Mexico's lost left

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat May 5 08:57:35 MDT 2001

The Economist, August 05, 2000 , U.S. Edition

A lost left

Mexico City -- FOR much of the past decade, the left-of-centre Party of the
Democratic Revolution (PRD) could claim to be the main opposition to
Mexico's long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). So the
triumph of Vicente Fox, the candidate of the centre-right, in last month's
presidential election has thrown not just the PRI into disarray, but the
left too.

The election was a crushing defeat for the PRD. Not only did Cuauhtemoc
Cardenas, its candidate, gain fewer voters than in his two previous
presidential campaigns, but the party lost more than half its congressional
seats. When the new Congress assembles, it will have only 52 seats in the
500-member lower house. And though the PRD's Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador
was elected as mayor of Mexico city, he won by a narrower than expected
margin. Besides Mexico city, the PRD governs just four other smallish
states, in alliance with other parties.

Defeat has sparked recriminations. At a tumultuous meeting of the PRD's
national council last month, some members blamed the mirthless Mr Cardenas
for his leaden campaigning; he was no match for the charismatic Mr Fox. But
Mr Cardenas in turn pointed the finger at the party's various internal

He has a point. The PRD was born out of the first, and almost successful,
presidential campaign by Mr Cardenas, then a dissident PRI leader, in 1988.
That campaign drew support from a host of small left-wing parties and
social organisations. "Cardenas's great strength was the diversity of his
movement, but on turning it into a party, that diversity became a defect,"
says Marco Rascon, a former PRD congressman.

The PRD's diverse constituent groups became factions within the party,
vying for posts. Amalia Garcia, the party's chairwoman, and herself the
leader of one faction, complained during the national council meeting that
she had to spend 85% of her time dealing with internal disputes. The
council meeting ended with a vague agreement to work with the new
government, which is due to take office on December 1st. But that masks a
deep division on ideology: some believe the PRD should move further left;
others, towards the centre.

On paper, the left should do well in a country where poverty is widespread,
and the gap between rich and poor is wide. But the PRD's mixture of
PRI-style nationalism and Marxism is useless now that the Mexican economy
is so closely integrated with that of the United States. On the other hand,
argues Ricardo Pascoe, formerly a close aide to Mr Cardenas, so too is a
wishy-washy "third wayism" borrowed from more developed, and less unequal,

That policy debate may be resolved, or exacerbated, by a leadership
struggle. Mr Cardenas will gradually fade away -- though his sons, one of
whom is a state senator, may in time replace him. For now, the most
influential voices are likely to be those of two of the PRD's state
governors: Mr Lopez Obrador is, or was, a fiery leftist; Ricardo Monreal,
governor of Zacatecas, is a pragmatist who in the past urged the party to
support Mr Fox.

The PRD's best hope may lie, first, in offering effective local government,
especially in Mexico city. But it could also start to gain support in the
trade unions and farmers' organisations now that the PRI has lost its huge
power of central-government patronage. The PRD will not, at least at first,
face much competition from the more extreme left: strikers who kept the
National University in Mexico city closed for ten months recently have run
out of steam, and the Zapatist guerrillas in the south are waiting to see
how Mr Fox's government deals with them.

But the underlying challenge for the PRD is to place itself once again at
the centre of a broad movement, of the kind Mr Rascon speaks of. In the
PRD's heyday, Mr Rascon himself was better known as Superbarrio: dressed in
the mask and cape of a Mexican wrestler, he campaigned for better housing
for the poor in Mexico city, as a leader of an Assembly of Neighbourhood
Associations which backed Mr Cardenas's 1988 campaign. Now Mr Rascon looks
respectable, with a mobile phone and a pager hitched to his ample waist,
minding the fish restaurant he opened a month ago in one of the capital's
gentrifying neighbourhoods. Maybe one of the PRD's problems is that Mexico
is changing in ways that the left has not foreseen.

Louis Proyect
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