Voters Abstain as the Old Regime Regains Force
With 52%, abstention was the big winner in the July 6 elections. It had already hit 42% in 1997, before the “democratic euphoria”
created by the PRI’s loss in the 2000 presidential elections, but it rocketed past that in this year’s legislative elections even though six state and four local governments
were also up for grabs, which normally ups turnout. Mexican voters were out to punish the government for mishandling the country’s new democratic opportunities.
A lack of proposals, the marketing of empty images and a myriad of conflicts defined the parties’ legislative and gubernatorial election campaigns this year. The main result of these campaigns, and the most striking result of the elections, was massive abstention. Several factors explain why voters chose to stay away on election day.
The lingering shadow of past corruptionThe illegal actions committed during the last presidential campaign were still in the news, discouraging voters. The Federal Election Institute (IFE) had leveled a US$100 million fine against the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for pillaging PEMEX, the state oil company, to finance its campaign in 2000. The Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) charged that a large part of these ill-gotten funds went into buying votes. When the IFE recently ratified that sanction, the PRI spokesperson said that the actions had been the work of a team of corrupt, disloyal party officials who had already been replaced, though he named no names. This scandal, which has been dubbed “PEMEX-gate,” thus brought the party’s deep internal divisions out into the light. The successful efforts of several of PEMEX’s top managers to shield their responsibility in the affair behind the impunity of their congressional seats also discouraged voters. That impunity was confirmed after the elections, when the Attorney General’s Office exonerated all those involved of any criminal wrongdoing and merely opened an investigation into electoral violations.
The PRD also filed charges with the Attorney General’s Office, claiming that the PRI administrator of the railroad company had diverted some $60 million from the employee pension fund, of which at least
a million ended up in the presidential campaign. The National Education Workers Coalition also asked the IFE to investigate the diversion of funds from the teachers’ union to PRI campaigns. This time the PRI defended the actions taken, thus incriminating itself with an attitude plainly reminiscent of the old regime.
Yet another set of charges had even more influence on the spirit of the electorate, because it got a great deal of publicity, especially towards the end of the campaign. The accusations had to do with funds provided by “Amigos de Fox,” that is, a group of “friends” of President Vicente Fox. One accusation claimed a triangular channeling of funds from abroad that involved money laundering. The PRI and the PRD urged the Election Institute to clear this case up before election day. The Attorney General’s Office finally determined that some 15-20% of the money used in Fox’s campaign came from abroad, but clarified that its origins were licit, thus deeming the fault to be merely administrative, not an electoral violation punishable by that office.
These two cases aren’t equivalent, since PEMEX involved diverting public funds while the Amigos de Fox case involved private money, but the media made little distinction between them. The one irrefutable conclusion drawn by many voters was that the law had been broken
in both cases, and people were more disappointed in and therefore more apt to punish the one who had presented himself as “different,” as an “advocate for change.”
Two weeks after the elections, the Election Institute determined that six serious electoral law violations had indeed been committed in the Amigos de Fox case: receiving money from abroad, accepting donations from financial firms, exceeding campaign spending limits, allowing private individuals to pay for media ads, failing to report over $10 million in private financing to the IFE and falsifying information in reports of contributions from supporters of Fox’s National Action Party (PAN). The party was fined some $50 million, half what was leveled against the PRI.
Bishops’ statements stir things upWhile the campaigns languished without any proposals that might inspire voters, several bishops issued statements that heated up the electoral panorama. A few commented on the quality of the candidates in general, insisting that they should be “well prepared” and not “opportunistic,” while one said it was a sin not to vote. Even more controversially, several bishops, including those from Querétaro, Acapulco, Tlaxcala and Cuernavaca, told Catholics not to vote for parties and candidates that support abortion and homosexual unions. One of the newly registered parties, México Posible, countered by recalling article 130 of the Constitution, which prohibits religious leaders from proselytizing in favor or against specific candidates or parties.
The government minister promised to look into the accusations and enforce the law and asked the bishops not to get involved in the campaigns, while the Attorney General’s Office warned that it would give them no special treatment. Some bishops called on the government minister to clarify that they were not violating the law because they were not mentioning any specific party or candidate. They insisted on continuing to defend life, and announced that if the authorities considered them guilty they would go to jail for defending the gospel.
