The real winners in Mexico

No matter who the Federal Electoral Tribunal declares the winner in July 2's contested presidential election, the power will belong to someone else.

Published July 10, 2006 1:15PM (EDT)

When Andrès Manuel López Obrador, leftist candidate and ostensible loser of Mexico's still contested presidential election, called a rally Saturday afternoon in the Zocalo, Mexico City's main square, 300,000 people answered. It was three times the turnout for the biggest rally held by his rival and the declared winner of the election, Felipe Calderón. The crowd greeted López Obrador's claims that Calderón's rightist allies stole the election with a chant of, "Andrès, hang on, the people are rising!" As the rally dispersed, the crush was so intense that a more common cry was, "Don't push, there are children here!"

Official results, however, put Calderón and his PAN party ahead of López Obrador by about the number of people gathered in the Zocalo. López Obrador presented his formal protest of the final tally to the Federal Electoral Tribunal on Sunday, July 9, the day after the Zocalo rally, but soothsayers in all three of Mexico's major parties still expect the Tribunal to declare Calderón the winner.

Yet no matter how the Tribunal ultimately rules, neither López Obrador nor Calderón will win the power he seeks. The real winners of the July 2 presidential election are the Televisa and Azteca television networks, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ran Mexico from 1929 to 2000, and Subcomandante Marcos, the leftist guerrilla turned pop culture icon.

Television was an obvious winner, and in Mexico TV means the twin behemoths Televisa and Azteca. The PAN spent $68 million for 70,000 commercial spots, about $4.50 for each of the 15 million votes Calderón received. The poorly capitalized Democratic Revolutionary Party, López Obrador's party, spent half Calderón and PAN's total for a nearly identical number of votes, while the PRI burned through $40 million for fewer than 10 million votes. Half the Mexican population lives on less than $10 a day. If the Mexican population remains evenly split between three competitive parties, the networks will continue to reap the benefits in coming elections.

The party that came in third, the PRI, also came out a winner. It will now hold few important national offices, but its stamp on Mexican politics endures. The PRI, which once ran Mexico as single-party state, still makes the rules by which the other parties play the game.

Part of that dominance is purely cultural, as was evident on Sunday, June 25, when Calderón held his traditional cierre, or closing rally, in Mexico City.

The PAN would've preferred to stage the finale elsewhere, both because it advocates the decentralization of Mexican life and because its strength lies in the nation's north and west. But during its 71 years in power, the PRI always staged everything in Mexico City, making it unthinkable for any party to close a political campaign anywhere else.

The PRI also always did everything over-the-top, citing Aztec tradition, and the austere, conservative PAN was forced to follow suit. Since Mexico City is PRD territory, the PAN had to import supporters to fill the 100,000-seat Azteca soccer stadium, bussing in bodies from the provinces, even flying in volunteers from the Yucatan. A soap opera star, a dozen bands, and a pro wrestler named the Blue Demon provided the entertainment, before Calderón delivered a 40-minute speech with the aid of a radio receiver strapped to his body. Blue, white and orange balloons flooded the stadium, and cannons shot confetti into the sky.

More important than symbols, however, the PRI also won a share of power. No matter what the outcome of any ballot recount, the Mexican Congress will be almost evenly divided between the PAN and PRD. In the 500-seat lower house, the PAN will have 210 seats, the PRD 163, and the PRI 113. Because any coalition between the PAN and the PRD is inconceivable, the PRI will have the swing vote.

To get any program passed, Calderón or López Obrador will have to buy votes, and Congress became a seller's market with the July 2 stalemate. The PRI ran third in the balloting, but it won the race by the rules under which it has played for the past 25 years. In the bad old days I once interviewed a mayoral candidate who told me he declined a PRI nomination after he was told he'd have to pay the governor of his state $15,000 to get it. I also witnessed journalists being bribed to write favorable stories. After this election, I believe nothing will move in Mexico unless PRI's men get paid.

The third unannounced winner of the July 2 vote was the ex-guerrilla leader Subcomandante Marcos. A dozen years ago, this charismatic, ski-masked figure acquired a heady popularity when the forces of his Zapatista Liberation Army briefly took over five southern Mexican towns. Until last year, most Mexicans were saying, "Marcos, ya pasó" -- "Marcos, he's over."

But last August, the anarchist became a TV talking head, albeit a ski-masked one, a sort of left-wing version of such American cable pundits as Bill Bennett and Pat Buchanan. The authorities did not arrest Marcos when he came in from the heat of Chiapas, perhaps out of fear of rousing the left. Soon his followers were out in the open too, lending their support to the López Obrador candidacy. The Marcos movement, which called itself "the Other Campaign," claimed only 15,000 formal affiliates, but when it held a rally in Mexico City on the eve of the vote, more than 30,000 supporters came.

The Other Campaign's chief slogan was and is, "From below, and to the left," but its best expression may be, "Our dreams won't fit in your ballot boxes." Despite sympathy for López Obrador, many Marcos followers never believed elections mattered anyway. The Other Campaign's official stance on the last week's wrangling over vote totals is, "No comment," which is its sophisticated way of saying, "I told you so." Once Calderón is declared the official winner, the Marcos movement will swell with thousands of disillusioned defectors from the PRD.

Whoever becomes president of Mexico this year will face a deadlocked Congress that only cannonades of cash will move to action. He will face an impoverished people contemptuous of all politicians. Once the eventual winner of the election is sworn into office and draped in his tricolor sash on Dec. 1, other contenders -- the PRI, television, Marcos and, most of all, cynicism -- will have crawled away with Mexico's prize. The words of an American president will haunt his life. "If it weren't for the honor of the thing," Abe Lincoln once said, "I'd just as soon it happened to someone else."

By Dick J. Reavis

Dick J. Reavis is a contributing editor for Texas Monthly and an assistant professor of English at North Carolina State University. He has covered every Mexican election since 1982.

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