End of an Era: Vicente Fox Unseats the PRI
During 1998 and 1999 the focal point of opposition to the PRI’s three-generation rule had been shifting to relative newcomer Vicente Fox, former President of Coca-Cola Mexico and clean former PAN governor of Guanajuato.
Fox, who had announced his candidacy for president two years before the election, seemed an unlikely challenger. After all, the minority PAN had always been the party of wealthy businessmen and the conservative Catholic right. But blunt-talking, six-foot-five Fox, who sometimes campaigned in vaquero boots and a 10-gallon cowboy hat, preached populist themes of coalition-building and “inclusion.” He backed up his talk by carrying his campaign to hardscrabble city barrios, dirt-poor country villages, and traditional outsider groups, such as Jews.
In a relatively orderly and fair July 2, 2000, election, Fox decisively defeated his PRI opponent Fernando Labastida, 42 percent to 38 percent, while PRD candidate Cárdenas polled a feeble 17 percent. Fox’s win also swept a PAN plurality (223/209/57) into the 500-seat Chamber of Deputies lower house (although the Senate remained PRI-dominated).
Nevertheless, in pushing the PRI from the all-powerful presidency after 71 consecutive years of domination, Fox had ushered Mexico into a new, more democratic era.
Despite stinging criticism from his own ranks, President Zedillo, whom historians were already praising as the real hero behind Mexico’s new democracy, made an unprecedentedly early appeal for all Mexicans to unite behind Fox.
On the eve of his December 1, 2000, inauguration, Mexicans awaited Fox’s speech with hopeful anticipation. Although acknowledging that he couldn’t completely reverse 71 years of PRI entrenchment in his one six-year term, he vowed to ride a crest of reform, by revamping the tax system and reducing poverty by 30 percent, by creating a million new jobs a year through new private investment in electricity and oil production, and by forming a new common market with Latin America, the United States, and Canada.
He promised, moreover, to secure justice for all by a much-needed reform of police, the federal attorney general, and the army. Potentially most difficult of all, Fox called for the formation of an unprecedented congressional Transparency Commission to investigate a generation of past grievances, including the 1968 massacre of student demonstrators and the assassinations of Cardinal Posada Ocampo in 1993 and presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994.
Vicente Fox, President of Mexico
Wasting little time getting started, President Fox first headed to Chiapas to confer with indigenous community leaders. Along the way, he shut down Chiapas military bases and removed dozens of military roadblocks. Back in Mexico City, he sent the long-delayed peace plan, including the indigenous bill of rights, to Congress. Zapatista rebels responded by journeying en masse from Chiapas to Mexico City, where, in their black masks, they addressed Congress, arguing for indigenous rights. Although by mid-2001 Congress had passed a modified version of the negotiated settlement, and the majority of states had ratified the required constitutional amendment, indigenous leaders condemned the legislation plan as watered down and unacceptable, while proponents claimed it was the best possible compromise between the Zapatistas demands and the existing Mexican constitution.
On the positive side, by mid-2002 Vicente Fox could claim credit for cracking down on corruption and putting drug lords in jail, negotiating a key immigration agreement with the United States, keeping the peso stable, clamping down on inflation, and attracting a record pile of foreign investment dollars.
Furthermore, Fox continued to pry open the door to democracy in Mexico. In May 2002, he signed Mexico’s first freedom of information act, entitling citizens to timely copies of all public documents from federal agencies. Moreover, Fox’s long-promised “Transparency Commission” was taking shape. In July 2002, federal attorneys were taking extraordinary action. They were questioning a list of 74 former government officials, including ex-President Luis Echeverría, about their roles in government transgressions, notably political murders and the University of Mexico massacres during the 1960s and 1970s.
But, Mexico’s economy, reflecting the U.S. economic slowdown, began to sour in 2001, losing half a million jobs and cutting annual growth to 2.5 percent, down from the 4.5 percent that the government had predicted. Furthermore, a so-called “Towelgate” furor (in which aides had purchased dozens of $400 towels for the presidential mansion) weakened Fox’s squeaky-clean image.
During 2002 and 2003, the Mexican economy continued its lackluster performance, increasing public dissatisfaction. In the July 7, 2003, congressional elections, voters took their frustrations out on the PAN and gave its plurality in the Chamber of Deputies to the PRI. When the dust settled, the PRI total had risen to 225 seats, while the PAN had slipped to 153. The biggest winner, however, was the PRD, which gained more than 40 seats, to a total of about 100.
The best news of 2004 was not political, but economic. The Mexican economy, reflecting that of the United States, began to recover, expanding at a moderate (if not robust) rate of about 4 percent, while exports to the United States also increased.
By mid-2005, despite only modest political gains and with his term mostly spent, critics were increasingly claiming that Vicente Fox was a lame-duck president who had run out of time to accomplish what he promised. But Fox, despite a hostile congress that almost continuously blocked his legislative proposals, could claim some solid accomplishments. During his first five years, he had pushed through significant gains in indigenous rights, national reconciliation and government transparency, drug enforcement, U.S.–Mexico immigration policy, social security reform, housing, and education. Moreover, in addition to nurturing a recovering economy, no one could deny that Fox had kept exports robust, the peso strong against the dollar, and had clamped the lid on inflation.
So, in the twilight of his term, in early 2006, although the typical Mexican man and woman on the street acknowledged that Fox had not delivered on his promises to completely re-make the economy and political system, most still believed that unseating the PRI was good for Mexico, and acknowledged that even Fox couldn’t be expected to completely undo in six years what 71 years of PRI dominance had created.