The government clarified that it wasn’t a case of imprisoning anyone, but rather of applying administrative sanctions in accord with the law. The bishop presiding over the Bishops’ Conference announced that they would continue to call for a carefully considered vote, while the cardinal of Mexico complained that the government and certain sectors of society were trying to muzzle the bishops. Catholic organizations published ads supporting him.
Another debate during the campaign revolved around former President Salinas de Gortari’s return to Mexico after living abroad for the past several years to evade charges for criminal actions committed under his mandate and his influence on the elections. In an interview, Salinas described current PRI leader Roberto Madrazo as a “friend” and assured the foreign press that “the state’s persecution has ended.” It has been estimated that a third of the PRI’s candidates are Salinas supporters.
Offensive expendituresThe parties waged ambiguous image campaigns that had little to do with their platforms and spent a scandalous amount of public funds doing so: some $500 million, the most in Mexican history. The expenditures were offensive, particularly with so many people suffering from poverty.
Eleven parties qualified to receive these public funds. The PRI got 29.4% of the total, the PAN 26.4%, the PRD 11.6%, the Green Party (PVEM) 7.5%, the Labor Party (PT) 5.8% and Convergencia 4.8%. The other five parties shared the remaining 13%.
The PRI’s “dirty campaign” failedThe leading parties continuously adapted their campaigns to the results of the latest surveys and the proposals of their strategists. The PRI first sought to consolidate its faithful following with a campaign that recalled the past, when the party had used its government position to provide jobs and services to its supporters. In addition to promising a return to this past, the party pledged that “the PRI is at your side” and emphasized its experience in government. Later, it decided to go
after the undecided voters, attacking the governments run by both the PAN and Mexico City’s PRD mayor, Andrés López Obrador, whom it criticized for failing to reduce the crime rate. PRI public relations specialist Carlos Alazraki argued that this kind of “negative publicity” should be used when the race is very tight and the second place contender can exploit weak spots in its competitors. Alazraki defended “dirty campaigning” by arguing that while “there are codes of conduct in the market, that’s not the case in politics.”
The truth is that the PRI’s aggressive campaign against the López Obrador government only served to push voters away. The party did much better in the states its governs, where it once again used public resources to buy votes. It also benefited from an alliance with the PVEM, called the “Alliance for All,” in 97 districts. The PRI and PVEM were the two parties that bought the most TV ads.
A plebiscite on Fox’s governmentThe PAN tried to take advantage of the positive perception of President Fox shown in the polls by focusing its campaign on
his achievements. “Take the brakes off change,” “Together we’ll change things” and “Choose well” were its slogans.
The PAN insisted that any lack of progress should be blamed on the opposition legislators for hindering change. But the warning signs were soon apparent: the PAN’s own polls showed that the election results would not be particularly good for the party, as the balance of power in the House of Representatives was likely to remain the same.
Weak points in the PRD and PVEMThere were conflicts in the PRD, mainly revolving around some candidates accused of being pro-Salinas. It became clear that the party needs a full-scale renovation and the eradication of favoritism in its structures. Aware of the need to differentiate its practices from both the PRI’s centralized control and the PAN’s managerial discipline, the PRD tried to convince people that the PRI and the PAN were the same, as shown by their support for an increased sales tax and the useless and onerous multi-million dollar bank bailout. They argued that it was not only necessary to “take the brakes off change,” but also to change course; they did not, however, clearly propose a new one.
The Green Party (PVEM), led by an old friend of PRI leader Madrazo, presented itself as “the young party for the new Mexico.” But it never went beyond generalities in discussing its solutions to the problems of education, health and housing, and never explained where the resources needed to implement its proposals would come from.
Sick of dull, empty campaignsThe Convergencia promised to forge agreements among all parties in the House of Representatives, while México Posible defended women’s right to abortion and opposed discrimination based on sexual orientation. The latter party got its main coverage thanks to its conflict with the bishops, but it proved to be a two-edged sword as many voters shied away from the conflict.
