Foreign Policy Blogs

Thinking Outside the (Ballot) Box

Mexico’s midterm election for its Chamber of Deputies, six governors and mayors and local legislators in 11 states will be held next Sunday July 5. The governing National Action Party (PAN) has  deployed an agressive campaign that attempts to turn the elections  into a referendum on  President  Felipe Calderón’s war against the drug cartels: either Mexicans are with him and voting for his party or they are against him and siding with organized crime.

Despite the continuous media bombarding associated with partisan campaigns a group of Mexican intellectuals and a growing number of citizens have made public their intention of crossing the entire paper ballot on July 5 to render their vote null and void. As they refuse to be convinced by the appeals made by the governing and opposition parties their objective is to show the political establishment as a whole that not one of the platforms in contest satisfies their demands and aspirations.

However,  current electoral norms will make sure that parties will not suffer as a result of citizen rejection. Public funding is allocated according to valid votes and the foreseeable activation of traditional clientelistic machines will ensure that parties retain a significant amount of control over their  fortunes.The null vote will have practically no effect on the manner by which political parties will distribute decision making power after  elections take place. Those who question the current state of affairs are challenged to think outside the (ballot) box if they want to change the way democracy works in Mexico.

Tatiana Clouthier has accepted this challenge. The daughter of Manuel J. Clouthier, a revered former presidential candidate of the PAN, she became interested in politics as an adolescent in a time when the long ruling PRI (Revolutionary Institutional Party) regularly rigged elections and even resorted to repression in order to stay in power. Opposition gains were then few and far in between and electoral protests became the only way in which widespread frustration could be channeled.

Internal and external pressures eventually forced the PRI to commit to gradual political liberalization in the 1990s. As opposition parties won seats in Congress, state and municipal governments, they gained leverage in the definition of Mexico’s democratization.   The PRI peacefully handed over the presidency to Vicente Fox of the PAN in 2000 thereby launching the transition to democracy.

It soon became clear that the Fox administration had little to distinguish itself from previous PRI governments.  Corruption scandals and a chronic lack of accountability characterised the first opposition experiment at the national level. Tatiana Clouthier, then a PAN Congresswoman from the state of Nuevo Leon decided to resign to her party in 2005 by publicly stating that winning the presidency had turned the PAN into a bad copy of the PRI.

Since then, Clouthier has been actively involved in non governmental organizations in Nuevo Leon that promote citizen empowerment outside of political parties to provide solutions to Mexico’s  insecurity and uneven development. Although she  never renounced to what she believes  were the original objectives of the PAN, she did conclude that the party was no longer the best means to achieve them as it had  itself become part of the problem.

Unable to run as an independent under Mexican electoral laws, Clouthier accepted to become the candidate of a small party to the municipality of San Pedro Garza Garcia after being given legal guarantee that this party would not intervene in the campaign or in the prospective municipal government.  San Pedro has been correctly deemed one of the most affluent municipalities in Latin America. Yet  contrasts are barely hidden behind the facade of big mansions,  country clubs and luxury shopping malls. Beyond  the Valle residential area, the inhabitants of surrounding low income neighborhoods complain of deficient public services and nonexistent opportunities of economic advancement.  Adding to the unsatisfactory responsiveness of municipal governments to these and other grievances,  citizens of all social classes are now united in their fear of San Pedro slowly but steadily becoming a conspicuous turf of Mexican druglords.

Up until now local and state authorities have turned a blind eye to this encroachment. Most tellingly, it was recently disclosed that Clouthier’s opponent Mauricio Fernández of the PAN – currently leading in the polls- was willing to strike a deal with some resident druglords to jointly preserve order in San Pedro.  The issue grabbed national headlines as it exposed the inherent conflict between President Calderón’s public strategy and the positions defended by his own party’s local candidates.

In what has become the trademark of her campaign Clouthier has let actions speak louder than words.  She demanded an explanation from both Fernández and the current PAN municipal government regarding these declarations and joined other candidates in a move to corner federal authorities into investigating the case.  Furthermore, amidst an ensuing exchange of drug-consumption accusations between the candidates, Clouthier was the only one who dared to submit herself to a full laboratory test to demonstrate that not only is she prepared to counter the influence of the cartels in the municipality but that she is also herself drug free.

Powerful inertias and voter apathy have conspired against the success of Clouthier’s campaign. Although her personal credibility and original platform have awakened enthusiasm, Sampetrinos worry that a vote for a minority party might be a waste or beneficial to their least favored option.  Clouthier’s response has been to insist on citizens becoming aware of their democratic rights and obligations. If citizens are serious about making their opinions count in the way the country is ran, elections have to be regarded as the first of many more steps to be geared towards the elimination of long endured vices still present in the relation between state and society in Mexico.

Without a doubt San Pedro’s election will become a test case for Mexico’s democracy. Alienated by the political parties that led Mexico’s transition, citizens might still  take part in the consolidation of this process if they decide to raise to the opportunity.  As things stand, null votes will never prompt a change of direction. In Mexico, as elsewhere, this can  only happen after an alternative, a true counterhegemony to traditional politics, is bravely upheld by the citizens themselves.

In one of the last acts of her campaign Tatiana Clouthier decided to do something different and something she herself had never done before. On board of a Cessna 206 Turbo she jumped with a parachute from an altitude of more than 7 500 feet. After landing on ground and greeting dozens of  supporters Clouthier cheerfully commented: I know I have done something unusual for a candidate today but it can also be unusual for society to stop being afraid. The only thing we have to do is take the first step. We can do it together. We can choose hope over fear.”

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