MEXICO ELECTION VIII – Upset still on the cards

Tomorrow, on Sunday 1 July, Mexico will hold a general election. This blog is covering the vote live from inside the country

If you were to use the opinion polls alone to choose a winner then Enrique Peña Nieto would have romped home even before he officially declared his candidacy. But if you look wider and harder it is possible to catch glimpses of hope for those wishing to knock the former Mexico State governor from his perch. Speaking with a woman last night in Jilotepec, she rubbished the telephone polls, saying that she never gave an answer when prompted by a calling pollster because “el voto es libre y secreto”. Her actions flew in the face of her own advice, as she told me of her belief that the parties know who has said what in each house and they “will punish you subtly if you say you will not vote for them, by cutting your electricity for example”.

Another woman I spoke to also wrote off the voter surveys. She is a PRD local activist though, so it does serve her party to maintain the hope that the race is still open and that their presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador or AMLO, can still land Los Pinos tomorrow. But she accused the PRI of ‘acarreando’ its ‘supporters’, and that is an allegation I have heard a few times over the past days, even in the traditionally PRI, or priísta state. ‘Acarrear’ roughly translates as bussing people to your rally to inflate the numbers. In Jilotepec I am told all the PRI gives you in return for being driven to their meetings is ‘a sandwich and a piece of fruit – and the people only go because they want some free food’.

The PRD activist glows as she describes the big campaign closing events of last Wednesday. She says the governing party’s candidate, Josefina Vázquez Mota, filled the 49,000-seater Guadalajara Chivas football stadium of people who attended of their own accord. She denounces Peña Nieto for filling up national Aztec Stadium in Mexico City, which can hold 110,000 people, with ‘supposed supporters who were bussed in for free’. And she then visibly lights up as she recounts the PRD event. AMLO filled the capital’s massive central square and many side roads as well with more than one million people, all still believing that the man affectionately known as ‘Grandpa’ can swipe the presidency from under Peña Nieto’s nose. She firmly denies the PRD would ever ‘acarrear’.

She says many of the protesters in the #YoSoy132 movement have yet to decide who to choose. The activist gets excited by her own calculations – saying that the race is not over and that there could still be one of the biggest surprises in political history tomorrow. However, I found one reservation that some students in Mexico State have about their colleagues and the #YoSoy132 campaign. They are worried that the movement is being manouevred by hidden vested interests working behind the scenes. That may be true; with anti-PRI pro-PRD interests being the most likely to be involved in any such allegations.

But Mexican politics has functioned in a similar way before and even here in such a príista place the actions of the PRI in its 70-year rule as an autocracy – when election results were massaged – are not quickly forgotten. Some quarters see the coronation of Enrique Peña Nieto as imminent and inevitable and it is still likely that he will win. But you cannot deny that there is simmering belief that the PRI can be defeated once again, even if such a result is unlikely. Hasta mañana.

MEXICO ELECTION V – ‘I was close to dying too’

On 1 July Mexico will hold a general election. This blog is live in the country covering the vote

It is late morning in Jilotepec, a small town 90 minutes’ drive northwest of the capital, and the daily heat is starting to build. The municipal seat of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is quiet the day after the end of campaigning but there are still a dozen young activists meeting in cool rooms in the flowery quandrangle. The 10ft outside walls which enclose the courtyard are coated with the names of different candidates, painted brightly in the PRI’s colours of red, white and green. The huge neat letters bellow at passers-by that the men and women of the PRI “promise to deliver” and that “Jilotepec is our commitment”.

Inside the party’s town headquarters I speak with José Alberto May Montiel, who is the secretary for electoral action of the PRI’s ‘New Mexico’ youth movement. At 24, he is my age and dressed casually with a baseball cap on to shield his eyes from the bright summer sun. He speaks clearly and calmly about his love for the PRI, the once-dominant party that ruled Mexico as an autocracy for more than 70 years until it lost its parliamentary majority and the presidency in 1997 and 2000.

