14 March 2008

Mexican left on verge of splitting


David Agren
The News

Members of the Democratic Revolution Party select a new national president on Sunday, concluding an oft-contentious internal election.

And while the national race officially features five candidates, representing disparate factions in the center-left party, the vote is shaping up as more of a referendum on competing visions for the center-left party instead of a traditional leadership contest.

Voters will decide if the 19-year-old PRD should mature and become more institutional or whether it should continue in a perpetual anti-establishment role.

Analysts say that differences over strategy could jeopardize the future of the party, which is the second-leading force on the federal level.

“It’s very possible that after the internal elections the party will split into a current composed of [PRD moderates] and a current for those following [former presidential candidate Andrés Manuel] López Obrador,” said Aldo Muñoz, political science professor at Universidad Iberoamericana.

“The losers will almost certainly form a new party.”Both of the leading candidates – Alejandro Encinas and Jesús Ortega – often speak of unifying the PRD and downplay talk of abandoning the party. But their methods and proposals for vaulting the PRD into power and unifying the Mexican left differ radically.

Encinas, an economist by training and former American football player, represents a combative current known as the United Left, which refuses to recognize the legitimacy of President Felipe Calderón and eschews brokering deals with rival political parties.

The former Mexico City mayor kicked off his campaign by blasting the pragmatic actions of party moderates, whom he described as “nothing more than conservatives, only more desperate.”

He most notably objected to the PRD courting former members of the right-leaning National Action Party, or PAN, as potential candidates in Yucatán and Guanajuato, warning the party risked losing its identity as a left-wing party.Encinas also picked up the backing of López Obrador, an anti-establishment figure, who once commented, “To hell with their institutions,” after the nation’s electoral tribunal rejected his allegations of fraud after the 2006 election. López Obrador presently heads an alternative government that is separate from the PRD.

Jesús Ortega, Encinas’ main rival, also views the 2006 election as rigged, but many in his New Left current of the PRD – also known as Los Chuchos – have shown a willingness to work with the federal government and want the party to participate more in the country’s political institutions. They also have expressed some interest in reforming the government-controlled energy sector – a proposal that López Obrador has been tirelessly campaigning against.

Ortega recently warned that the PRD risked being viewed as “immature and violent” if it continued fomenting protests and failed to fully participate in the nation’s political life.

“Los Chuchos doesn't think the [PRD] can win power unless it cooperates more with the government,” Muñoz explained.

But members cooperating with the government and participating in legislative bargaining – most notably Ruth Zavaleta, PRD speaker of the Chamber of Deputies – have drawn intense fire from some quarters of the PRD.

Zavaleta, a member of the New Left, said she wants the PRD to “mature” and become more “institutional” – and stop excluding itself during key legislative debates.

“The PRD should become an institution … and mature within the existing structures,” she told The News.

“It should be a party based in rules, in statutes [and] in principles.”

But becoming more institutional might prove difficult given the party’s origins as a coalition of diverse groups pursuing their own agendas that initially were seeking to topple to long-governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.


The PRD was founded in 1989 by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas – a former PRI governor of Michoacán and the son of a revered former president – just one year after nearly winning the presidency.

He had bolted from the PRI earlier in the decade due to ideological differences and after being passed over for the party’s presidential nomination in favor of future President Carlos Salinas.

Cárdenas formed the National Democratic Front, which quickly attracted an unlikely assortment of groups the PRI’s old corporatist structure was unable to co-opt.

The coalition ranged from social activists working on behalf of earthquake victims in the capital to guerrillas that were previously hunted by the military in the hills of Guerrero state to small left-wing political parties with socialist and communist ideologies. It also gained support from former PRI members – like López Obrador – who were dissatisfied with the party’s shift to pro-market policies and the advent of technocrats like Salinas.

“The PRD is very pluralistic. It ranges from former guerrillas to people that used to be involved heavily with the PRI,” Zavaleta explained.

Zavaleta jumped into the political arena at the age of 21 after the 1985 Mexico City earthquake destroyed her home in the Centro Historico. She was moved to a temporary camp for displaced residents near the airport, where she began agitating for better services like garbage collection and drainage and pressing the local government for credit to rebuilt damages homes.

But she and her colleagues began drifting into local politics by capturing low-level positions – like jefe de la manzana, or block captain – and eventually found themselves organizing in boroughs on the eastern side of Mexico City for the National Democratic Front.

“We started to be a different kind of struggle: The struggle for democracy in the country,” Zavaleta recalled.

“All of the groups ... decided to back Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas so he could win power and depose the old [PRI] regime.”

The movement almost succeeded in 1988 as Cárdenas, an uncharismatic figure known for his stern facial expressions, staged a popular presidential campaign.

But a mysterious computer crash in the Interior Secretariat wiped out the early voting results favoring the National Democratic Front.

Cárdenas would never recapture the same magic – although he became Mexico City’s first elected mayor in 1997 – as he ran unsuccessfully for the Presidency in 1994 and 2000, placing third in both races.

Support for the party subsequently diminished with his poor electoral performances.

Zavaleta cited the perpetual caciquismo, or dependence on a strong figurehead like Cárdenas, as one of the PRD’s main weaknesses.

“[The party] can’t be sustained in caciquismo,” she said.

“As soon as the cacique disappears, the party then divides.”

Cárdenas’ fading from the national scene created the conditions for another leader to emerge: López Obrador, who as Mexico City mayor championed social programs like stipends for seniors and single mothers and big public works projects, which included restoring the Centro Historico and constructing a second level on the Periferico expressway.

López Obrador and Cárdenas have been estranged in recent years.

The PRD nearly captured the presidency in 2006, when López Obrador fell short by less than one percentage point in an election he branded “fraudulent.” But the PRD, riding López Obrador’s coattails, won a record number of congressional seats in 2006 and supplanted the PRI as the second-leading party in Congress.

The results reaffirmed López Obrador as the face of the party – even though his tactics of belittling Calderón as the “spurious president” and chiding members for working with other political groups irritated many in the PRD. But even López Obrador’s critics recognized the benefits of having an influential front man.

“The problem we have is that Andrés Manuel needs to continue being a strong leader and we need to strengthen our [movement] and his leadership,” Camilo Valenzuela, one of the five aspirants for the PRD presidency, told The News.

“But [he] also needs a strong party,” Valenzuela added.

The candidate also expressed concern that López Obrador was positioning himself as the unofficial PRD president by endorsing Encinas, who succeeded López Obrador as Mexico City mayor in 2005.

Columnist Sergio Sarmiento noted the same thing in a recent Grupo Reforma column.

“There’s not much difference between what López Obrador is doing and what President Felipe Calderón did by placing a close confidant at the head of the [National Action Party],” he wrote.

Many analysts give Encinas an advantage in the race due to López Obrador’s support, even though Ortega’s PRD faction controls the majority of the party’s state and national leadership positions.

“The grassroots came because of López Obrador so I still expect the grassroots to follow López Obrador whatever the organizations do in the states,” said Federico Estévez, political science professor at ITAM.

Jeffrey Weldon, a political science professor at ITAM, also predicted an Encinas victory due to fears that López Obrador’s backers might break away from the PRD.

“This threat of defections is going to actually weigh pretty heavily on a lot of people,” he said.

“They all know that without López Obrador the party is going to be a lot weaker."

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