After Vicente Fox was elected president in 2000, the first opposition party leader to rule Mexico in 70 years, I told friends the old Institutional Revolutionary Party was finished.
The PRI, as the party is known by its initials in Spanish, had relied on a vast but tight network of neighborhood leaders, predominantly older women, to bring in votes.
For decades, in the weeks preceding every election, the lideresas as they are known in Spanish, offered hand-outs in poor neighborhoods — everything from buckets of paint and bags of cement, to corn flour and vouchers for school supplies, all paid for by their party and delivered in the form of “social aid.” The gift-giving was widely understood by voters as a signal that the PRI would take care of them, while other parties only looked after the rich. Moreover, implicit in accepting the goodies was a promise by the recipient, stated or not, to vote for the PRI.
On Election Day, the lideresas kept track of who showed up to vote and who didn’t. Those who stayed home were typically left out of the next round of hand-outs, which normally took place after the PRI won.
It should be mentioned that the lideresas were well-compensated for their work. Many received new homes, university scholarships for their children, and small-business loans in exchange for their loyalty.
They were part of a political machine that Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa called “the perfect dictatorship.” Mexico looked like a Democracy, but the PRI never lost a presidential election, and exiting presidents regularly hand-picked their successors.
I believed naively that after six years of rule by Fox’s National Action Party, known as the PAN for its initials in Spanish, PRI leaders would never be able to reconstruct their shattered network of lideresas that kept them in power. When PAN candidate Felipe Calderon won the presidency in 2006 (giving his party what will add up to 12 years of national rule when the 2012 elections roll around) it seemed even less likely that the PRI could reconstruct its spider web of control over poor neighborhoods, which is to say, most of the neighborhoods in Mexico.
I was wrong.
The PRI, which was in power during the 1968 massacre of unarmed students at La Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City; violently put down an uprising of teachers and dissidents in Oaxaca two years ago; and produced the infamous President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, viewed as the most crooked leader in modern Mexican history; is making a nearly miraculous comeback.
In mid-term elections a month ago, the PRI won 20 of 20 of the legislative districts in northern Coahuila state, where I live. The party even won in historic PAN strongholds such as the city of Torreon. Coahuila’s PRI governor, Humberto Moreira, is making national headlines in his push to re-legalize the death penalty in this country. And coffee shop conversation tends to focus on not whether the PRI will regain the presidency in 2012, but on which member of that party will take control of the country with the second-largest economy in Latin America.
Following 2007 elections PRI governors now control 18 of Mexico’s 32 states, including Nuevo Leon, the nation’s economic powerhouse. In terms of population, 59 million Mexicans, well over half, live in PRI territory.
A key figure worth mentioning in the “new” PRI is the party’s current president, Beatriz Paredes Rangel, a self-styled moderate leftist from the tiny, central Mexican state of Coahuila. Highly charismatic if not stereotypically attractive, Paredes frequently appears in public in traditional indigenous dress. In a country dominated by male, suit-and-tie politicians, PRI supporters hope Paredes will provide the party with a fresh face implying modernization and diversity.
The reaction against the PAN started, ironically, when the PAN became the ruling party. Fox, a business-oriented moderate conservative with a generally favorable background as a Coca-Cola executive, made only a few proposals during his six-year term, and those were blocked by a Congress controlled by opposition parties including the PRI. Instead of a reformer, Fox became famous, for his George W. Bush-like public speaking blunders, his spats with Cuban Dictator Fidel Castro in which the Mexican president always came out looking foolish, and other tabloid magazine-style stories that became national news.
In 2006, Felipe Calderon came into office to face a public with much lower expectations of the PAN. He squeaked into power in a controversial race against Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a gifted orator and left-leaning populist who represented the PRD, or the Revolutionary Democratic Party (Roberto Madrazo, who represented the PRI in the same election, was widely viewed as a corrupt and absurd prospect for the presidency, and came in a distant third behind Calderon and Lopez Obrador).
After almost two years in office in which Calderon has tried in vain to end drug trafficking in Mexico, gangland-style crime has spiraled out of control. In 2008, at least 5,000 people have been killed in narcotics-related violence across the country, according to respected Mexico City daily, El Universal.
Kidnapping has become an enormous problem, according to law enforcement officials. Kidnappers who once targeted only the rich and famous have set their sites on working-class Mexicans. People here live with an almost psychotic fear of being abducted and held for ransom.
“These days you can’t trust anyone,” a factory worker in Monterrey warned me.
Petty crime, while widespread and clearly growing, is viewed as a minor nuisance given the large, bloody context in which it occurs. This week, for example, the bodies of 13 men were found gunned down on the side of a rural road in western Sinaloa state, and a municipal police officer in Saltillo, Coahuila shot and killed a three-year-old baby during an altercation with a driver. Having your wallet snatched seems positively generous given the possible alternatives.
Fairly or not, the economic crisis is taking its toll on Calderon’s administration as well. Mexicans are quickly losing faith in Economy Secretary Agustin Carstens, who immediately after John McCain’s misguided campaign suspension and trip to Washington, announced that the economic impact of the global crisis in Mexico would be minor.
But newspapers this week in Coahuila announced that 25,000 people have lost their jobs in the state in three months, many because of workforce reductions at US-owned automotive plants here. Inflation is on the rise and national forecasts for economic growth in 2009 are as low as .4 percent.
The PRI, clearly sensing a moment of opportunity, is wasting no time in mobilizing its barrio soldiers, the lideresas. As I write this, in the park across the street from my house, the neighborhood PRI leader is overseeing the distribution of five-gallon buckets of paint and washer-dryers to those who voted for Moreira when they were told to do so.
Despite the fact that Coahuila is a low-profile state, for better or for worse, Governor Moreira is leading national efforts to re-instate the death penalty and gaining national and international headlines as a result.
In any case, few regular citizens seem to be genuinely happy with either the PRI or the PAN. The PRD seems to have collapsed completely following Lopez Obrador’s loss and a ridiculous “inauguration” ceremony in which he was named “legitimate president” by supporters.
In other words, voter discontent is widespread. Gov. Moreira’s Institutional Revolutionary Party is at bat, President Calderon’s National Action Party is in the field, and the PRD, poised to take the presidency just a few years ago, has been dropped from the league.
Here in Coahuila, one civic group is organizing a 2012 protest vote drive. Under their plan, voters will show up at the polls and submit blank or defaced ballots as an expression of their discontent.
“I’ve never voted for the PAN, and I can’t imagine myself doing so,” a local civic organizer and former PRD supporter who supports the protest vote movement told me this week. “To vote for the PRI goes against everything we stand for, and it would be better if the PRD would just disappear so something better can come up in its place. This is the only thing left for us, because in fact, there’s nobody to vote for.”
John Sevigny is a photographer and writer who was born in Miami and lives and works in Mexico. He is a former correspondent for the Associated Press, and for EFE News, the official information agency of the Spanish government. He has published photographs and articles in the Houston Chronicle, the San Antonio Express-News, the Dallas Morning News, and many other newspapers and magazines. As a fine art photographer, he has participated in solo and group exhibitions in Florida, California, Louisiana, New York, Minnesota and Illinois in the United States, and in Monterrey, Saltillo, and Zacatecas in Mexico. His has a blog called Gone City.