Three years ago the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost its seventy-one-year grip on Mexico’s presidency. The party was written off as an authoritarian, inward-looking dinosaur, made obsolete by the country’s opening to the global economy. Mexico’s new president, ex-Coca-Cola executive Vicente Fox, was both symbol and substance of this hope for a prosperous, market-based future.
The PRI is back. It won almost twenty more seats in the July 6 election for the 500-member Chamber of Deputies, Mexico’s lower house. With 224 members, the PRI will be once again the largest bloc in the Mexican Congress. The leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) gained forty-one seats for a new total of ninety-six. Fox’s right-of-center National Action Party (PAN), lost about fifty, and will be down to 153.
The election was all about the economy. During his presidential campaign Fox promised voters that the Mexican economy would grow at the rate of 7 percent a year throughout his six-year term. But since passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico’s growth has depended on exporting to a robust US market, which started to slump shortly after he took office. Now, midway through his term, the country’s growth has averaged less than 1 percent. Add to the political equation the more than 200,000 jobs that have been lost to lower-wage China, and the fury of small farmers being blown away by the post-NAFTA invasion of their markets by US and Canadian agribusiness, and you are left with a large number of unhappy voters.
Having failed to produce jobs, Fox had hoped for a deal with George W. Bush that would make it easier for Mexico’s unemployed to migrate north. Bush, whose business constituency was eager to increase the pool of low-wage labor, and who shared Fox’s conservative values, seemed interested. But after 9/11, the notion of further opening up the border was a political nonstarter.
Abandoned by Bush, Fox made a last, desperate effort to repair the PAN’s fortunes by showing his independence from Washington. He refused to use Mexico’s Security Council vote to support Bush’s Iraq adventure. But although an overwhelming majority of Mexicans opposed the war, support for Fox’s foreign policy was trumped by anger over the empty lunchpail.
The charming and charismatic Fox is still well liked and gets credit for being personally honest. But as one voter told the New York Times, “The people still live with the same corruption. When we were with the PRI, we knew they robbed us. But at least there were more jobs. We lived better.”
The defeat of the PAN reflects the way Mexico’s neoliberalism has tended to devour its own. Former President Carlos Salinas–the Harvard-trained economist who in the early 1990s elbowed aside the old PRI dinosaurs and talked his country into NAFTA–is the most despised political figure in modern Mexican history. His successor, Ernesto Zedillo, is finished; he presided over the mid-’90s peso crisis and is widely blamed by the party rank and file for its 2000 disaster. Now Fox, who vanquished the PRI, has been betrayed by his own naïve faith in laissez-faire.
All this should be good news for a resurgent PRD, which has been crippled by internecine war for a decade. The party’s leading officeholder, Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexico City’s mayor, has become the country’s most popular politician by creating jobs with public works and by providing assistance to the elderly. He may be Mexico’s version of Brazil’s President Lula and would certainly be the favorite if the election were held today. Unfortunately, Obrador’s prospects will be limited by the PRD’s narrow base, concentrated in Mexico City and a few of the poorest states.
Moreover, like the left in the rest of North America, the PRD may be increasingly disadvantaged as elections become more Americanized–that is, more costly, more dependent on business contributions and less appealing to the average citizen. Already the American disease of low voter participation seems to have seeped across the border; turnout in congressional elections has fallen from 61 percent in 1991 to 41 percent this July. And the competition for money is becoming a political issue itself. The Fox Administration is currently under investigation for allegedly taking illegal campaign contributions from the United States. A few days before the election, the former Mexican ambassador to Cuba charged that Miami Cuban-Americans had helped finance the Fox campaign in 2000, which he suggested could explain Fox’s reversal of Mexico’s traditional friendliness toward Cuba.
Whatever the truth of these specific allegations, we should not be surprised if NAFTA’s common market for goods and money is also creating a common market for politicians.