Several polls showed that the vast majority of Mexicans are tired of expensive, dull, empty campaigns that begin long before election day and do not help educate voters. Such campaigns were not what people expect from the country’s new democracy. Many parties but very few authentic, viable projects were competing in these elections.
The PRD won 41 more seatsIn the end, 36.9% of the vote went to the PRI, 32.8% to the PAN and 18.8% to the PRD. The PVEM held its position while both the Labor Party and Convergencia won enough votes to hang on to their legal standing, although the latter two pulled fewer votes combined than the total number of annulled votes. The result was a narrowed but still pluralistic panorama, as voters left six parties standing and got rid of five by giving them so few votes that their legal status was revoked.
The PAN won only 153 seats, which represents a loss of 52 in the House of Representatives, while the PRD made the biggest gain with 95 seats, 41 more than last time. The PRI won 224 seats, 16 more than before, and the PVEM held even.
One of the country’s least representative legislatures everIn percentage terms, the three main parties stayed their ground, but in absolute numbers they lost a lot of votes, all the more troubling given the increased number of registered voters since the last elections. The parties are clearly reaching fewer voters. The PRI didn’t have a significant presence in the capital; the PAN had no impact in a third of the country’s states; and the PRD, which swept the capital, got insignificant percentages in a full two-thirds of the states.
The PRI took 45% of the seats in the House of Representatives with 15% of the registered voters, the PAN 31% with 12% of the registered voters, and the PRD 19% with 8% of the registered voters. The high abstention rate made this one of the least representative legislatures in the country’s electoral history.
The first important election result is that no single party has an absolute majority in Congress. The second is that without the PRI, no combination of other parties can reform the Constitution, and they will have to reach agreements in order to legislate. The third is that the PRI is in a particularly advantageous position.
Six gubernatorial elections were held at the same time as the federal elections. The PAN lost Nuevo León, which includes one of the country’s most important industrial cities, held on to Querétaro, won San Luis Potosí and came in a close second in the other three states, where the PRI held on to the governor’s office.
An alarming abstention rateThe most alarming thing about the July 2003 elections was that so many citizens repudiated the parties by not turning out to vote, despite the scandalous expenditures. Over half of the registered voters chose to abstain, apparently to punish the parties for not fulfilling their promises. The rejection of the electoral process was especially strong in the area of the Zapatista conflict and the community of Atenco, where people went so far as to prevent election officials from setting up the polling stations. Despite pressures from the political parties, the Election Institute proved to be an impartial institution, ensuring the legality of the elections. Challenges were presented, but tribunals exist to resolve them.
President Fox addressed the nation late on election day. He interpreted the elections as a signal from the electorate that the political forces should hammer out agreements for the good of the country, and promised to try to understand the reasons for the silence and the decision of so many not to vote.
A major setback for PAN and the government Although they didn’t admit it, the PAN and the government suffered a major setback. The PAN had chosen to turn the vote into
a plebiscite on the President, emphasizing his figure in its TV ads, while Fox personally waged a campaign highlighting his own achievements. But even the minority who turned out to vote gave the PAN an unimpressive share of the vote. It was only logical that the international and local press would interpret the electoral results as a defeat for Fox himself.
After the elections, there was pressure on the President to make changes in his team. When the PRI jumped in saying it “would govern from Congress,” Fox replied that he would continue governing, since the balance of forces in the House of Representatives has not changed. He rejected the interpretation of the elections as a vote to punish his administration, pointing to two polls conducted at his request showing there had been no drop in his popularity, which remained above 70%. These figures were also in line with the numbers published by the daily newspaper Milenio, which showed a two-point drop between a poll taken before the elections and another afterward. Fox agreed with those who are saying that the elections showed the political system had been stretched to its limit, since it had not been created with a plurality of parties in mind. The system had guaranteed social peace, stability and alternation in government, he said, but far-reaching changes are now required.
