Mexico’s Youth Protest a Return to the Past

Every six years, Mexico goes through an extended period of political paroxysm called presidential elections. Campaigns hijack the routines of normal public life, the media are monothematic, political propaganda litters the streets of large cities and remote villages.

In a nation whose history has been marked by caudillos and defined by seventy-one years of one-party rule, presidential elections determine the political future. I’ve witnessed and written on five of them so far. In 1988, when the vote count showed a clear tendency toward victory for center-left candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the computer system “crashed,” interrupting the vote count and enabling the political system to install yet another candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). While in office, the neoliberal reformer Carlos Salinas de Gortari faced two contradictory events that convulsed the nation on the same day—the country’s entry into NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the launching of an indigenous armed uprising.

In 1994, PRI candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated in broad daylight following a major campaign speech. Amid widespread rumors of palace intrigue, a last-minute replacement—Ernesto Zedillo—stepped into office. To this day, the debate over what really happened (and why) fills books and films and shadows the halls of power.

In 2000, Vicente Fox, the candidate of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), broke the PRI stranglehold on power. Although power changed hands formally, Fox ruled six years in a PRI-PAN alliance designed to lock in the neoliberal economic model and keep the Left at bay. Many leftists had promoted a “useful” vote for Fox to end the PRI’s one-party rule. Instead, the country ended up with a new face in government and six more years to consolidate an economic model of, by, and for the rich.

In 2006, electoral fraud won again as the PAN hopeful, Felipe Calderón, was declared the winner over the center-left candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador by a suspect half point. Millions of López Obrador supporters filled the streets for months in protest. Faced with public demands to investigate charges of foul play and specifically to count the ballots, rather than just tally sheets, the electoral courts counted only 9 percent of the ballots. A subsequent study of documentation from roughly half the polling places showed anomalies in the count, casting doubt on more votes than the difference between the two candidates in just the half surveyed. The court confirmed evidence of illegal practices and irregularities in the vote count, but ruled to officially name Calderón the victor.

Mexican elections are never dull.

The 2012 Elections

Then, in 2012, history came full circle. The PRI, stripped of the presidency for twelve years, returned to power in elections marred by accusations of vote-buying, money-launderi...

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