Revolution or Populist Theater?

by Dan La Botz, Mexican Labor News & Analysis

Two months after Mexico’s contested July 2 presidential elections, the Federal Electoral Tribunal recognized Felipe Calder贸n as president-elect, while a massive National Democratic Convention has proclaimed Andr茅s Manuel L贸pez Obrador to be the “legitimate president of Mexico.” He is now creating an alternative government, and says he will call a constituent assembly that will write a new constitution. What is happening here? Is this a radical fight for reforms? A potentially revolutionary movement? Or a spectacular piece of populist theater?

More than a million people gathered on September 16, Independence Day, on Mexico City’s national Plaza of the Constitution and the surrounding streets for blocks around and-after enduring a drenching cloud burst-proclaimed that Andr茅s Manuel L贸pez Obrador is the “legitimate president of Mexico. The massive National Democratic Convention (CND) repudiated the “usurper” Felipe Calder贸n and called for the end of the existing Mexican government, for the “abolition of the regime of privileges.” The CND also called for the organization of a campaign of national civil disobedience with one of its objectives being to prevent Calder贸n from taking the oath of office. L贸pez Obrador has once again demonstrated that he is a brilliant populist politician with a remarkable ability to mobilize the masses and to maintain a posture of defiance toward the government while avoiding the dangers of direct confrontation.

In calling the Convention, L贸pez Obrador stated that he was acting in the great Mexican revolutionary tradition beginning with Miguel Hidalgo y Castillo and Jos茅 Mar铆a Morelos in the Independence struggle of 1810-1825, through Benito Ju谩rez, leader of the Liberals in the Reform Movement and the war against France in the 1850s and 60s, Francisco Madero and Emiliano Zapata in the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917. Yet while claiming the revolutionary inheritance, and adopting a revolutionary rhetoric, L贸pez Obrador and his Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), seem loath to give up the foothold they have in the old order.

While proclaiming a position tantamount to revolution, L贸pez Obrador and the PRD have continued to work within the existing power structure. The National Democratic Convention authorized that the parties which made up L贸pez Obrador’s For the Good of All Coalition–the PRD, the Workers Party (PT), and Convergence–should reorganize to create the Broad Progressive Front (FAP) which will work as a bloc in the newly elected Mexican parliament. That is, in the parliament of the actually existing Mexican government. The PRD’s legislative coordinator, Javier Gonz谩lez Garza, met with coordinators of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), to create a more efficient and dynamic congress, one that would, according to the PRD’s Gonz谩lez, end log-jams in the lower house. The PRD has also agreed to serve with the PAN and the PRI in the collective leadership of the legislature with Ruth Zavaleta Salgado as vice-president of the lower house Chamber of Deputies. PRD governors in Baja California Sur, Guerrero, Michoac谩n, Zacatecas and Chiapas will also serve within the existing governmental structure. PRD governors have just participated in the National Governors Congress (CONAGO) with PAN and PRI governors. So, apparently, while repudiating the old regime, the PRD will also continue to work and to serve in leadership positions in it.

Just what is happening here? Are we witnessing the emergence of a revolutionary alternative? Or is this an extraordinary and spectacular populist theater intended to project L贸pez Obrador into power in the next election? Some have referred to this as “dual power,” but where is L贸pez Obrador’s power? Where is the peoples’ power?

From the Election to the CND

The current situation results from the irregularities, challenges, and disappointments with the Mexican election of July. The Mexican Electoral Tribunal had earlier rejected L贸pez Obrador’s call for a vote-by-vote, polling-place-by-polling-place recount of the election. And, while the court recognized that Mexico’s President Vicente Fox had violated election law by intervening in the election campaign and that Mexican corporations had violated the law by paying for last-minute advertising attacking L贸pez Obrador, they would not on that basis overturn the election results as they might have. The National Association of Democratic Attorneys (ANAD) argued in a statement that the courts could have and should have overturned the election for those reasons. The court instead proclaimed Felipe Calder贸n the president-elect of Mexico, but L贸pez Obrador and his supporters refused to accept the decision.

Believing that the national election in July had been stolen from them, hundreds of thousands of supporters of L贸pez Obrador and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) rallied in the national plaza and then camped there for 48 days and at the same time blocked the length of the city’s principal Reforma Boulevard and its major intersections, paralyzing the heart of the capital. The night of September 15 they struck camp, clearing away their lean-to’s and tents, to permit the Mexican Army’s annual Independence Day march, but then they returned the next day for the CND, joined by over a million other Mexicans from Baja California in the North to Chiapas in the South.

