointed out that the right and the left have had to forge alliances in Mexico (starting the 1970s) to counter the unabated authoritarianism of the PRI. We must not forget that Mexico is a young multi-party democracy, having moved out of a one-party hegemony as recently as 2000. The PRI itself, a party one would typically characterise as neoliberal, right wing, is affiliated to the Socialist International and, for long claimed to be a party on the anti-imperialist left.

Yes, one must wait for the Amlo story to unfold fully. But one must fully celebrate the election of ordinary men and women which seemed so unlikely at first. While concerns about a cult of personality may take some time to ebb, part of it is to be understood within the context of the presidential system as well as the peculiar alliances stitched up to make the Morena movement. On economic, environmental and social policies, Morena has been quite unambiguous and in his victory speech, Amlo continued to exude hope to steer Mexico away from the destructive path of unchecked neoliberalism. Finally, Morena is a grassroots political movement whose directions will be decided by the ordinary people that make up its unofficial cadre; another Latin American experiment in direct democratic actions.

And hence, it is fitting to trace Obrador’s victory back to that fateful October night of 1968. It is taken 50 long years for hope to sweep the streets of Mexico City. But now that it does, it has come not with tears but with a renewed ferocity.