FNS: Elections for end times in US, Mexico

Frontera NorteSur Special Report

It’s full-tilt political boogie in the US and Mexico. Media in both nations are saturated with interviews, profiles and satires of the candidates. Cable blasts virtually nonstop news of the Republican primaries and the ones for president and Mexico City mayor south of the border.  In 2012 the neighboring countries will experience national, local and state elections in extraordinary times. In the year 2000, the last time major US and Mexican elections coincided, the results led to jarring and even unimaginable events in both countries. 

For the US, the elections take place amid an uneven economic recovery, the historic erosion of the middle class, the clash between austerity and social safety net politics and the sharpening contradictions between the costs of projecting military power abroad while satisfying growing needs at home. Dramatized by foreign policy critic Ron Paul’s showing in early Republican primaries, some of these issues are even gaining traction on the right.

As in Mexico, a new year’s gush of gasoline price hikes and other rises in the cost of living greeted the populace. Welcome to the Cost of January.

Maybe the end of the Mayan calendar later this year augurs big surprises, after all.

Unforeseen just one year ago, growing grassroots movements inspired by, but not limited to Occupy Wall Street, are re-framing the political debate and shaping the political terrain.

Initially aimed at the nerve center of global capitalism, the Occupy-influenced movements are evolving in numerous ways, moving from national to local and back to national stages, as was evidenced by last week’s student protest in California against tuition hikes as well as demonstrations planned this month at state legislatures and court houses in New Mexico and elsewhere. The demands range from ending “corporate personhood” to passing legislation aimed at getting more tax revenue from the wealthy 1 percent of the population.

On countless fronts, citizens are back in the streets in the greatest sustained numbers since the early 1970s. Whether it’s Native Americans protesting the desecration of Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks,  environmentalists and ranchers taking on the Keystone XL pipeline or civil rights and pro-migrant organizations uniting to resist the Alabama immigration law, independent citizen action is back in style.

Mexico likewise finds itself at a critical juncture. More than five years after President Felipe Calderon initiated his so-called drug war a Vietnam-like body count mounts daily, as do the official declarations of success, in a manner very reminiscent of bravado emanated from Washington about Southeast Asia several decades ago. Simultaneously, the wheels of the legal Mexican economy are spinning ever more slowly, and even the big engine of oil is no longer reliable, with easily recoverable supplies diminishing and vanishing into puffs of greenhouse gases.

More economists and analysts speak about how Mexico’s model of factory exports, migrant remittances and international tourism has long reached its zenith.

While widespread distrust of politicians and political parties marks Mexico’s political scene, a potentially huge youth vote cast by people with little or no historic memory of the events that led up to Mexico’s presumed democratic transition of 1997-2000 stands out as a big wild card in this year’s process. Hence, the emphasis of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and allied Mexican Green Party on hooking the youth vote.

Women could be another decisive factor; in both the presidential and Mexico City mayoral races a woman could emerge as the victor and perhaps steer the country in new directions.

“A great part of the electorate wavers between fear of something worse and the ardent desire to put an end to the long deterioration to which the nation has been submitted,” recently wrote Mexican political analyst Enrique Semo. “It will be during the last moments when many voters decide to elect a candidate who assures the least painful continuity or rebel against this and look for, with bravery, a better future.”

After years of an almost single-minded focus on border security, outstanding matters of importance between Mexico and the US remain tucked away like a forgotten to-do list stuffed in a dusty drawer. The immigration question, dislocations from the North American Free Trade Agreement and the futures of the Rio Grande and Colorado River, two shared waterways jeopardized in an age of climate change, all cry out for solutions. In Mexico at least, such issues will get some airing this electoral year.

The stories of US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s Mexican roots — his family hails from the Mormon community of Chihuahua state — raised plenty of eyebrows in the ancestral land, especially given Romney’s pledge to veto the DREAM Act, a measure which would offer a pathway to legalization for some undocumented youth in the US, if he is elected president. Asked by a Mexican reporter his opinion on Romney’s immigrant posture, Chihuahua Mormon community activist Julian LeBaron summed up the sentiments of many when he replied that it was “very offensive to me.”

In certain ways, the US elections are shaping up along the lines of the economically polarized 2006 Mexican political exercise while the Mexican contests are acquiring characteristics of the 2008 US experience. Six years ago issues of economic class reverberated in Mexico, reviving historic left-right and liberal-conservative conflicts that had been submerged to some extent between 1988 and 2000, when opposition forces concentrated their firepower on ejecting the long-dominant PRI from power.

