31 May 2009

Independents frozen out of elections

The News

Elisa de Anda wanted to run for a Chamber of Deputies seat in the July 5 midterm elections as an independent candidate. The recent law school graduate and Coyoacán native met many of the prerequisites: she was of legal age, a Mexican citizen and no criminal record. She says that no skeletons could have come tumbling out of her closet ahead of election day. She even drafted an electoral platform that touched on issues such as the re-election of lawmakers.

But on May 2, her candidate application was rejected by the local office of the Federal Electoral Institute, or IFE, in District 23. Apparently, she lacked one thing: the backing of one of the country's eight registered political parties. The IFE also rejected at least 15 other independent candidacies from other parts of the country, according to de Anda, who has now taken her fight for inclusion on the ballot to the electoral tribunal. A ruling is expected within days.De Anda's fight to be an independent candidate highlights the enormous influence that political parties wield over the electoral system and the unwillingness of the political elite to permit the participation of potential wildcard candidates who could bring their own resources and personal popularity to election campaigns.

Her struggle also highlights another potential shortcoming of the 2007 electoral reforms, which technically allow for the participation of independent candidates, but makes such candidacies all but impossible.

"It's a party cartel system," said ITAM political science professor Federico Estévez."

It has been the case from the outset of the political reform in electoral matters . [that] independent candidates in federal elections are not allowed. They must be nominated by a party."

Only the southeastern state of Yucatán allows independent candidates in gubernatorial, legislative and municipal elections. And one independent candidate, Adonay Avila Sierra, captured the May 2007 mayoral race in Yobaín. Some indigenous villages, particularly in Oaxaca, employ traditional governance system based on "usos y costumbres," or uses and customs, that often doesn't involve mainstream political parties - or any party at all.

Writing in a non-registered candidate's name is also possible, but the IFE never divulges who receives the most informal support. Estévez suspects that electoral officials might be embarrassed to acknowledge how many votes telenovela stars and figures such as the pontificating television clown Brozo receive.

The eight political parties enjoy enormous economic and legal power in Mexico's political system, which has only become competitive over the past 20 years with the loosening of the Institutional Revolutionary Party's grip.

Competition came, in part, through electoral reforms that included the introduction of lawmakers being elected through a proportional representation system known as the "plurinominal" in the late 1970s. The mixed political system - having 300 members elected from districts to the Chamber, while having another 200 members elected through the plurinominal - makes independent candidacies difficult, according to ITAM political science professor Jeffrey Weldon. "Proportional representation is designed to be distributed among parties," he said.

The electoral reforms approved in late 2007 only strengthened the parties even more. The new rules gave exclusive access to the radio and TV airwaves for promotional purposes. Advocacy groups and individuals cannot buy airtime to promote public policy issues because that could be interpreted as an attack on a registered party.

Even if independents like de Anda could register, her ability to promote her candidacy would be limited. And the parties, which receive all radio and TV airtime free of charge, have another advantage: money. The eight parties will split more than 3.5 billion pesos in public funding this year.Still, de Anda finds no issue with having strong, well-funded political parties; she only objects to the current electoral rules, which she says violate Article 35 of the Constitution."

Parties are fundamental pillars of our democracy, but they should be the vehicle for citizen participation," de Anda said.

Article 35 states that all citizens have the right to vote and to "be elected." But aspiring independent candidates have been frozen out of the political process in recent years - even though such candidates were common in the first half of the last century.

Discount pharmaceutical baron Víctor González Torres, better known as Dr. Simi, launched an unregistered independent candidacy in early 2006 after the Federal Electoral Tribunal, or Trife, denied him the presidential nomination of the party then known as Alternativa. (It is now called the Social Democratic Party, or PSD.) Even with his vast personal resources, Dr. Simi failed to make much of an impact; it's unknown how many people wrote his name on the ballot.

More prominently, former Foreign Relations Secretary Jorge Castañeda attempted to run as an independent candidate in the 2006 presidential election. The IFE denied his request in 2004, so he petitioned the Supreme Court for an injunction known as an "amparo" against parts of the electoral code. The Supreme Court ruled against him, saying, in part, that it lacked jurisdiction to rule on the matter.

Castañeda ended up without his desired candidacy in 2006, but he took his case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is based in Costa Rica. The court ruled last summer that his rights had been violated, but, according to a Foreign Relations Secretariat press release, the court also said that the 2007 electoral reforms had rectified some of his initial grievances.

