QUINTANA ROO — Twenty-five years ago, the Mexican writer Octavio Paz said of that nation’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI): “The question that history has posed in Mexico since 1968 [the year hundreds of students were slaughtered by the military in a Mexico City public square] not only consists in whether the state will be able to rule without the PRI but also in whether we Mexicans will let ourselves be ruled without a PRI.”
This July 6, Mexicans will head to the voting booths in a midterm election for the 500-seat lower house of Congress, where the PRI holds a slim majority over President Vicente Fox’s National Action party (PAN). The results of this election will go a long way toward resolving Paz’s still unanswered question.
It has been only three years since Fox ended more than seven decades of authoritarian rule by the PRI. If Fox’s PAN party can win a clear or at least significant majority in the congress, it would clear the way to passing some of Fox’s promised reforms, which the PRI has been blocking. If the PRI can increase, or at the least keep their current seats, they can continue to be spoilers and set the stage for the 2006 presidential elections, running against Fox as a “do nothing” president.
Polling done in May by two different firms both have the PAN winning a slight majority, with the PRI (and their coalition Green party) losing ground not just to the conservative PAN, but also to the leftist party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD (currently Mexico’s third largest party). Another May poll, by the newspaper company Grupo Reforma, shows the PAN and the PRI running neck-in-neck, with 37 percent of the vote each.
Of course, polls in Mexico are much like anywhere else: They don’t necessarily reflect the reality of voter intent. And as Carlos Flores, head of the PRI’s legislative campaign recently told reporters, “Anything can happen in the next 15 days.” He continued, “There are still 50 districts that don’t belong to anybody.” The PRI are still a force in Mexico. And despite its outlandish history of corruption and election rigging, the PRI still generates an immense amount of grassroots appeal.
In May, I made the drive from Matamoros, Mexico (at the Brownsville, Texas border crossing) down Mexico’s Gulf Coast highway 180 and back up into the Yucatan Peninsula. Along with the five or so military checkpoints I passed through — evidence of Mexican’s continuing preference to being ruled rather than governed — the trip was a continuous roadside commercial for the PRI.
From the northern state of Nuevo Leon down through Vera Cruz and Tabasco and back up into Campeche, through the dozens of pueblos along the highway, the concrete-block and stone fences separating highway easements from private property bear a fresh coat of white paint and the familiar PRI symbol in red, green, and black. Roadside convenience stores and markets and even entire buildings are similarly decorated along with the names of the various candidates as you move from district to district. A few other parties pop up occasionally, usually the PRD or the Workers party. Fox’s PAN, with a very few exceptions is noticeably absent. All in all, the PRI has as much highway exposure through the Mexican countryside as Coca-Cola and Corona Beer.
In Quintana Roo where I live, which sprawls from Cancun South through the wealth-producing machine of the Riviera Maya tourist industry, the PRI candidate Felix Gonzalez seems to have the edge over PAN candidate Rogelio Marquez. Besides the support of several popular local PRI politicians, Gonzalez has the backing of the powerful taxicab union, with nearly every cab in the fleet (and that is a lot) sporting a “Vote Felix” and PRI symbol on their back windshields. In addition, nearly every light pole and commercial building in the sprawling Colosio Barrio, (named for assassinated PRI presidential candidate Donald Colosio, whose statue is still visited with flowers and wreaths some nine years after his murder) is tagged with pro-PRI graffiti or sporting a PRI paintjob.
The PRI has also pumped a lot of money into billboard advertising on the busy stretch of highway 307 which runs from Cancun to Tulum. In keeping with their socialist roots, the themes are exclusively about the state as provider: “We have new projects to create jobs”, “We have new ideas for your security” and “We are thinking of you first.”
There are no specifics about what these new ideas and projects might be, but, historically, Mexican public-works projects are often a conduit for public money to be funneled back into the PRI’s coffers. Author Charles Bowden in his new book on Mexico, the U.S., and the war on drugs Down by the River describes how “For years, the government has forked over about a billion dollars annually to the party, the money disguised as funds for public works. Mexico is riddled with ghost projects, bridges paid for on the books but never built, phantom highways, hotels, hospitals, airfields, waterworks.”
For a part of their national television campaign, the PRI are keeping it simple: the economy and crime. In one spot, a carload of armed thugs are cruising Mexico City looking for crimes to commit while discussing the election. Hopefully the PRI won’t win, they decide — it would be bad for criminals like themselves. In another, a woman doesn’t have enough pesos to pay for her groceries and complains to the cashier that capitalism was supposed to make their lives better. The cashier gives a sympathetic shrug, the rough translation of the reply “That’s the thing about capitalism, first you have to have the capital.”
Ads attacking capitalism may resonate well in a country where nearly 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line (and that’s by Mexican standards of poverty) but it also presupposes that a large bloc of Mexicans will have either forgotten or no longer care that it was the PRI that oversaw the near halving of real wages in the early Eighties, or the wiping out of wealth across class lines with the collapse of the peso in the Nineties.
In any event, Fox’s PAN party currently has at least two things going for them besides good polling numbers. The first is a well-publicized power struggle, complete with accusations of betrayal and lying from all sides, between the PRI’s national leader and some regional leaders over the selection of candidates for the 200 at-large seats up for grabs. Whether it will affect the election is uncertain, but it has been bad publicity for a party with precious little reputation left to begin with. The second is Fox himself, who is currently riding a wave of high approval ratings, albeit generated from his refusal to back the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The PAN may be able to make their needed gains on the president’s popularity.
If so, Fox will have three years to implement his promised reforms, and possibly give an answer to Octavio Paz’s 25-year-old question.
— Mike Krause is a senior fellow at the Independence Institute currently living in Mexico. He can be reached at email@example.com