In 2012, however, the center-left candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is significantly modifying his political rhetoric from a “poor people first” line to a discourse — no doubt influenced by the raging violence in addition to the emergence of the  independent Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity (MPJD) launched by poet Javier Sicilia — that stresses a progressive, “Loving Republic” which cares for all its citizens as laid out in the Alternative Project of the Nation.

Indeed, Lopez Obrador invited MPJD leaders Sicilia and Julian LeBaron to register as Congressional candidates aligned with the two-time presidential contender’s campaign. Sicilia declined the proposal, arguing that conditions did not exist for the meaningful political participation of reform-minded individuals.

In a letter published in Proceso magazine, Sicilia contended that party corruption, elite impunity and criminally driven political Balkanization have overwhelmed the nation’s political institutions.

“I insist, considering the conditions the country is experiencing, that the only way to save democracy is with an agenda of national unity in which everyone works together to save the nation and reestablish the state..,” Sicilia wrote.

Still insisting that he was robbed of the presidency in 2006, Lopez Obrador has nevertheless also made overtures to his right. He’s reached out to old antagonists in the Televisa media empire and cultivated sectors of the business community, especially in violence-torn Monterrey, which are fed up with both the PRI and governing PAN. On Sunday, Jan. 15, Lopez Obrador announced he would invite Monterrey businessman Fernando Turner to be the next  economic minister in the event of electoral victory. Holding a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard, Turner has been associated with Altos Hornos of Mexico, Katcon Global and Grupo Alpha.

In short, Lopez Obrador is searching for the elusive independent voter and political center, not unlike Obama did in 2008.

The Mexican political leader’s new style could be paying off. Media monitoring of election coverage done for the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) revealed that Lopez Obrador had the most radio and television coverage from Dec. 18 to Jan. 1, when 481 informational pieces were detected. That’s 67 more than the second-most covered candidate, the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto.

Voter participation and campaign money are two other big areas where threads of commonality link the US and Mexican elections. Mexicans turned out in droves Jan. 15 to meet a deadline for renewing voter identification cards; the last-minute rush underscored how registration policies that knock voters off the rolls months before the July 1 election effectively disenfranchise huge numbers of people.

When the final registration numbers come in, as many as 4 million people could be disenfranchised this year, according to media reports.

In the US, meanwhile, a wave of new registration laws coupled with alleged curbs on voter participation in at least 14 states, mainly from the old Confederacy, prompted the NAACP to announce it would file a complaint with the United Nations over the disenfranchisement of minority populations. As many as 5 million people could become disenfranchised in the 2012 US elections, according to critics.

The money question hangs over the Mexican and US elections like a lead — or gold — weight. Although public financing of political campaigns is an institutional feature of the Mexican system, big doubts remain over the extent of narco-dollars and other outside resources pumped into the electoral competitions.

Wrote analyst Enrique Semo: “The election will take place at two levels: the public level for winning the vote, and the clandestine one in order to achieve the de-facto power arrangement …”

PAN  presidential hopeful Josefina Vasquez proposed this past weekend that Mexico’s major electoral forces reach an agreement on preventing narco infiltration of the 2012 elections.

While drug money per se is not an immediate issue in the US elections, the lack of transparency and secretive cash flows sanctioned by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision raise fundamental questions about the origin and ultimate purpose of such political donations. Does the money come from off-shore corporations? Foreign dictatorships? Money launderers?

In both the Mexican and US elections of 2012, big questions will surface about the part played by obscure forces standing behind the political curtain and choreographing the movements of the various actors, much to the ignorance of the audience watching the spectacle. With so many offices up for grabs this year, the potential for mischief on both sides of the border is quite enormous.

Additional sources: La Jornada, January 16, 2012. Articles by Roberto Garduno and Enrique Mendez. Agencia Reforma, January 15, 2012. Articles by Ernesto Nunez, Mariel Ibarra and Antonio Baranda. Milenio TV, January 13, 14 and 15, 2012.
Univision, January 9, 2012.  Proceso/Apro, November 20, 2011; December 5 and 6, 2011; January 8, 2012. Articles by Rosalia Vergara, Jenaro Villamil and Enrique Semo. Commondreams.org, December 30, 2011. Article by Bob Pitrakis and Harvey Wasserman. 

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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