When populism goes too far

GREGORY RODRIGUEZ is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

NOT UNTIL last week did I understand why populism -- the political philosophy that promotes the interests of the masses over those of the elite -- is so often tarnished in practice by anti-democratic tendencies. After all, one would think that a true populist would be the ultimate democrat; he would want the people to have real electoral power.

But that’s not the case. Throughout Mexico’s presidential campaign, critics accused Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of harboring an authoritarian streak. Long before last Sunday’s election, they feared that the charismatic, populist ex-mayor of Mexico City would refuse to accept a close defeat. And, to Mexico’s misfortune, they were right.

Lopez Obrador is, of course, within his rights to challenge any presumed irregularities. But he has gone much further than that. Indignant over his loss, he has accused Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute of “manipulating” votes. In so doing, he is not only impugning the credibility of one of the nation’s most trusted organizations, he is encouraging the type of cynicism about politics that helped semi-authoritarian regimes maintain power in Mexico for most of the 20th century.

Historian Ramon Eduardo Ruiz has characterized Mexican history as a long tragedy intermittently punctuated by triumph. Perhaps as a result, Mexicans developed both a deep religious faith and a profound real-world cynicism. But over the last decade, one aspect of Mexican cynicism has begun to fade. Although Mexicans still don’t much trust bureaucrats, the police or one another, they have developed a cautious but growing respect for and confidence in the 10-year-old Federal Electoral Institute. One recent poll for El Excelsior newspaper in Mexico City found that fully 77% of respondents believed the agency was impartial.


Six years ago, I spent election day in Mexico visiting polling places in Tijuana. On that day, it was impossible not to sense the excitement in the air. The election of President Vicente Fox over the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which had governed the country for decades, was the ultimate proof that Mexico had truly become a democratic nation.

This past Sunday, I visited polling places in and around Morelia, the capital of the central-western state of Michoacan. What I found was not the exuberance of six years ago but rather a sober respect for the electoral process itself. In Quiroga, a town of roughly 24,000 souls 28 miles from Morelia, I talked to voters who waited three hours to cast a ballot at the special polling site for non-residents. Confiable -- trustworthy -- is the word I heard most often.

This is not to say that Mexican cynicism has been eradicated. “My vote doesn’t matter,” 60-year-old gardener Octavio Zavala Villasenor told me. “I’m only voting because my union makes me.” But this type of old-fashioned passive resistance seems most prevalent among older people, who have memories of fraudulent elections of the past.

Historically, Mexicans’ suspicions of electoral fraud served to depress voter turnout, particularly among those who were opposed to the ruling regime. Citizens who don’t believe their vote matters prefer not to waste their time. That, of course, served the purposes of the ruling party, which committed fraud with impunity for decades.


Since electoral reform began in the early 1990s -- culminating in the creation of the electoral institute and the Federal Electoral Tribunal (the agency to which Lopez Obrador will now appeal) -- voter turnout has risen along with trust in the electoral system. In 1988, only 23% of voters thought their ballots would be “respected.” That percentage rose to 37% in 1994 and to 67% in 2000. That was the year that Fox won the presidency, and voter turnout reached 64%. Last week, a still impressive 58.9% of voters -- or 41 million Mexicans -- cast ballots.

The electoral system stands out as one of the more positive achievements in a still often lawless society. Foreign election observers have called last Sunday’s contest transparent and largely free of problems. So why would a populist candidate want to impugn the credibility of the most trusted institution in a fledgling democracy?

Because populism traditionally thrives in profoundly unequal societies where the dispossessed don’t trust the system to solve their problems; where they turn, instead, to charismatic figures they hope will take on the state, defeat it and funnel its largesse away from the elite and toward the poor. They put their faith in leaders rather than in democratic processes. It’s a recipe for authoritarianism.

So even as Mexico is becoming a more open society, Lopez Obrador is appealing to that residual mistrust.

It’s true that for many Mexicans, democracy has not translated into expected improvements in daily life. But it’s foolish to think that any real economic or social advances will be made by taking the country backward into an era of overweening political cynicism.