05 May 2009

Politics are seizing on swine flu

Politics are seizing on swine flu

Masked mariachi
The News

Nuevo León gubernatorial candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, Rodrigo Medina, and his volunteers fanned out across Monterrey this week armed with bottles of antiseptic hand gel bearing his image and the party colors, thermometers, and face masks for prospective voters. In complete violation of federal health warnings to avoid common salutations such as kisses and handshakes, Medina enthusiastically gripped the hands of the potential supporters receiving the hand gel.

Medina made no apologies for his campaigning and campaign tactics during a time of crisis - even as many national campaigns for the midterm elections postponed inaugural events scheduled for May 3. "We're not going to shy away from this crisis," the 36-year-old candidate told reporters. "If we aim to govern this state, I think that with these acts, it shows a capacity for action and solidarity with the people."

The attempts at leveraging the flu outbreak for electoral purposes in Nuevo León, where polls say the gubernatorial contest is too close to call, highlight a near inevitable politicization of a public health emergency - just two months away from federal midterm elections.

Just as predictable has been the response from rivals. Nuevo León National Action Party candidate Fernando Elizondo suspended his campaign on Tuesday. (Radio and TV ads would continue and volunteers would still distribute fliers and brochures, he said.) He also rebuked Medina for being opportunistic and responsible for putting the health of Nuevo León residents in jeopardy.

"There were massive purchases of face masks, then suddenly [there is] a shortage because [Medina wants] to use them for a campaign," Elizondo told reporters. He preferred to take the high road. "We say that if promoting me were to cause one death, I would prefer to lose," he said.

Medina and Elizondo are only peripheral players in a crisis whose handling could be judged at the July 5 polls. Politicians such as President Felipe Calderón and Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard will likely be judged by the effectiveness of their responses in tackling this public health emergency.

Both stand to gain from the crisis, according to analysts. Calderón seeks to win a majority for his PAN in the Chamber of Deputies on July 5, while Ebrard's Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, aims to retain its dominance in the capital. Ebrard could also be preparing the foundation for a presidential bid in 2012. (He has yet to confirm speculation that he'll run.) But any missteps in their responses could also be used against them by opportunistic opponents.

Many analysts are already drawing comparisons to the handling of Hurricane Katrina by the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush as an example of what might happen here. "Did the Democrats capitalize on George Bush's mishandling of Katrina?" asked ITAM political science professor Jeffrey Weldon.

Some opposition politicians already have questioned the speed of the federal government response to the flu outbreak along with confusing statistics and shortcomings in its overall communications strategy.

PRI Sen. Pedro Joaquín Coldwell called the government response "necessary for taking care of public health, but rather late." He also said, "It seems like there's been a concealment of information and mistimed actions by the government." Calderón enemy and Democratic Revolution Party Deputy Alejandro Sánchez Camacho, meanwhile, issued a press released that alleged, "[Calderón] has sufficient resources to attend to swine flu, but has little will to confront it." And Labor Party Senate leader Ricardo Monreal, among others, expressed frustration with a lack of clarity in the government's health statistics.

"These are conservative numbers and they seem to be hiding information," the senator from Zacatecas told Reforma this week.

Some political analysts and academics have also found fault in the government's handling of the flu outbreak - and questioned its motives during a time of crisis.

John Ackerman, a professor in the Legal Research Institute at UNAM, questioned the tardiness of the government response to the flu outbreak - the first cases began appearing in mid-March - and the subsequent lack of clarity of its communications. He also questioned the legality of Calderón issuing a health emergency that suspends many civil rights without first seeking congressional approval.

"[The decree] requires the executive to inform Congress about what the real situation is," Ackerman said.

Ackerman also alleged that declaring a health emergency without first going to Congress was another Calderón attempt at the "reconsolidation of the authoritarian president."

Some dispute those arguments, however. "The president has always had the power to declare health emergencies," Weldon said, explaining that such decrees are permitted in most countries and can include such measures as putting sick people into quarantine.

The assumption of more powers by declaring an emergency, he added, brings risks: Calderón will be open to much more criticism - much of it legitimate - from lawmakers and the Mexican City government for any sweeping decisions made during this crisis.

It remains uncertain how the flu outbreak will alter the political landscape - or when the outbreak itself will end. Ackerman said the spin cycle would determine the winners and losers.

"Is this going to be framed as a natural disaster and the federal government coming in as the savior or is this going to be attributed to institutional failure ... [and] seen as something that could have been prevented?" he asked.

If the latter, he predicted the PRD might launch attacks against the government; the PRI would then ride to the government's rescue, but at a steep price.

"All this strengthens the hand of the PRI and strengthens their ability to negotiate key issues with the government," he said.

Others disagree. George W. Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, thinks Calderón has been perceived as handling the crisis well so far, particularly by Washington - which could give him and the PAN the upper hand going into July 5.

"While [the] PRI was poised to deliver a lethal blow in the mid-year showdown, astute management of the health challenge could reverse the political momentum and strengthen Calderón's hand," Grayson said.

In any special sessions of Congress held before July 5, Grayson said, a good image after the flu crisis could give Calderón leverage over the often-obstructionist PRI.

Political analyst Alejandro Schtulmann, of the Empra risk consultancy, added that attacks by lawmakers on the federal government would be "a high-risk proposition" that could "backfire." The only cover for lawmakers, he said, would be widespread international criticism of the federal government after the outbreak ends, but even that might not be sufficient to harm the president.

"It's unlikely that Calderón would be politically harmed by the crisis because the scapegoat would be the health secretary," Schtulmann said.

No comments: