Saving Mexico by Ruining It

Denise Dresser is a professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico and a former member of Mexico's Citizens' Advisory Committee to the Special Prosecutor for Crimes of the Past.

Today, Mexico is a country divided. Today, the mantra of Mexico’s political and economic elites has become “anybody but Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador,” the mayor of Mexico City who they perceive as a dangerous, polarizing demagogue -- but who is the front-runner for the presidency in 2006.

The ruling classes fear him and what they believe he will do if he wins: nationalize, overspend, jeopardize Mexico’s hard-won economic gains. They’re determined to stop him. But in doing so, they are tearing apart a country where political stability cannot be taken for granted. They are undermining the democracy it took so long to achieve. They are wreaking havoc in Mexico in their attempt to save it from the left.

The proceedings this week against Lopez Obrador are not about the rule of law. They’re about kicking a popular left-wing front-runner out of the presidential race. As a result of shrewd patronage politics and savvy political positioning, Lopez Obrador is the most popular politician in the country. That makes him dangerous to an array of vested interests and explains why he has so many powerful enemies obsessed with bringing him down, including President Vicente Fox.

As a result of a political crusade disguised as a legal issue, Lopez Obrador is caught in a battle for his political life. The attorney general’s office has accused him of ignoring a restraining order issued by the courts and moving forward with construction of a road to a hospital on land whose ownership has been contested. Now that the Chamber of Deputies has stripped him of his immunity from prosecution, he faces a potential prison sentence and could be deemed ineligible to run for the presidency while his case goes through the system.


Given how it has weighed in on this issue, the Fox government appears increasingly hypocritical and inconsistent. The president claims that Lopez Obrador must obey the law, but refuses to charge prominent members of his own National Action Party, or PAN, who have broken it. He speaks about the need to enforce legality where the mayor is concerned, but turns a blind eye to lawbreakers in the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Every time the president and his collaborators piously claim to enforce “the rule of law,” most Mexicans remember that it doesn’t really exist. As a result, 78% of the population opposes the current proceeding and questions its true motives.

The onslaught against the mayor shows that Fox has become everything he once fought against. The candidate who five years ago promised to change the status quo has now turned into its chief defender. The forceful man who promised to dismantle an unjust political system now hides behind its politicized institutions. The political outsider who campaigned to kick the PRI out of power now needs that party’s votes to impeach his left-wing adversary. What’s clear is that Fox fears Lopez Obrador’s potential victory and what he represents more than he fears the return of the PRI.

The concerted attack on Lopez Obrador has had paradoxical effects. Before the impeachment process began, Lopez Obrador was a pragmatic leftist; now he’s a radical martyr. His enemies have always believed that he would be a Mexican version of Venezuela’s divisive President Hugo Chavez, but now, with blows below the belt, they are creating one. Lopez Obrador is more confrontational than ever. His rhetoric is more incendiary, his position is more recalcitrant. Under siege, he insists on behaving as a revolutionary who divides instead of as a reformer who unites.

Lopez Obrador has added fuel to the fire by calling for people to march in the streets instead of working within established institutions. As a result, Mexico is trapped in a vicious cycle: The political and economic elites are producing an angry populace, and Lopez Obrador is spawning a united PAN-PRI front willing to sabotage democracy to stop him.


What’s really at stake is the survival and quality of Mexican democracy. Regardless of Lopez Obrador’s flaws, his fate should be determined by Mexico’s citizens and not by its elites. The farcical, trumped-up effort to remove him from the race violates the democratic right to support a candidate or decry him and his policies through the ballot box. Fox and his allies in the PRI should put aside their short-term political calculations and respect that fundamental right.