One of the concerns I have heard from Mexicans as the PRI has built had large lead in the municipal, state, governor, parliamentary and presidential polls is that the party that would be put back in power by the people has not changed in its twelve years in opposition. They are fears that it is still the PRI of old, when winks, nods and backhand deals allowed it to maintain itself in power for decades and get rid of any opposition to its one-party rule. José Alberto admits that the PRI of the past “was bad and there was corruption” but he is iron-firm in his belief that the party has cleaned up its image, got rid of all the old problems and has a fresh, youthful team to lead it back into power.

But what will the PRI do when it gets there? José Alberto says the most important issue is to improve the education system and then to get more Mexicans into jobs. And he says this is how Enrique Peña Nieto is going to combat the appalling violence across the country. He cannot find words enough to condemn the policies of outgoing president, Felipe Calderón, of the National Action Party (PAN), who deployed the Mexican armed forces to fight the gangsters. The PRI activist assures me that Peña Nieto would use “more subtle tactics, such as educating the people better and providing gainful employment” to tempt the gang members away from a life of crime. But these are long-term policies: what does he suggest now? “There is no immediate solution” he confesses.

He tells me that the government knows where Joaquín ‘Chapo’ (Shorty) Guzmán is. The most-wanted drug lord in the world, who heads up the powerful Sinaloa organisation, escaped from prison in 2001 and José Alberto is convinced that the PAN, which was in power at the time, facilitated the laughable prison break in which Guzmán made off hidden in a laundry basket.

He closes by recounting a chilling tale from 2010 when Rodolfo Torre Cantú, PRI candidate for governor in the northern state of Tamaulipas, was shot dead alongside two of his advisers. José Alberto was working on Torre Cantú’s campaign and was travelling in the convoy that was attacked by armed men. He tells me of the frightening ambush and looks at me straight in the eye to say “I was close to dying too that day”. Once again, he is certain that it was not a simple gangster attack and he accuses the police of being involved at some level. His happiness from earlier fades slightly and with a huge poster of Enrique Peña Nieto behind him, his gaze ahead suggests that he realises on a very personal level that size of the task facing his beloved candidate to try to bring some semblance of calm back to the streets of his country. But he is sure that the PRI has changed itself and can change Mexico as well if it wins power again this Sunday.

MEXICO ELECTION III – The 132 countdown

On 1 July Mexico will hold a general election. This blog will cover the vote live from inside the country. This is the third build-up post; click here for the first article and here for the second

On 19 June the student protest movement, known as #YoSoy132, held an unofficial third presidential debate. This has never occurred before and showed the power of youth co-ordination. Thousands of students have been rallying and demonstrating during these closing weeks of the long presidential campaign, calling for change and publicising their discontent with modern, sheltered politicians, a perceived lack of honest concern for the ordinary Mexican and ongoing links with the shadier side of politics. As explained in the previous MEXICO ELECTION post, the ’132′ is designed to stand for any person who allies themselves with the sense of dissatisfaction more widely (Chilean student leader Camila Vallejo addressed a ‘132’ concert in Mexico City recently) but particularly those who are rebelling against the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and their likely winner in the presidential race, Enrique Peña Nieto.

The former Mexico State governor declined to take part in last week’s debate, and his absence was represented by an empty chair. The three other presidential candidates, PAN’s Josefina Vázquez Mota, the PRD’s Andrés López Manuel Obrador and PANAL’s Gabriel Quadri de la Torre, answered questions vetted by students. There is growing support for the political dissatisfaction and desires for change embodied by the movement but while it could be said that Peña Nieto was out-of-touch and complacent not to feel the need to turn up to the debate, it is also true that the atmosphere was already skewed against him and his policies.

It is a sticky situation for all concerned:

– the students want a new politics to come to the fore and rightfully want more openness, less winking and nodding to vested interests and clear, truthful policies that start at the bottom and work up, not the other way around.

– the politicians each desire and support different ideas: Enrique Peña Nieto is fighting against the corrupt memories his party stirs up but is leading the race by a mile and offers a youthful, populist replacement; Josefina Vázquez Mota, the government’s candidate, is stained by her predecessor’s messy deployment of the military to battle the gangsters and the continuing violence; Andrés Manuel López Obrador is still criticised for the mass demonstrations he led that crippled the capital in the months after he lost the 2006 presidential race by 0.5%; and Gabriel Quadri de la Torre is fighting respectfully but fruitlessly against the other three political giants with his small coalition.

