Democracy Is in the Streets | The Nation


Democracy Is in the Streets

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If you found George W. Bush's 2000 victory in Florida difficult to stomach, imagine being on the losing side of Mexico's 1988 presidential election. Early results on election night showed the opposition candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas on his way toward a victory that would end six decades of one-party rule. But then functionaries from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) switched off the computer terminals where opposition leaders were tracking the vote count, claimed that technical problems had made the results unavailable and announced that their own candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, had won a "smashing and irrefutable triumph."

About the Author

Daniel Wilkinson
Daniel Wilkinson covers Latin America for Human Rights Watch. His book Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror,...

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Over the coming days reports of irregularities poured in--children marking blank ballots for Salinas, gunmen stealing ballot boxes, and ballots for Cárdenas turning up burned, dumped in ravines and floating in rivers. In thousands of precincts, PRI officials inflated the Salinas vote by simply tacking a zero onto the tally (so, for instance, 73 votes became 730). When opposition representatives challenged this practice in one district, the PRI-dominated electoral committee voted to disregard the complaint. When the opposition protested, the committee president reproached them for disrupting the process, exclaiming, "Please respect our democracy!"

The sham was so brazen, so cynical, that most Americans reading about it are likely to wonder--even after Florida 2000--how anyone could get away with it.

In Opening Mexico, Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon provide the answer, showing how the PRI was able to pull off this and countless other coups, yet ultimately could not stem the demand for democracy in Mexico. The Pulitzer Prize-winning pair, who covered Mexico for the New York Times in the 1990s, have written an insightful and engaging account of the "prolonged, slow-motion, largely peaceful democratic revolution" that culminated in the election of opposition candidate Vicente Fox in 2000. The book is a highly readable primer on recent Mexican history and a fascinating case study of the multiple ways public pressure can undermine an antidemocratic regime. At the same time, it offers important clues throughout the region--feeling disenfranchised.

The book opens on Election Day 2000, with the morning jitters of voters headed to the polls giving way during the afternoon to disbelief and anguish, astonishment and joy, as the rival camps realized where the vote was headed, and culminating in the evening with the decisive moment that transformed Mexico, in the eyes of the world, into a genuine democracy--not when the news media reported their polling results, nor when the Federal Election Institute announced the official tally, but when President Ernesto Zedillo went on national television to do something no PRI president had ever done after a national election: concede his party's defeat.

Zedillo was the last of twelve consecutive presidents from a regime born of the chaos of the Mexican Revolution--a series of regional rebellions and counter-rebellions that unleashed demands for social justice, left hundreds of thousands dead and led to the creation in 1917 of a constitution that, as Preston and Dillon write, both recognized "the social claims of the insurgent masses" and laid "the groundwork for the restoration of rigorous central authority."

That central authority was concentrated in the figure of the president, who was chosen every six years in a "stage play" of an election, managed by the PRI to guarantee the official candidate's victory, "by persuasion if possible, by coercion if necessary." Each president handpicked his successor, leading some pundits to joke that Mexico had perfected the "one man, one vote" system.

That system produced presidents like José López Portillo, who was elected in 1976 with 91.9 percent of the vote in an uncontested election, then plunged the country into its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and still managed to build himself a retirement compound in Mexico City that included five mansions with tennis courts, swimming pools, stables and a gym. These presidents wielded enormous power with no accountability, choosing not only their successors but also state governors and other key officials, and sharing with the chosen the considerable perks of a lucrative profession. (The profits to be made in public service were such that one Mexico City mayor observed, "A politician who is poor is a poor politician.")

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