Buenos Aires Times

Mexico’s earthquakes aren’t only seismic, they’re political too

The rapid and organised public reflexes in the rescue of victims after both earthquakes exposed the inefficiency and corruption of the political and ruling classes. Every time they sought to draw political dividends from the disaster, the politicians were rejected by civil society.

Saturday 7 October, 2017
A view of a street in the eastern area of Mexico City, the morning after a powerful 8.2-magnitude earthquake struck the country.
A view of a street in the eastern area of Mexico City, the morning after a powerful 8.2-magnitude earthquake struck the country. Foto:AFP.

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One could dig all sorts of “LatAm vignettes” out of recent news such as Donald Trump’s paper tissue ultimata to Puerto Rico or the mess with  his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (is everything OK in that corner?) or the abrupt diplomatic decision taken by Washington against Cuba due to  the induced deafness (talk about a dialogue between the deaf) or dedicate this column to the latest ravages of the Odebrecht scandal (with  Ecuador’s veep this week’s victim) or this region’s reactions to Catalonia spiralling out of control.

But this columnist has opted for Mexico (the most populous Spanish-speaking country in the Americas, and indeed the world) and the long- suffering neighbour of the Twitter president with the yellowish hairdo. Mexico matters because, along with Brazil, it will be one of the two  regional giants electing a new president next year amidst deep political and economic uncertainty. The candidates for the Mexican elections,  scheduled for July 1, have yet to be defined with the traditional parties in crisis and a disillusioned citizenry, surely signalling the path to be taken  in late October by Brazil, the region’s most populous country.

Last month featured two very painful dates for Mexico: the earthquake of September 7 (8.2 degrees on the Richter scale) and the aftershock of  September 19 (7.1). But along with the loss of some 500 lives and billions of pesos in material damage, another seismic fault has emerged from  the rubble – the scorn shown by civil society towards Mexico’s political class. A rift in representation which sends alarm-bells ringing for  governability.

This phenomenon is nothing new in Latin America. Here in Argentina at the dawn of the millennium we had “Begone with them all (the politicians)” as a furious reaction to default and the corralito bank freeze – in Brazil that mentality is already firmly installed with saucepanbashing marches where disillusioned citizens yell their rejection of politicians as the details of the Lava Jato and Odebrecht corruption scandals are  exposed in ever greater detail. Returning to Mexico, the rapid and organised public reflexes (especially among the millennials) in the rescue of  victims after both earthquakes exposed the inefficiency and corruption of the political and ruling classes. Every time they sought to draw political or electoral dividends from the disaster, the politicians were rejected by civil society.

Although (and this is generally recognised by Mexicans) the state, the Army and civil defence organisations were better prepared this year to  respond to the earthquakes than in 1985 (which also struck in that fatal month of September), civic rejection escalated when it emerged that over  2,000 of the buildings damaged or destroyed had been constructed after 1985 in the ensuing real-estate boom when anti-seismic regulations and  controls were supposedly in place. The thermometer of rage peaked when it became known that all the work inspection registers kept in the  Urban and Housing Development Department had conveniently disappeared with the earthquake.

In the face of the clamour in the streets, the ruling PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) party, which spent only 12 years out of power in  the last century, proposed a constitutional amendment to redirect state funds destined for electoral campaigns to reconstruction following the  earthquakes. A mere political gesture, for there was no time for it to advance in Congress. That was not the only reaction in the opinion poll  disapproval of “PRIAN,” as the Mexicans dub their two traditional parties, the centrist PRI and the conservative PAN (PartidoAcción Nacional).  Some weeks previously, PRI for the first time in its history had opened up its presidential race to an outsider in the search for new blood for a  party DNA eroded above all by the bad image of outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto (with 17 percent approval and 72 percent rejection). 

The favourite of the business and “PRIAN” establishment is José “Pepe” Meade, the current finance minister who was previously Peña Nieto’s  foreign minister and who headed both the energy and economy portfolios in the preceding Felipe Calderón (PAN) administration (2006-12). Also  in the presidential running are Education Minister Aurelio Nuño and Health Minister José Narro (a real outsider). Across the aisle, in PAN,  Calderón’s wife Margarita Zavalais competing with Rodrigo Anaya for their party’s presidential candidacy. Mexican pundits describe this race as a fight to the death” but the US$64-million question is whether the Aztec country (where re-election is constitutionally banned) is ready for a  woman and the wife of an ex-president to boot.

Will she prove to be a CFK or a Hillary Clinton? But beyond doubt the most interesting hopeful to follow is the frontrunner for the last several  months, the leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who was the runner-up in the last two presidential elections. He is now running under the party label of MORENA (National Regeneration Movement), which he founded in 2014 after emigrating from the centre-left PRD  (Revolutionary Democratic Party). The most recent El Universal opinion poll placed MORENA in front with 23 percent, followed by PAN with 20 percent and PRI trailing in third on 16 percent.

Pundits describe the current situation as political unpredictability and a crisis of governability with less than nine months to go before the general elections on July 1, 2018, when a president, 128 senators, 500 deputies and 10 governors (including Mexico City) will all be elected.  Everything  will be decided on that day since there is no run-off and the winner is the candidate with the most votes. Both PRI and PAN are therefore banking on two factors: fragmentation of the vote and alliances. That is why independent candidates are being permitted to register for the first time (with  no party label but only the collection of a requisite number of signatures – the journalist Pedro Ferris de Con is already registered, for example).  Two electoral coalitions have already been assembled – the Civic Front (linking up PAN, PRD and the Movimiento Ciudadano) and the MORENA- PT (Partido del Trabajo) alliance while PRI have yet to team up with the Green Party.

Today, López Obrador emerges as the most attractive  candidate. A former Mexico City mayor, AMLO has a profile similar to Luiz Inácio Lula da  ilva, in the sense of being a tenacious contender for the presidency (like Lula who was elected on his third attempt, third time lucky?). But in  order to face the coalitions being assembled by both PRI and PAN, he will need, above all, to tone down his rhetoric and move it more toward the centrist mainstream. Mexicans cannot forget that AMLO championed Hugo Chávez, has been Trump’s bitterest critic and has proposed reversing  the privatisation of Pemex, Mexico’s oil giant.

It has to be remembered that both Lula and Dilma Rousseff subsequently, together with Peru’s Ollanta Humala or even CFK in 2007, won  because their campaigns knew how to respond to the demands of the mainstream voter, sweetening their narratives and proposals. A lot could  happen in Mexico between now and next July 1 but for now the picture resembles Argentina in 2003, when with political representation in crisis,  a candidate with barely 22 percent of the vote conquered the presidency.


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