– the people are embittered by many issues, especially the brutality visited upon them by the ongoing battle of ‘gangsters v armed forces v gangsters v police’ and the chaotic gap between the US-educated elite and the (often) indigenous language-speaking rural poor.

Mexico recently hosted the G20 summit and is building on its position as one of the top economies in the world. It is a regional leader and second only to Brazil in Latin American influence. It is a big, powerful country that is tearing itself up internally at the moment. The countdown to Sunday’s election has begun and there will be widespread celebrations if Enrique Peña Nieto wins. There will also be popular discontent and the student protests will probably grow. Not all 115m Mexicans will vote for the PRI but they will all remember the 70 years of uninterrupted power the party once enjoyed. Mr Peña Nieto must try to build on his words of ‘transparency and clarity’ and bring a sense of security to the country. If he does win he will not be able to relax: there are now campuses full of restless students examining his every move.

Impeaching the president of Paraguay

Fernando Lugo has been thrown out of office over a bungled land dispute which left 17 people dead

On June 15 the army was deployed to try to settle a land ownership dispute. The soldiers arrived at a remote reserve north of the capital, Asunción, on a mission to restore order and halt violence between police and farmers who had occupied the estate. In total, 17 people were killed, of whom seven were police officers. President Lugo agreed to get rid of his interior minister and head of police but overall, the leader’s response to the rural violence was criticised for not being quick enough but he has strongly denounced calls that he was politically responsible for the deaths.

Moreover, his general handling of rural unrest in the longer-term was questioned and Lugo has firmly denied any links to the left-wing Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP) which has carried out guerrilla attacks on some village police stations. The general flavour of the whole debate soured and the opposition Colorado Party saw a chance really to twist the knife on Fernando Lugo and cultivated support amongst member’s of Lugo’s coalition in order to secure the confidence vote.

On Friday 22 the Paraguayan Senate ruled by 39 votes to 4 to give Mr Lugo the boot, following a 73-1 majority in the lower house in favour of the impeachment. But just as the senators in Asunción were quick to send the president on his way, governments across the region were quick to condemn the decision and announce their refusal to recognise the new leader.

Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela all denounced the ruling as a ‘covered-up coup’ with the Ecuadorian leader, Rafael Correa, calling the decision “absolutely illegitimate”. Argentina and Brazil have recalled their ambassadors. However, the Paraguayan army has accepted the ruling and the vice-president, Federico Franco, has been formally sworn in as the interim leader until the next set of presidential elections next year. There is no re-election in the small, land-locked, South American state but it is so far unclear whether Franco will stand or will be allowed to stand, given the unusual circumstances of his promotion.

For his part, outgoing president Lugo spoke soon after the ruling:

“Today it isn’t Fernando Lugo who took a hit, it’s Paraguay’s history, her democracy, which has been profoundly wounded… although this has been twisted like a fragile branch in the wind, I submit myself to the decision of Congress. I would like to thank all Paraguayans who stood by me”.

Lugo should be praised for stepping aside so assuredly even though he wholeheartedly rejects any allegation of misconduct in his public office. He called the ruling “unjust” and says he has stepped aside ‘in the name of peace’. The removal of a president is often a messy process, as we are witnessing in the Middle East at the moment and as we saw in Honduras a couple of years ago when President Zelaya was flown out of the country in the middle of the night by the army.

Sometimes having a pop at the politician in the top job can be nearly impossible, as they surround and cover themselves in hidden documents, spin doctors, closed doors and parliamentary privilege. But on other occasions a president or prime minister suffers a blink-and-you-will-miss-it dismissal. The political process this time round in Paraguay was worryingly swift but regional instability could simmer for longer.

