Jorge G. Castañeda
No Need for Soul-Searching
June 19, 2006 issue - That Mexico has an election too close to call is in itself news: with the exception of the previous presidential vote in 2000, this has never happened before. Perhaps this is why it seems such a strange contest, and why the real consequences of the election are difficult to ascertain. Nothing that has actually happened is truly worrisome, and yet the entire process is generating a sensation of concern, unpredictability and confusion. Last week's debate among the five candidates is a case in point. It wasn't really a debate, the moderator was not really a moderator and two of the candidates were not really candidates. Each participant delivered a succession of highly rehearsed speeches with virtually no back and forth; the master of ceremonies simply gave the floor to one speaker after another without asking any questions; and two of the contenders, who together claim approximately 3 percent support in the polls, are in fact running to legalize their parties, not to win the presidency.
No wonder the electorate remains highly volatile, and largely disenchanted with the entire process. Over the past three months, left-wing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador has led by up to 10 points, then fallen behind his chief rival, National Action Party candidate Felipe Calderón, by up to 10 points, only to fight back to an apparent tie today. Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Roberto Madrazo, while never having led at all, is shown by some surveys to be practically even with the other two, but by others to be nearly 10 points behind. Although part of this roller-coaster ride is number-massaging by pollsters, another part stems from voters' constantly changing preferences and priorities. Since issues are totally absent from the campaign, and most people have the (essentially accurate) conviction that the next president of Mexico will be as paralyzed as the previous two, electoral preferences derive from whims and states of mind, not from party loyalties, personality traits or stands on issues.
And at the same time, at least within the political, intellectual, business and professional elite and among parts of the middle class, the campaign has shown what many suspected before: Mexico today is the victim of a gaping ideological divide that most other countries in Latin America have put behind them. This election is not about policies—war or peace, raising taxes or lowering them, spending more or less, combating poverty or creating jobs, capital punishment, abortion, gay marriage or whatever. The campaign is being waged, as the candidates themselves rightly proclaim, over Mexico's soul, over the highly abstract, partly imaginary, broad ideological themes of nationalism, separation of church and state, the market versus the state, law enforcement versus eradicating privilege and poverty, belonging to Latin America or to North America.
Viewed from afar, this might not be a bad thing: after all, countries need this type of discussion now and then. But in fact, the debate is largely meaningless today, since the policies that theoretically would spring from the electorate favoring one world view or the other are either unviable or already in place and locked in. If Calderón wins, he cannot hand education over to the church, privatize the state oil company, Pemex, or abolish anti-poverty programs, as his adversaries falsely claim he would. And if López Obra-dor wins, he will not be able to move Mexico away from the United States and abrogate NAFTA, reorient public spending massively and overnight, and create millions of jobs through unfunded infrastructure programs, as he not only says but seems truly to believe. As in most cases, byzantine ideological debates such as these lead nowhere.
Peru and Colombia just had elections, and both were confusing, polarized and not terribly enlightening affairs. Yet the type of ideological divisions and discussions taking place in Mexico were mostly absent, replaced by fistfights over a few black-and-white, bread-and-butter issues. Peruvian winner Alan García was in favor of signing his country's free-trade agreement with the United States; loser Ollanta Humala was against—end of story. Alvaro Uribe campaigned on a straightforward peace-and-security platform—conservative but nonideological. In contrast López Obrador, if he wins, says he will seek to overturn the overall policies of the past 18 years, with roughly half the country against him; Calderón will attempt to continue those policies, with the other half against him. So while no one knows who will win, everyone knows there will be little to cheer about. Mexico will stay gridlocked, falling behind while arguing about the immortality of a soul it cannot find, nor needs to.
Castañeda, a former foreign minister of Mexico, is now Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American Studies at New York University.