The PAN self-critical and the PRI euphoric and unitedPAN leaders admitted having been surprised by the disappointing results, but did not interpret them as a debacle for the party. They saw the election as merely a warning call, pointing to a need for adjustments and rectification. They talked about how some poor candidate choices and divisions resulting from the party’s internal elections had contributed to the defeat. The PAN’s general secretary recognized that society had not expressed confidence in the party and that the government would have to make changes, going beyond images and spectacles and relying less on intuition and more on precise calculations to formulate sound policies. He also noted that some officials in charge of social policies in federal agencies—including the Social Security Institute and the National Credit Institute—had intervened in the elections in the PRI’s favor, reportedly conditioning the delivery of federal funds on a vote for the PRI.
Although PRI leader Madrazo’s first words were conciliatory, remarking that it was time to build, PRI members couldn’t hide their euphoria over the election results. While winning the votes of less than a sixth of the registered voters and losing over 4 million of the votes they received three years ago, they still seemed to feel their campaign strategy had paid off and their progress in the House would make it possible for them to regain the presidency in 2006. The tactic of alienating other voters to increase the vote represented by their faithful supporters appeared to have worked well for them. Although the PRI has virtually disappeared in the capital, it maintains a strong presence in two-thirds of the states.
In responding to the election results, PRI activists fell into two main camps, the larger of which seemed inspired by a spirit of revenge and set on rebuilding the old models of exercising power. They see themselves in the myth of the phoenix. A smaller number appeared convinced that this is not the most useful approach for their own future and urged the party to claim victory, but on new terms. The overriding tone, however, was not one of evaluation but rather of celebration.
The party’s internal struggles soon surfaced in the debates over who would head up the PRI’s congressional bench. As has typically happened whenever internal democracy is at issue, the struggle took place through the familiar anti-democratic maneuvering that is the party’s trademark. This struggle has nothing to do with ideas or proposals, but rather a jockeying for positions with sights set on the upcoming presidential campaign. Despite its deep fissures, however, the PRI has admittedly maintained an internal unity that gives it strength.
PRD wins the capital, falls short elsewhereThe PRD nearly doubled the seats it holds in the House of representatives and significantly increased its share of the vote in two states. Furthermore, it made a good showing even when it lost, trailing the winner in 36 districts by a margin of less than three points. Another important achievement is that one of the party’s norms—establishing that no more than 70% of its candidates could be of any one sex—became a national law, marking an important step forward in the struggle for women’s political rights.
Thanks in part to this norm, renowned anthropologist and sociologist Marcela Lagarde will enter the House this September. Working from a gender perspective, she has helped translate theoretical postulates on women’s political participation into practice and is well known among feminist groups in Latin America and Europe.
With 44.6% of the votes, the PRD clearly won in the Federal District, thanks to Mayor López Obrador’s effective management and good image. It also consolidated victories in four states. It failed, however, to hit its proposed target of winning over 20% of the vote, and outside of the areas it governs, its share of the vote remains small; in some states not even 2%. Its chance of winning the presidency in 2006 thus seems very slim indeed.
PRD: What went wrong and whyThe PRD’s assessment of the elections and its own self-criticism began the day after the elections. Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas lamented the troubling loss of votes for the party, which fell by over 2 million between 1997 and 2003. He urged party activists to find ways to establish the party throughout the country, attract people who have drifted away and resume the ideological and programmatic debates that had been left aside. He proposed making alliances with social movements and restoring the party’s character as a party-movement. Another PRD leader pointed to several other problems: the lack of alliances with social sectors, which meant that many good candidates were excluded, and the lack of much popular support for their “brigades of hope.” As a result, the party only managed to win the votes of its faithful supporters—and barely that—and experienced severe setbacks in a number of regions.
Many PRD activists repeated their argument that if the party continues to assign quotas to the various tendencies within it, the resulting sectarianism and favoritism along with the internal battles will render it impossible to ever win the presidency. Another problem that has kept the party from emerging as a national option is that it has been caught up in internal battles in the areas it governs, as certain groups have tried to take over the regional leadership positions, excluding many who refused to submit to their command. This has revealed an urgent need for measures to ensure internal democracy.
Other partiesThe PVEM has managed to win more congressional seats through alliances than it could have done on its own. In 2000, in an alliance with the PAN, the Greens won 17 seats and this time won the same number in a partial alliance with the PRI. They would have won only 3.9% of the votes on their own, which indicates their real electoral pull. In very close campaigns, however, those few points can make the difference, and the party has shown itself to be a skilled negotiator, making the most of its small size. Thanks to its alliance it won over 1.5 million votes, or 6.5% this year.