The organizers claimed that 1,025,724 delegates had actually registered to be present at the convention, coming from all of the 32 states of Mexico. Many of those present on the plaza were los de abajo, Mexico’s underdogs: factory workers, peasants, the self-employed, street vendors, school teachers, and college and high school students. Entire families and neighborhoods, from babes-in-arms to the elderly, filled the streets, many carrying hand-made banners and signs.

The CND Conducts Business by Voice Vote in the Open Air

The CND assembly, in a series of voice votes, proclaimed L贸pez Obador the legitimate president, instructed him to create a cabinet, and to establish the seat of government in Mexico City, the national capital. At the same time the government was instructed to be itinerant, moving about throughout the country to hear from and to lead the Mexican people. The new government was instructed to take power on November 20, the anniversary of the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Getting the jump on his rival, L贸pez Obrador will then “take office” as “legitimate president” more than a week before Felipe Calder贸n, who will not be sworn in until December 1.

The CND also created a national commission lead the movement of civil disobedience and prevent Calder贸n from taking office. The next full CND assembly was scheduled for March 21, 2007. At that next assembly the CND is expected to organize the convocation of a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution and re-found the Mexican government.

A Constitutional and Peaceful Revolution

L贸pez Obrador argues that Felipe Calder贸n, “the usurper,” has violated the institutional order of Mexico. L贸pez Obrador poses himself as the defender of Mexico’s democratic traditions, and bases the calling of the CND and the projected Constituent Assembly on Article 39 of the Mexican Constitution, which reads: “The national sovereignty resides essentially and originally in the people All public power originates in the people and is instituted for their benefit. The people at all times have the inalienable right to alter or modify their form of government.” This article, he argues, give the people the right to meet and to re-found their government. The Constituent Assembly which is to take place, he argues, will establish a more democratic government, protect the national patrimony and stop the privatization of the oil and electric power industries. It will provide for the good of all Mexicans, but will put the poor first on the list of national priorities.

Throughout the weeks of protests, sit-ins, and marches, L贸pez Obrador has constantly cautioned his followers to remain non-violent, to refuse to be provoked into confrontation, and, remarkably, not a window has been broken nor a slogan painted on a single wall in the city. Many among the hundreds of thousands participating in the events commented that the city as actually safer during the huge mobilizations. All of this has been made possible by the fact that the PRD controls the government of Mexico City, which has been the host of these massive protests. The PRD city government has insured that the police have functioned to facilitate the protests and protect the protestors, rather than to suppress them. Unable to control the capital, President Vicente Fox decided not to give the traditional “grito” or Independence Day “Viva Mexico!” shout, from the balcony of the National Palace which overlooks the Plaza of the Constitution, and instead flew to Dolores, Hidalgo, the site of the first grito given by Miguel Castillo y Hidalgo on September 16, 1810. Federal security officials said that there had been plans for a violent attack, perhaps an assault on his life, if he attempted to give the grito in Mexico City. No evidence was given.

Plebiscitary Democracy

The National Democratic Convention was not a “national democratic convention” as most people understand those words. This was not a delegated convention, but a mass assembly. The CND was not organized through the structures of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, nor through coalitions of existing organizations, nor was any other structure very transparent. L贸pez Obrador and the leaders of his campaign created a committee to convene and preside over the Convention, but the movement’s rank and file had no opportunity to choose its leadership or to shape its agenda. L贸pez Obrador did not attempt to prepare the convention by convening the many mass organizations of peasants, workers, and the urban poor. L贸pez Obrador did not involve in the planning or given an active role in the Convention to groups such as the Mexican Mine and Metal Workers Union or teachers union Local 22 or the leaders of the rebellious town of Atenco, or to any other of the existing movements which have waged intense social struggles this year. Those who attended the convention and stood in the rain did so as individual supporters of L贸pez Obrador.

While there was enormous popular participation and popular approval of the positions presented, a convention en masse does not permit the presentation of resolutions, debate over alternatives. This was a plebiscitary democracy where the masses shout “yeah” or “nay” to the positions and alternatives offered by the person on the platform. While L贸pez Obrador is less rhapsodic than Fidel Castro and less charismatic than Hugo Chavez, this was a convention based in large part on the direct communication between the leader and the people, in the style of Latin American caudillos since Juan Per贸n and long before. Which is not to say that the CND did not have a clear political content, for it clearly did: an end to the ruling elite, defense of the national patrimony and social welfare for the people.