The Election of 2006
During the first half of 2006, as Vicente Fox was winding down his presidency, Mexicans were occupied by the campaign to elect his successor. Most headlines went to the PRD candidate, the mercurial leftist-populist Andres Manuel López Obrador, former mayor of Mexico City. Trying hard not to be upstaged was the steady, no-nonsense PAN candidate, Harvard-educated centrist-conservative Felipe Calderón, a leading light of President Fox’s cabinet. Also, veteran politico Robert Madrazo carried the banner for what appeared to be a resurgent PRI. But, after a half year of mudslinging and angry debates over the major election issues of drug-related mayhem, killings and kidnappings, police and judicial corruption and inefficiency, and lack of jobs for impoverished workers, Madrazo’s initial popularity faded, narrowing the contest to a bitter neck-and-neck race between Calderón and Obrador.
On Sunday July 2, 2006, 42,000,000 Mexicans cast their ballots. In an intensely monitored election marred by very few irregularities, unofficial returns indicated that voters had awarded Calderón a paper-thin plurality. Four days later, after all returns were certified, the Federal Electoral Institute announced the official vote tally: only about 22 percent for Madrazo, with the remaining lion’s share divided nearly evenly, with 38.7 percent going to Obrador and 39.3 percent for Calderón. This result, the Federal Electoral Institute ruled, was too close to declare a winner without a recount.
Besides the close Obrador-Calderón vote, the election results revealed much more. Not only were the 32 electoral entities (31 states and the Federal District) divided equally, with 16 going for Obrador, and 16 for Calderón, the vote reflected a nearly complete north–south political schism, with virtually all of the 16 PAN-majority states forming a solid northern bloc, while the 16 PRD-voting states did the same in the south. Furthermore, the election appeared to signal a collapse of PRI power; with no state (nor the Federal District) giving either a majority or a plurality to Madrazo.
A howl of protest came from Obrador and his PRD followers after the election results were announced. They claimed the PAN had stolen the election. They jammed the Federal Electoral Institute with lawsuits, alleging a host of irregularities and ballot-stuffing incidents, and demanding a complete recount of all 42,000,000 ballots. They yelled, marched, blocked Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma, and camped in the zócalo.
After weeks of hearing the PRD arguments for (and PAN counterarguments against) ballot fraud, the Federal Election Institute announced (in agreement with virtually all independent observers) that the election was nearly completely clean. The recount would be limited only to the questionable ballots. These amounted to about 9 percent of the total, all mostly in the Calderón-majority states.
For a month, the questionable ballots were gathered and examined exhaustively by the Supreme Election Tribunal, an impeccable panel of federal judges. They found that the recount shifted the margin by only a few thousand votes away from Calderóon to Obrador. On September 6, the Federal Electoral Institute declared Calderóon the president-elect by a margin of about 240,000 votes, or a bit more than one-half of a percent of the total vote.
Obrador and his supporters screamed foul even louder and threatened to ignore Calderóon and/or block his presidency. On September 16, Mexican independence day, Obrador convened in the Mexico City zócalo hundreds of thousands of his supporters that declared him the legitimate president. In the succeeding days, the PRD’s obstructionist tactics reached an outrageous climax when a handful of PRD senators and deputies made such a ruckus during a joint session of the federal legislature that they prevented the president of Mexico, for the first time in history, from delivering his annual state of the union address. Mexican voters, watching the PRD’s melodramatic tactics on television, began, in increasing numbers, to say enough was enough. National polls showed that more than two-thirds of Mexicans disapproved of the PRD’s protest behavior. By October, many of the PRD’s leaders agreed, further isolating Obrador and his rump government to a footnote in Mexican history. Mexico’s new democracy, given a gentle shove forward ten years earlier by President Ernesto Zedillo and nurtured for six more years by Vicente Fox, seemed to have again surmounted a difficult crisis and emerged stronger.
An important result of the 2006 election, initially overshadowed by the intense struggle over the presidential vote, but potentially crucial, was the federal legislative vote, in which PAN emerged as the biggest winner by far. The final results showed that voters had given PAN candidates strong pluralities of 206/127/106 over the PRD and PRI, respectively, in the 500-seat federal Chamber of Deputies, and 52/29/33 in the 128-seat Senate, with the remainder of seats scattered among minor parties. This result may bode well for Mexican democracy. With some cooperation (most likely from the PRI) Felipe Calderón may be able to use his party’s pluralities to further the national political and economic reform agenda Vicente Fox promised six years earlier, but could only partially deliver.
Felipe Calderón’s inauguration on Dec. 1, 2006, was the shortest in recent memory. Threatened by interference by unruly PRD legislators, Calderón, accompanied by Vicente Fox, entered the national congressional chamber through a back door, took the oath of office, gave a short speech, and left quickly.
During the next few months, however, Calderóon showed that he was a president to be reckoned with. He quickly attacked Mexico’s most immediate problems head on. In quick succession he tossed the Oaxaca protestors in jail, pledged to imprison kidnappers for life, and launched a nationwide military assault on drug traffickers.
Even opposition critics agreed that Calderó was off to a good start. By mid-March 2007, his national approval rating had soared to 58 percent. But despite his early successes, Calderón recognized the many long-term challenges that remain. Poverty, estimated to be 40 percent nationwide, is widespread. Mexican factories are being challenged by cheaper Asian, especially Chinese, imports. Lack of jobs still forces millions of Mexicans to flee north of the border for work.
Furthermore, with less than a majority of the congressional seats, Calderón’s PAN will have to cooperate with the opposition PRD and PRI to make progress. Calderón, however, may be just the man for the job. Even during the presidential campaign, he seemed to be reaching out to the PRI and the PRD with some new ideas. These, although containing much of PAN’s pro-business pro-NAFTA ideas, also appeared to borrow considerably from the liberal-populist agenda of Obrador and the PRD and might produce much-needed compromises that may allow their country to make progress toward a more just and prosperous motherland for all Mexicans.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Puerto Vallarta, 7th edition