Opting for Fox: Why—and How—Mexicans Went for the PAN

September 25, 2007

For almost four years, I had followed the advice of Mexican friends not to hail green Volkswagen cabs in the streets of Mexico City. But this past June, the month before the July 2 elections, talk of politics crowded out talk of kidnappings. So it seemed—to my mind at least—the right time to end my moratorium and jump into the first cab that would stop.

On this ride through the historic heart of the city, I realized how much I had missed the spontaneous interview opportunities offered by forced confinement in a cab. My taxi was festooned with official party stickers in the national colors: green, red and white, while exhortations to "Vote Labastida," the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) presidential candidate, all but obscured the view from the side windows. But it turned out my driver had no intention of voting for Francisco Labastida. Nor, he said, did his friend José López, whose face gazed out at me from the photo on the taxi's credencial.

In fact, my driver believed, no one at his taxi stand had any intention of giving his vote to the official party although, because their association of taxi drivers was formally linked to the PRI, all of them were circulating through the streets in cars plastered with priista propaganda. No, this taxista said: He, his compañeros, and practically all the passengers with whom he had spoken over the past few weeks planned to vote for Vicente Fox Quesada, presidential candidate of the right-wing National Action Party (PAN). Indeed among the dozens of cab drivers I would talk with over the next week, only one reported that he was "holding firm for the Aztec Sun," symbol of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), though he never suggested that he thought the PRD's presidential hopeful, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, could actually win. The rest of the cabbies, with widely varying degrees of enthusiasm, planned to vote for Fox.

When I asked if they were not troubled by hints of Fox's irascible, erratic and authoritarian character, almost all allowed that they were. Moreover, I never heard from any of these men even a hint of a precise idea about what programs a panista administration would likely put in place. To be sure, Fox's media-smart campaign was deliberately short on clear details about what, other than a generic commitment to "change," a Fox regime would bring. And for the people I interviewed, this promise seemed sufficient. In taxi after taxi—and in restaurants, street markets and shops—I was told by working and middle class urban Mexicans that the key issue was getting rid of the PRI, and that Fox was the candidate most likely to accomplish this feat.

In fact, while most of the pre-electoral polls showed the PRI and PAN candidates running neck and neck with a slight advantage for Labastida, it later turned out that the contest was actually decided by the nearly 20% whom the surveys listed as "undecided."

Normally on election day, "undecideds" tend to distribute their votes among candidates in proportions very similar to the way the "decideds" divvy up their ballots. Yet on July 2 in Mexico, the indecisos consisted overwhelmingly of two groups. One was made up of former PRD voters who were hesitant or embarrassed to declare their decision to go with Fox. The other contained millions of Mexicans affiliated with unions and associations that were tied to the official party. Yet because recent institutional reforms had created greater security and secrecy in the electoral process, this second group declared no preference but secretly planned to vote for Fox.

And so it was that while a number of high-profile intellectuals of the left were declaring in editorials, opinion pieces or paid advertisements that they intended to abandon Cárdenas and cast a "useful vote" (voto útil) for Fox, many ordinary Mexicans—who may or may not have been paying attention to the tortuous and tortured reasoning of intellectuals of the left who had decided to vote for the right—were reaching similar conclusions. For well-known figures on the left, the voto útil argument provided a perfect "eleven-foot pole," allowing them to approach what they would not touch with the proverbial ten-foot pole. These people had no need to support Fox's right-wing agenda in order to call for a "strategic vote" in his favor. Some, in fact, attempted to bind Fox to progressive positions on education, women's rights, tolerance for minorities and similar concerns. They asserted—in an advertisement in the political magazine Proceso, for example—that they would cast a voto útil for him if, among other things, he would agree to include progressive people in his administration and adopt the San Andrés Accords which Zedillo had negotiated with the Zapatistas in November 1996, but then refused to respect.

Thus, the intellectuals and the taxi drivers reached the same conclusion at about the same time. And the sum of millions of individual decisions to vote strategically and non-ideologically produced the very result that a "committee of notables" had struggled so hard and so unsuccessfully to bring about last winter in negotiations between the foxistas and the cardenistas. For months, a group of prestigious figures from across the political spectrum had worked to forge a strategic alliance between the opposition parties of the right and left. They hoped to win Cárdenas' and Fox's agreement to accept and support the candidacy of whichever of the two won in a runoff for the top spot on the ballot of an alliance established to wrest power from the PRI after seven decades.

But Cárdenas demurred. He did so partly out of concern for the ideological incompatibility between his center-left, secular, nationalist, state-centered preferences and the neoliberal, conservative Catholic agenda of Fox. But Cárdenas may also have balked because he already suspected that a primary would reveal what voters would later definitively confirm on July 2—that even though he may have been the real winner in the 1988 election that brought Carlos Salinas to the presidency through fraudulent manipulation of the results, they did not think he was the candidate who could push the PRI from power in 2000.

For all the enthusiasm generated by the alliance strategy, when neither Fox nor Cárdenas would cede his place to the other, the PRD lost the chance to formally nail down a series of concessions that had been offered by Fox. These included seats for key perredistas in a Fox cabinet, and a commitment to wait three years to attempt policy changes totally unacceptable to the left such as the privatization of PEMEX, the national oil company.

Ironically, though the committee of notables failed to coax Fox and Cárdenas into an alliance, voters worked out their own compromise. More than two million people who voted for PRD candidates for the Senate and Chamber of Deputies nevertheless chose Fox for president. And millions of other Mexicans apparently assured their priista bosses that they were on board, then marked their ballots for Fox in the privacy of the voting booth.

Thus, ordinary people who had nothing to gain personally—no promise of appointments, no consultancies, no direct political influence—crossed party lines to vote for Fox. And Fox recognized their support. In the days after the election, he responded with a commitment to govern with the broad involvement of priistas, perredistas and nonpartisan figures from civil society.

Not surprisingly, the Fox victory wiped out some small parties and threw the three major ones into crisis, not the least of them Fox's own PAN. Fox did not come up through the party ranks, and he has held most of the PAN's traditional leadership at arm's length while relying on an assortment of close political advisors drawn from the center and left. Formerly the general manager of Coca Cola in Mexico, Fox is a political outsider who became prominent in the PAN only in 1995 after surprising the party by taking the governorship of the central state of Guanajuato from the PRI. As a pro-business neoliberal, Fox's economic proposals differ little from the programs put in place by the last three priista presidents. But as of this writing, his social policies remain unknown: Will he do more to distribute income to poor Mexicans? Will he give the Catholic Church a greater role in education, politics and national life? Will he criminalize women who seek abortion? None of these preferences were made explicit during his campaign.

Given these circumstances, panistas are understandably uncertain what their role in a Fox administration will be. In particular, they wonder whether the Fox presidency will strengthen their party or only Fox and those closest to him—the so-called amigos de Fox. Since Fox has been so generous in acknowledging the importance of PRD and PRI crossover voters in bringing him to power, panistas also wonder what rewards will be left for party loyalists. Moreover they wonder, as do other Mexicans, if the PAN will simply present an alternative network for the distribution of patronage, if the old priista party bosses will join the PAN, or if a new, more democratic order is really at hand.

The PRI, of course, was plunged into despair from the moment that President Ernesto Zedillo, seizing the opportunity to play the great statesman, conceded his party's defeat even before Labastida could make his way to the microphones to say his own tearful farewell. Zedillo has presided over an administration that will at best be remembered as lackluster. At worst, history will note its financial scandals, not to mention its failure to resolve the crisis in Chiapas, improve the poor human rights record of Mexico, or make even a dent in the growing power of the drug lords. Yet the outgoing president found himself in a win/win situation. Either the PRI candidate would prevail, in which case Zedillo could claim that the good government and leadership he provided paved the way for the victory. Or, as transpired, Labastida would lose to Fox, and Zedillo could play a historic role in the great transition, calling for respect for the democratic process, the will of the people and the rule of law.

Naturally, even as the dimensions of the PRI's defeat became apparent—with its loss of the presidency, the Federal District (Mexico City), the governorships of two states, and 30 seats in the Chamber of Deputies—Mexicans were treated to the spectacle of the official party's implosion. This process was marked by mudfights between the priista factions, the excoriation of Zedillo by those about to lose their power and privilege, and calls for the resignation of the party president, Dulce María Sauri. The unexpected pleasure of luxuriating in the PRI's humiliation was the perfect accompaniment to the generalized exultation felt by so many Mexicans when they realized, on the morrow of the election, that they really had managed to "throw the bums out."

But even as the "dinosaurs"—the old-style PRI party bosses—traded blows with the would-be modernizers, it became clear that the priistas were down but not out. Fox will need a great many of them to govern. And some will morph into panistas with the same ease that others switched from the PRI to the PRD when the latter gained strength a decade earlier. Furthermore, the local party bosses—the caciques—will find ways to continue their caciquismo: that is, to wield power regardless of the party label they wear.