Critics to the Right and Left

As one would expect, all of the conservative forces have given their full support to Calder贸n while damning L贸pez Obrador. Throughout this process of post-election protest and the proclamation of an alternative president and government, President Fox and the National Action Party have upheld the legitimacy of the election and hailed the victory of Felipe Calder贸n. Like L贸pez Obrador, Fox and Calder贸n put themselves forward as the defenders of Mexico’s democratic institutions. They argue that L贸pez Obrador threatens those institutions and raises the possibility of conflict and violence. Predictably, the Mexican business class, represented through COPARMEX, the Mexican employers association which stands at the heart of the PAN, has also welcomed Calder贸n’s victory and scorns L贸pez Obrador. Mexico’s leading bishops have also called upon L贸pez Obrador to concede defeat and recognize the victory of Calder贸n. US President George W. Bush called to congratulate Calder贸n on his victory early on.

But L贸pez Obrador also has critics on the left. Cuauht茅moc C谩rdenas, founder of the PRD and twice its candidate for president, severely criticized L贸pez Obrador for surrounding himself–and filling the party–with opportunists; for lack of a serious political program; for intolerance of political differences. C谩rdenas has argued that it is a great mistake for L贸pez Obrador to proclaim himself president, and predicts that it will do permanent damage to Mexico’s left.

Adolfo Gilly, Mexico’s leading left intellectual theorist, concurs with many of C谩rdenas’ criticisms, but also attacks the PRD for its two-faced position of supporting L贸pez Obrador’s campaign while making deals with the PAN, and adds the failure of L贸pez Obrador and the PRD to support the struggle of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and other popular movements.

Marco Rasc贸n, former Mexican leftist guerrilla, former PRD congressman, and irascible radical critic, argues that L贸pez Obrador is a populist with “a Bonapartist attitude”–that is, a would-be dictator. Rasc贸n argues that the CND represents a fundamental break with the great Mexican revolutionary traditions, from Ricardo Flores Mag贸n and Emiliano Zapata of the first decades of the 20th century to the Cardenismo of the 1930s and the neo- Cardenismo of the 1980s.

The Zapatistas, of course, have never liked L贸pez Obrador. Subcomandante Marcos–leader of the EZLN, which mounted its own rather marginal non-electoral campaign for a socialism-from-below–has from the beginning attacked L贸pez Obrador as fundamentally conservative and opportunist. Marcos did, however, speak out against the fraud in what he openly calls a stolen election.

Whatever his critics on the left may think, however, L贸pez Obrador has not only captured the imagination of the people but has also in effect become the dominant force on the left–a great mass movement in which other leftists can now only attempt to offer alternative programs and directions.

The Balance of Forces

Do L贸pez Obrador, the PRD, CND and Broad Progressive Front represent the emerging institutions of a new class power? Do we see in the movement which L贸pez Obrador leads institutions that give expression to the struggles of working people and the poor, and which begin to represent an alternative to the existing Mexican state?

Fox, the PAN and its ally the PRI, of course, control the Mexican government, its bureaucracy, the Army and the police, and could use them to put down any serious opposition. Since 1994 ,the Mexican government has used the Army against the Zapatistas and the broader social movement in Chiapas in the South, and throughout the 1990s against drug gangs in the North. During the last year the federal government has deployed the new Federal Prevent Police (PFP) against striking workers and community activists in central Mexico. While L贸pez Obrador has called upon the Army to refuse to obey orders to repress Mexican citizens, there is no reason to doubt the loyalty of the Army and the PFP and other police forces to the government. Mexico has used the military to put down popular movements in 1959 (railway strike), 1968 (student protests), and 1976 (electrical strike), and called out the army in 1994 against the Zapatistas. There seems no reason that it would not be able to do so again.

Do the Numbers Exist?