Still, the court asked that some laws be modified to clarify jurisdictional issues on the subject of independent candidacies and that Castañeda receive compensation for his legal expenses. No laws have been modified since the ruling, and Castañeda told reporters in January that he was still awaiting compensation.

De Anda says that she has not been in contact with Castañeda and has found some faults with his legal strategy of pursuing an amparo. Instead, she has taken her case to the Trife, which acts as a final referee in political and electoral matters."

For the first time, the electoral tribunal is going to have to rule if the [electoral code] is violating a constitutional or human right, than any of us can be voted for," she said.

Analysts differ on de Anda's prospects for success. ITAM's Weldon has his doubts because the Constitution also gives rights to political parties and the nature of the tribunal, which only adjudicates electoral and political matters and interprets the electoral code. "They're really not supposed to make major constitutional decisions," Weldon said.

15 May 2009

Mining union rocked by dissent



The nation's mine and metalworkers union on Thursday announced the five-year suspension of a former political affairs director and two state-level directors for "treasonous acts" that threatened the leadership of its exiled secretary-general Napoleón Gómez Urrutia.

The union's National Executive Committee, or CEN, branded former political affairs director Carlos Pavón - the union's ex-spokesman and previously the most vocal defender of Gómez Urrutia - and the state directors in Chihuahua and Zacatecas as "traitors" for supposedly using money from mining companies to organize meetings in an attempt to split the labor organization. Pavón was also accused of having cozy relations with officials from the Labor Secretariat and mining giant Grupo México.

Union spokesman Juan Luis Zuñiga failed to provide proof of the allegations at a Thursday press conference, but said that "sources" inside of unnamed firms provided the information. Zuñiga called Pavón's supposed actions "an attempt to destroy the union from within."

Pavón has denied any disloyalty and has demanded the union back up its charges. But in an interview earlier this week with El Financiero he acknowledged having had differences with his former union colleagues, whom he accused of putting the interests of Gómez Urrutia and the union boss' political and legal struggle ahead of the interests of miners.

He called Gómez Urrutia, who has been residing in Canada in self-imposed exile for more than two years, "a burden on the union."

The purge reflects the ongoing dissent over Gómez Urrutia's leadership that threatens to tear the labor organization apart. It also follows a string of unfavorable court rulings, the arrests of senior officials - including Pavón, who was charged with fraud - and the filing of a petition to have Gómez Urrutia sent back to Mexico to face fraud and embezzlement charges pertaining to the management of a $55 million trust fund. He denies the charges.

Chapters in Chihuahua have already broken away from the union, which Pavón says is cash-strapped and being asphyxiated due to the government freezing its assets.

The miners also have lost battles with the Labor Secretariat over the leadership of Gómez Urrutia, whose authority it refuses to recognize - and a 20-month strike at a Grupo México copper mine in Cananea, Sonora.

Gómez Urrutia has long accused the federal government of attacking both him and the union at the behest of Grupo México. Grupo México has rejected those assertions.

According to labor expert Aldo Muñoz at the Universidad Iberoamericana, the struggle between Gómez Urrutia and Grupo México dates back to earlier this decade, when Gómez Urrutia inherited the union from his father and began winning large contracts for his members that mining companies found objectionable.

The federal government developed a dislike for Gómez Urrutia after he helped derail possible labor reforms, Muñoz said.

He said he expects the union-government struggle to continue for about a year or maybe longer. But eventually, he said, "It's most likely that [the government] will twist the union's arm. It's a very unfair fight."

07 May 2009

Are rules about flu illegitimate?


Most campaigns called off large rallies due to the flu outbreak, but not AMLO, who is receiving IFE scrutiny for this gathering in Tabasco ...

The News

Andrés Manuel López Obrador hit the campaign trail on Wednesday, holding rallies that appeared to violate recommendations issued by the Health Secretariat regarding large public gatherings.

The Web site of López Obrador's "legitimate government" reported that 2,000 followers attended an event in Tamulté de las Sabanas, Tabasco, where the left-wing firebrand politicized the flu issue, pressed the flesh and opted not to wear a mask.

"The usurper government has abandoned the people and for that simple reason, these epidemics affect the Mexican population," López Obrador said. President Felipe Calderón, he added, "Alarmed people through the media and spread fear among Mexicans."