For Mexicans on the left, the results of July 2 produced great ambivalence. On the one hand, the PRD's presidential candidate garnered only 16% of the vote, its representation in the Chamber of Deputies dropped from 126 to 52 and, while its candidate for head of the Federal District, the popular and capable Andrés Manuel López Obrador, beat out his PRI and PAN rivals—if not by the great margin that had been predicted—the PRD will now have to share control of the City Council with the PAN.

Yet despite the PRD's poor showing, many perredistas were caught up in the jubilant moment, thrilled as other Mexicans were to see the PRI tossed out. Moreover, in spite of the PRD's losses, many commentators noted that it was Cárdenas and the left who prepared the way for dismantling the one-party system. In an even more cheerful reading of events, some progressive people have emphasized to me that the alternation of parties in power is a step on the road to democracy and that democracy, in turn, is an essential precondition for the construction of socialism. Even so, I was inclined to agree with the venerable Mexican historian—and PRD activist—Adolfo Gilly. When I repeated this analysis to him, he observed that, unfortunately, many on the left think of alternancia, democracy and socialism as three successive subway stops, and that once we board the train, progress from one to the next is inevitable.

Perhaps it is because the PRD has been habitually and publicly torn by factionalism. Or maybe it is the fresh memory of the nullification of its internal elections in March 1999 after evidence of vote rigging was brought forward by some of the currents that had coalesced around various candidates for party office. In either case, the recriminations that followed its July 2 defeat seemed less shocking than the bitter conflicts that engulfed the PRI—a party that, historically, has been highly secretive about its internal operations.

Still, the PRD's self-analysis was revealing. In a meeting held to assess the causes of the party's losses, its president, Amalia García, provided a long list of immediate, short-term and more deeply rooted problems: The leadership had lost months negotiating electoral alliances with small parties that contributed few votes but occupied positions on the party's list of candidates that could otherwise have gone to attractive and influential figures from civil society. The party had failed to appeal to "new" sectors of the electorate including women, young people, social movement activists and intellectuals. The party's campaign style was old-fashioned, and neglected to take into account the increasing sophistication of new urban groups. While the PAN had used surveys and telecommunications effectively, the PRD lagged behind. In particular, it had never found a retort to the foxistas' call to cast a voto útil for their man. Moreover, many perredistas acknowledged that their intense focus on alternancia became an invitation to vote for Fox. Lost in this focus was the notion of alternating for some good purpose—of offering an alternative program for Mexico's future.

In the post mortem session, García also underscored the deficiencies of the PRD itself. She cited its anachronistic organizational structure, nearly exclusive focus on elections, weak links to its base, tendency to focus on the division of the spoils among the different currents within the party, and the constant sectarian infighting. All of this meant, she told the daily paper La Jornada, that the "central committee spends 85% of its time dealing with quarrels rather than elaborating a strategy." Other commentators were alarmed to note that the PRD's most solid support had come from the oldest, poorest and least educated voters, while the PAN captured the youngest and most educated part of the electorate.

In addition to these problems, the PRD's poor showing in the elections means it will lose much of its public financing. It also risks losing its political space because the PAN has now accomplished what the PRD always took to be its first project: dismantling the official party system. Meanwhile, old guard priistas are increasingly convinced that it was the "antipopular" neoliberal policies of the last three administrations that brought their party to ruin, and they are determined to repossess the revolutionary nationalist, social justice discourse that had become the PRD's terrain.

Despite all these problems, there is some cause for optimism. PRD activist Silvia Gómez Tagle, for example, suggested to me that the party's poor electoral showing means that the opportunists who streamed into the PRD after Cárdenas' 1997 mayoral election victory will now rush to the PAN, creating space for the PRD to get its house in order. Moreover, in the face of the PRD and PRI crisis, civil society's role should become more important than ever. The PRI defeat opens the way for fair competition and a chance for the left to contest elections with less fear of fraud, harassment, or assassination. The left also gains two opportunities from the PRI's loss of control of the state: the possibility of governing more effectively in Mexico City, and the chance to organize honest, combative, independent unions. The foxistas may not be profoundly democratic. But the way they have come to power—and the only way they can govern—is by opening up the system. And an open system will offer more opportunities to organize around a left agenda.

The last word I heard about prospects for the future came from the taxi driver who took me to the airport the week after the election. "Well," he said, "we got what we always said we wanted: to get rid of the PRI. Now it all depends on us. Now we will see who was to blame—the PRI? Or ourselves?"

Judith Adler Hellman is Professor of Social and Political Science at York University in Toronto and is author of Mexican Lives (New Press, 1994). She was a staff member at NACLA in 1970 and 1971.

Tags: Mexico, elections, Vicente Fox, PAN, politics

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