L贸pez Obrador does not appear to have the sheer numbers of supporters throughout Mexico to challenge the state. Each of the leading candidates won 16 states: L贸pez Obrador and the PRD won in the poorer Center and South of Mexico while Felipe Calder贸n of the PAN won almost all of the more prosperous North. However, according to the disputed official count, L贸pez Obrador captured only 35.3% of the vote, while Calder贸n won 35.9 and Roberto Madrazo of the PRI won 22.3%

That is, almost two thirds of all voters voted for the two more conservative candidates, while only about one third supported a program of reform based on increased social welfare. Even if L贸pez Obrador was cheated out of a million votes, as many believe, he would still have had only a somewhat large plurality but nothing near a majority of support. While some people who voted for L贸pez Obrador as a reformer might be moved to adopt a position of revolutionary opposition to the state if they felt their votes were stolen, one would suspect that not all PRD supporters would take that position, while very few from other parties would join him.

Perhaps some on the far left would support L贸pez Obrador in a battle over democracy, but their numbers are few. No far-left revolutionary party even qualified to appear on the ballot. Moreover, the explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-electoral “Other Campaign” of the Zapatistas vehemently opposed Lopez Obrador during the campaign, and is unlikely to support him now.

Does the Organization Exist? Nor does the opposition appear to have the organization, structure and leadership to put together a force powerful enough to challenge the Mexican government at this time. Except for Mexico City and a few states such as Michoacan, the PRD has been a minority party, and a deeply divided and factional party. Founded in 1989, the PRD has throughout its brief history been an electoral party, not a party either founded upon nor leading a social movement. While during the campaign the PRD appeared at times to be badly divided, at the moment it seems to be showing remarkable cohesion, with the marked exception of Cuauht茅moc C谩rdenas.

During the current struggle, there have been enormous demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins in Mexico City, but so far such demonstrations have been limited to Mexico City.

While the PRD at times came to a working relationship with the National Union of Workers (UNT), it has never been able to give leadership to the working class or even much support to the UNT or any other union, and L贸pez Obrador has not had a labor program. The PRD does have a significant following among working people and the poor of the central and southern states, as its electoral results indicate, but beyond elections this has not been much of an organized following.

True, there are large and significant social struggles taking place today in Mexico, particularly the series of strikes by members of the Miners and Metal Workers Union (SNTMMRM) and the teachers strike in Oaxaca by Local 22 of the Mexican Education Workers Union (SNTE). However the PRD has not given leadership to these struggles, nor do those involved in these struggles necessarily support the PRD. The leadership of Local 22 declined to formally participate in the National Democratic Convention, and it continues to negotiate with Secretary of the Interior Carlos Abascal, suggesting that it looks to the current Mexican government to resolve its problems, not to some possible future republic.

Finally, Vicente Fox, Felipe Calder贸n and the PAN have the support of the US government, which certainly does not want social upheaval taking place in its neighbor nation. Without a doubt, Fox has been conferring with the Bush government about the situation, and one would suppose that the Mexican military has been in touch with its North American counterpart. Although it would prefer that Mexico’s elite take the necessary political action to resolve problems, the US will certainly be prepared to use whatever means are necessary to support the Mexican government in the event of a real revolutionary situation.

The Balance Might be Changed

Some have spoken of what’s happening in Mexico now in terms of “dual power.” Leon Trotsky used that term in his History of the Russian Revolution to describe what happens when a rising social class creates new and alternative institutions of political power. So far we have not seen that happen in Mexico where a real power, the Mexican state, confronts L贸pez Obrador and his CND–an important political and social movement, but not one that has been built upon or yet given rise to alternative institutions of governance that can represent a second power. Nor is it clear that L贸pez Obrador has the will or the capacity to create such institutions. What he has created is a mass movement on the left with a radical rhetoric, a movement made up of people who yearn for a new society of democracy and social justice. While his rhetoric promises revolution, his actions suggest a militant struggle for reform–which is not therefore to be discounted. Within that struggle for reform, genuine revolutionary voices and forces may develop.

Social movements, especially if they begin to have some success, can grow rapidly, and unfolding events can force them to change their character. The balance of forces can shift rapidly and radically under the right circumstances. The power of mass movements has played a significant role in the change of governments in Latin America in the last decade. So, while L贸pez Obrador and the PRD may not yet have sufficient strength, a mistake by the government could suddenly give a lift to the opposition movement–and perhaps create the conditions for the emergence of real dual power.


This story also appears in Mexican Labor News & Analysis


Andr茅s Manuel L贸pez Obrador official campaign website

From our weblog:

“Subcommander Marcos declares Lopez Obrador legitimate winner”
WW4 REPORT, Sept. 21, 2006


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Oct. 1, 2006
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