By convening campaign events this week in Tabasco and Chiapas and blaming the federal government for the impact of flu outbreak, López Obrador is once again courting controversy with electoral officials, political rivals and even members of his own Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD.

The Health Secretariat has established rules for campaigns: no large gatherings and only small events, to be held between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. But López Obrador brushed off suggestions from reporters that he was being reckless during a health crisis, telling them, "I only came to pass out pamphlets."

The rules may not technically apply, as López Obrador is not actually running in the July 5 midterm elections that will renew the 500-seat Chamber of Deputies and see municipal and gubernatorial changes. Instead, he plans to hold rallies and broadcast advertisements across the country - except in Mexico City and Tabasco, from which he hails - for candidates from the Labor Party/Convergence party coalition known as Let's Save Mexico.

In the capital and Tabasco, he plans to campaign on behalf of the PRD.

César Yáñez, a spokesman for López Obrador, told The News earlier this week that the current campaign was launched to ensure that the coalition parties win at least 2 percent support, enough to maintain registration with the Federal Electoral Institute, or IFE, and ensure subsidies of more than 1 billion pesos over the next three years.

06 May 2009

Ebrard says he'll work with Calderón on flu

The News

Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard said Tuesday that he would continue working with President Felipe Calderón during the flu outbreak, but cautioned that future cooperation with an administration he considers to have been illegitimately elected would be limited.

On Monday, the left-wing mayor stepped into Los Pinos for the first time since he and Calderón both took office in December 2006, attending a meeting on the flu with the president and the nation's 31 governors. Unlike his counterparts, Ebrard wore a face mask and gloves.

Ebrard - who has faced criticism for putting partisan interests and loyalties to Andrés Manuel López Obrador ahead of the needs of the capital, among other things - defended his trip to Los Pinos.

"What I'm doing is being responsible with respect to my role as head of the Mexico City government," Ebrard told El Universal. "It's clear that in many areas we [already] have been seeking relationships [with Los Pinos]."

Most pundits welcomed the thawing of relations, however. El Universal columnist Ricardo Alemán simply suggested such a diplomatic move should have come sooner. "The Mexico City mayor acted as he should have acted since the beginning of his government: as a statesman," he wrote on Tuesday.

Ebrard previously appeared at a security summit last summer with the president and governors. However, he has largely skipped any joint appearances with President Calderón.

Ebrard has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate for 2012, but has downplayed those suggestions. His most probable rival for the PRD nomination, López Obrador, told W Radio on Tuesday that "whoever is in the best position" would be the candidate. López Obrador used the radio interview to criticize Calderón for lacking a flu outbreak strategy and "arousing fear."

López Obrador also announced plans to campaign for his preferred candidates this week in Tabasco and Chiapas. Spokesman César Yañez said the events would be low-key - and not involve large crowds, as per Health Secretariat recommendations.

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.

04 May 2009

Flu makes normally bustling Mexico City fall quiet


By David Agren, For Canwest News Service

MEXICO CITY — With nothing more than his bare hands, trash collector Felipe Reyes sifts through household waste in the back of a garbage truck, including kitchen scraps and soiled toilet paper, six days a week. He searches for valuables and recyclables, such as cans and bottles, that can be resold. And he hardly ever falls ill, Reyes boasts. But he recently started wearing a mask to avoid catching swine flu, which he considers far more dangerous than anything lurking in the tons of trash his truck hauls off to an overflowing landfill run by the mafia.

“We have more defences against what’s in here than the flu,” he said after removing his mask to puff on a Marlboro cigarette.

“The flu,” he added, “rather scares me.”

Reyes is hardly the only one taking extra precautions in this city of more than 20 million inhabitants, where the flu outbreak has forced authorities to cancel classes, limit restaurants to offering just takeout service, and urge all non-essential businesses to stay closed until May 6. Authorities also called on residents to stay home and forgo decamping the city for traditional Labour Day (or May Day) weekend getaways to Acapulco.

Residents have largely complied, although some in the Mexican capital have taken advantage of the tranquillity and unusually clear skies to ride bicycles, rollerblade, and jog down streets normally clogged by inattentive drivers.

Many prominent institutions and organizations have also complied with orders to avoid convening large public gatherings. Some unions called off their May 1 marches, political parties suspended campaign inaugurations for the summer midterm elections, and the Archdiocese of Mexico City cancelled Sunday Mass across the region. Even cabbies in their ubiquitous Volkswagen taxis were seen wearing masks and latex gloves.

The high rate of compliance with the suggestions from government officials failed to surprise pollster Dan Lund of the Mund Group in Mexico City, who studies Mexican social values.

“This isn’t people obeying the government. It’s that they’re afraid, and what’s being suggested to them makes sense,” he said.

Still, some signs of normalcy were visible. The subway is operating on schedule, grocery and department stores are brimming with merchandise — except for some shortages of masks and hand sanitizer — and garbage is being collected, even on Sundays.

The usual stream of bad news so prevalent before the outbreak also has kept flowing. Prisoners rioted in a Mexico City holding facility, supposedly over a disputed soccer game, punks clashed with cops in the annual May 1 demonstrations, and renegade sections of the teachers’ union protested pension changes and an education reform package that would strip them of the right to sell or bequeath their jobs upon retiring.

Congress also ended its regular legislative period on April 30 by convening sessions marked by lawmakers wearing masks, while voting and staging photo-ops that involved eating pork tacos to prove pork consumption was safe.

“The reputation of politicians is terrible, and now with us being masked, it’s going to get even worse,” quipped lawmaker Gerardo Priego of the governing National Action Party.

On a more serious note, the lawmaker called for authorities to use the outbreak as an opportunity to “decongest” the capital by moving parts of the federal government out of disaster-prone Mexico City, which so dominates national life, trips there are necessary to carry out routine bureaucratic procedures.

But disasters are nothing new for Mexico City, which has been flooded, hit by pandemics, and rocked by earthquakes since its founding in 1325 on a series of lakes in a high-altitude valley.

And the current flu outbreak comes as the country suffers through a wave of violence that has claimed more than 10,000 lives since President Felipe Calderon declared war on narcotics-trafficking cartels in December 2006. The economy has also slumped in recent months, causing the peso to tumble and prices for staples such as food and fuel to soar.

Still, many residents seemed to take the latest outbreak in stride.

“We’re a society that’s used to catastrophes,” said pharmaceutical company employee America Vega, while jogging through a popular tree nursery in the Coyoacan borough.

Others refused to believe the severity of the outbreak, including soft drink and cigarette vendor Maria Bautista Flores, who compared the current panic to the mythical “chupacabras” that terrorized rural Mexico in the mid-1990s through tales of an alien creature snatching goats and sheep.

Cab driver Carlos Gallegos also doubted the severity of the outbreak, saying he only put on a mask to “inspire confidence” in his passengers.

But in Catholic parishes of Mexico City, attendance has dropped by 60 per cent, said the local archdiocese. Church officials also asked the faithful to pray to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the country’s patroness, for intervention. Followers of the Santa Muerte, or Saint Death — a skeletal figure popular in crime-ridden barrios and among those involved in activities such as piracy and kidnapping — also pleaded for intervention and appeared to be complying with government orders to avoid large gatherings.

Alberto Jimenez, who hawks Santa Muerte paraphernalia in a market famed for witchcraft and miracle herbal cures with dubious claims — a 10-herb blend for halting the flu was selling well, according to vendors — said that interest was higher than ever in the death saint, but was still failing to revive his struggling business.

“People have a lot of faith, but they don’t have very much money,” he said.

A lack of money, along with the forced closure of bars and halls used for weddings, has also dented the mariachi business, according to Ney Godinez, who plays a fat base guitar known as the guitarron in a seven-member band.

“This is a pay day and a long weekend. We should be busy,” he said while standing idly in the Plaza Garibaldi, a hub for cantinas-goers and mariachis looking for a gig.

Other destination districts normally bustling with bar and restaurant activity, such as Colonia Condesa, also fell quiet.

A few businesses reported normal sales, however. Convenience-store employees reported normal customer volumes and some larger-than-normal purchases of non-perishable items and bottled water.

Canadian expat entrepreneur Jody Rosen-Spearing, whose Guadalajara-area business sends Mexicans to Canada for education programs, reported having one of his busiest weeks of the year — in spite of the flu outbreak.

“People seem to have confidence that this (outbreak) will end soon,” he said.

Even Felipe Reyes, the trash collector, saw no real effect on his line of work, which involves selling the recyclables and valuables pulled from the garbage.

“The garbage never stops coming,” he said.