The James Carville of Mexico’s Left Making Political Headway

Andrew Reding, an associate editor of Pacific News Service, directs the North America Project, a joint venture of the World Policy Institute in New York and the Bay Area Institute in San Francisco

Three years ago, the Mexican left seemed to be dying. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, son of the president who nationalized the oil industry in the 1930s, placed a poor third in his second presidential bid. The party he founded in 1989, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), won 16% of the national vote.

Today, Cardenas is preparing to take office as the first elected governor of the Federal District (Mexico City). So long were his coattails in the July election that his party won 38 of 40 directly elected seats in the district’s legislature. Nationally, the PRD increased its share of the vote to 25%, becoming the largest opposition party in the Chamber of Deputies.

The architect of this startling reversal of fortunes is a young, self-effacing political organizer who took the party’s helm a little more than a year ago. Though virtually unknown abroad, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was, in many ways, the James Carville of the 1997 Mexican elections. Just as Carville turned the economic slump under President George Bush into a Bill Clinton victory in 1992, Lopez Obrador turned the collapse of salinismo into millions of new votes for the PRD.


Even before the collapse of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s mystique, Lopez Obrador was defying the odds in his home state of Tabasco in southeastern Mexico. While the PRD’s fortunes declined elsewhere in Mexico during Salinas’ presidency, Lopez Obrador built a formidable grass-roots organization in what had been an overwhelmingly priista state. In 1994, he ran for governor, winning at least 40% of the vote in an election marred by fraud. What made this all the more remarkable was the subsequent disclosure that his opponent, Roberto Madrazo, had spent a staggering $70 million on the campaign, some 60 times the legal limit.

The key to Lopez Obrador’s success was his organizational genius. Noting that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was sending “vote promoters” door to door to offer patronage in exchange for votes, he sought an effective countermeasure. That led to the creation of the Sun Brigades, named after the PRD party symbol, the Aztec sun. Neighborhood teams of PRD volunteers also went door to door, countering the PRI’s efforts with a message that rooting out corruption is better long term than getting a few handouts before every election. The strategy not only boosted the PRD’s share of the vote, but helped build a strong grass-roots party structure.

This paid off in the July 1996 election for national party president, in which 60% of Tabasco’s PRD members turned out to vote (more than twice the percentage for any other state), contributing 28% of all votes cast. Lopez Obrador beat his closest rival by more than 5-1.

Upon taking office in August 1996, Lopez Obrador began applying the Sun Brigades concept to other state elections, with dramatic results. In the state of Mexico, the PRD increased the number of municipalities under its control from five to 19, including the largest city. In Morelos, it won control of three of the four largest cities. In both cases, it stripped the PRI of control of the state legislature.

Last spring, the same technique was applied nationwide in preparation for the July midterm elections. Lopez Obrador flew throughout the country, organizing 63,000 Sun Brigades, one for each voting district. Wherever he couldn’t find enough volunteers, he hired women and teens at $15 a week. The teams then made three visits to every home in their district, distributing campaign literature to as many voters as possible.

Lopez Obrador’s focus on universal outreach led to another critical innovation. He shifted resources from traditional campaign rallies to the broadcast media, assigning 70% of the party’s campaign budget to television and radio advertising. He hired pollsters and consultants to develop campaign themes, and advertising agencies to translate them into ads. The ads ridiculed the government’s economic policies and corruption and called for change. “It’s been a long night, it’s time for the sun to rise,” concluded the ads.


Subsequent studies of the July elections suggest that the introduction of modern campaign techniques doubled the number of voters who switched from the PRI to the PRD. At the very least, they contributed to the thin margin by which the PRI lost a majority in the Chamber of Deputies.

The PRD is gaining influence, but just what is its ideological complexion? What does it mean for Mexico? Its most visible leaders, including Cardenas, Porfirio Munoz Ledo and Lopez Obrador, are former priistas; many members of its national executive committee are former socialists. Yet, both groups have all but disowned their former associations, forged in a different, pre-democratic Mexico.

The new point of convergence, on the center-left, was formalized by the PRD’s becoming a full member of the Socialist International in September 1996. In so doing, it identified itself as a social democratic party, aligning itself with the French Socialists and British New Labor, both of which have similarly scored major electoral victories after redefining their mission.

Like Tony Blair’s New Labor and Lionel Jospin’s Socialist Party, Lopez Obrador’s PRD is pragmatic. It supports market economics, but with the proviso that the state has a responsibility to ensure that market mechanisms are serving the greater public good. It supports decentralization of power, provided that measures are taken to reduce regional disparities, such as the poverty that afflicts southern Mexico.

With the PRD’s increased pragmatism and electoral success, however, has come a new danger. As the PRI disintegrates, more and more of its state and local leaders are switching party allegiances. Many are doing so more out of opportunism than principle. In so doing, they bring along many of the old vices: graft, patronage, nepotism, padded expense accounts.

To address this problem, Lopez Obrador is trying to inculcate a new political morality. He has reduced the salaries of party leaders, barred them from using luxury hotels and restaurants, limited foreign travel to essential purposes and to two persons per trip. He has also stunned the political establishment with calls for public officials to stop keeping mistresses. Yet, the challenge Lopez Obrador faces in reforming a political culture that has never had an effective system of checks and balances remains daunting. Ultimately, his ability to sell the PRD to the public as a viable political option will depend on the performance of the new officeholders he helped get elected.

Another potential problem for the PRD is its dependence on Lopez Obrador. Just as it is impossible to conceive of New Labor enjoying its spectacular success without Blair, the PRD is similarly indebted to Lopez Obrador. Recognition of his exceptional organizing skills is what propelled him from party leader in a small backwater state to the landslide choice for party president. If anything should happen to him before he is able to institutionalize his party reforms, all bets are off.

For the time being, however, the rise of the PRD as an increasingly coherent, well-defined political party capable of meeting the challenges of leadership is a signal that Mexico’s transition to democracy is working. The country already has a viable alternative to the right of center, the National Action Party (PAN), which closely trails the PRD in number of seats in the Chamber of Deputies. In the words of Vicente Fox, PAN governor of the state of Guanajuato and a leading prospect for his party’s presidential nomination in the year 2000, “Under the intelligent leadership of Lopez Obrador, the PRD is finding its true standing as a political party.” One could hardly think of a better omen for the evolution of a democratic and parliamentary ethos than this tribute from a political opponent.