México Posible did not get enough votes to maintain its legal status, but did win a seat in Mexico City’s Municipal Council.
A good summary of the electionsThe PRD bench head in the outgoing House of Representatives summarized the elections by suggesting that Fox was seeing the results of his own mistake. When he won the presidency in 2000, he had a choice: either seek the PRI’s support and continue its economic project, or try to dismantle the old corporativist regime of government, business and powerful pro-PRI unions, punishing its most corrupt members. Fox chose to seek the PRI’s favors and lent it his formidable political capital, receiving nothing in exchange. He even made it possible for former President Salinas to return in impunity. His option to leave the old PRI leadership and thus that entire political class intact was an indecisive move that gave the PRI time to recover. And, as was to be expected, it was time well spent.
Fox could instead have sought the PRD’s support to implement political reforms that would have democratized the whole political structure. But rather than punish those responsible for PEMEX-gate, to take one example, he merely used it as a means of exerting pressure. In opting not to transform the regime, he betrayed the desire for justice felt by those who had voted for him. The PAN hoped to blame the failures on the PRI and PRD by accusing them of refusing to cooperate, but the voters didn’t buy it.
Disgruntlement with Congress, tooThe high abstention rate reflects not only on Fox, however. It is also a statement about Congress, since many people chose to stay away from the polls in these legislative elections because they are fed up with that institution as well.
The election showed that voters don’t trust a single party to lead the country. While people may be disgruntled over the lack of progress in Congress, they did not clear the way for the PAN to enact its legislative proposals on issues such as increasing the sales taxes on food and medicines, or privatizing PEMEX and the electricity industry.
Signs of the old regime’s return There were troubling signs during the campaigns that the old way of conducting politics has been regaining ground, and these signs are not just in the PRI’s behavior. One was the smaller number of electoral observers who participated in these elections. Another was that all of the main parties appear to have caved in to the political tactic of fiddling with votes and voters. Observers from the Mexican Human Rights Commission witnessed the persistence of such practices as intimidating voters, buying votes, campaigning on election day, and even—in this case especially in states governed by the PRI—stealing ballot boxes. It seems that the desire to win at all costs has led to a kind of pragmatism among more than a few groups that is the legacy of a deeply rooted anti-democratic political culture.
Nor did the media give the various parties equitable treatment. According to the Federal Election Institute’s statistics, the PRI got the most time on radio and TV news (some 33.7% of the total) and the most positive media coverage between April 19 and June 30. Two television oligopolies took the lion’s share of the vast public funds spent by the parties.
Crises within the partiesMexico’s elections have clearly become more competitive, which allows for changes in power as well as rapid changes in the direction of the vote. But the recent elections revealed crises within the parties, none of which is able to attract the majority of the electorate. The distance between the parties and society is growing. In such a scenario, the party whose machinery can turn out the vote of its faithful supporters is the winner. And the old regime’s recovery, which has a lot to do with the seeming apathy and abstention of a large share of the electorate, is hindering the country’s democratization.
The fact that the PRI obtained a relative majority despite the PEMEX-gate scandals indicates that those who vote for it don’t care about its corruption or infighting, but only about maintaining the benefits granted by the kind of government that rewards supporters. The PRD tried to present itself as an option, but failed to attract the disillusioned electorate.
Urgent, profound changesThe country needs a thoroughgoing electoral reform that will put an end to the enormous campaign expenditures, the long campaigns and pre-campaigns, the unmonitored use of funds, and partisan corruption. The nation’s colors are a national patrimony and should not be usurped by any party. The media is also in need of democratization. The task of guaranteeing a free vote, neither coerced nor bought, is still pending. We need free, clean elections, but we also need parties that manage their finances transparently and are an example of democracy in their internal affairs. We need a Congress that is concerned with more than the calculations of partidocracy, that really responds to society’s demands. The democratization of the country is at stake here, because without rapid, thorough changes on all of these matters, we risk going back to our authoritarian past.