MEXICO ELECTION II – One last hurdle for PRI

On 1 July Mexico will hold a general election. This blog will cover the vote live from inside the country. This is the second build-up post; click here for the first article

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) governs 20 of Mexico’s 32 states. It has 48% of the seats in the lower house of Congress and has the second-biggest number of senators. In the latest presidential poll, published today for national daily Reforma, its hot-seat candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, had a comfortable 12-point lead over his nearest rival. Ever since the 1997 general election when the PRI lost its lower-house majority for the first time and the 2000 presidential vote, when they relinquished the top job as well, the political behemoth has been chipping away at the opposition in an incessant aim to reclaim its position at the head of Mexican politics. And now it is on the verge of sitting astride the national eagle once again.

But it is not just the survey out today that seems to show the the PRI juggernaut is heading unstoppably back to the top of the country. Enrique Peña Nieto was winning the polls even before he declared his candidacy and has held double-digit leads for many months. But despite the seeming inevitability about the PRI’s return to the steering-wheel, it has not been a problem-free drive. There have been widespread student protests against what is perceived to be Peña Nieto’s backing for big business and media interests and a lack of empathy with the ordinary Mexican on the street.

In fact, tonight the #YoSoy132 movement is holding an unofficial third presidential debate. The campaign has its roots in 131 students at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City who heckled Peña Nieto at a conference. The politician accused them of being “manipulated youth from outside the university” but the demonstrators do actually all study at the institution and showed off their matriculation documents in a video response. The ‘132’ is designed to reflect all other Mexicans who are dissatisfied with the former Mexico State governor. The anti-PRI fervour has been inflamed again as Enrique Peña Nieto has declined to take part in tonight’s debate, leaving the three other presidential candidates, PAN’s Josefina Vázquez Mota, the PRD’s Andrés López Manuel Obrador and PANAL’s Gabriel Quadri de la Torre, to battle it out without the favourite in the race.

This is not the first controversial coming together the candidates have had on the campaign trail and the first debate between the four of them was overshadowed when the production team selected a well-endowed model to help the politicians choose who got to speak first. But the two debates they have had were lacklustre. In the most recent one, on 10 June in Guadalajara, the student protests – which could have been a real problem for Peña Nieto – were not raised by the opposing candidates when they could have been tapped into to heap more pressure on the PRI man. Instead, he floated through without entering into any damaging mud-slinging.

Mexico is on the international stage at the moment as it hosts the annual G20 summit during its year as the head nation of the bloc. But far away from the global chit-chat in the beautiful resort of Los Cabos, the stage has been set for a very different kind of summit: an unplanned, student-led debate with the contenders for the top job. And Enrique Peña Nieto has decided not to show, giving himself an unnecessary hurdle on his coast towards power, when he could have seized the opportunity and really given his supporters a political belief to cherish, not just a telegenic smile to accept passively.

Scrapping over Scarborough and Spratly

The US avoids wading in too deeply to the South China Sea maritime disputes

On Friday 8 June, Barack Obama welcomed Philippine president Benigno Aquino to the White House for talks on wide range of issues. There is much to link the two countries, which were one pretty much part of the same nation following the US annexation of the archipelago from 1898-1946. There are economic ties, linguistic ties and, importantly, military ties, (although they are a bit topsy-turvy). Manila often buys warships from Washington and the US Pacific patrols keep a watchful eye on what is going in the South China Sea region but in 1992 the Philippines booted the Americans out of their Subic Bay naval base.

Yesterday the US agreed to help out on another level: maritime surveillance. The Philippines are going to receive American aid to establish a National Coast Watch Centre, which seems, on the surface, an unassuming gesture between two oceanic friends. The Philippines certainly has a lot of coastline to guard as it is composed of more than 7,000 islands. There are also two collections of rocks, islets and reefs in the South China Sea that Manila would like some more assistance inspecting: Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands.

And it is on this issue that the US support for setting up a National Coast Watch Centre takes on a new twist: China also covets the two archipelagoes. There are large oil and gas reserves underneath the coral and Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei are also making nationalist noises over ownership of the remote rocks. But Washington is wary of sticking its oar in too deeply into the choppy South China Sea waters. Beijing is adamant it is in the clear and has been deploying navy boats to ward off errant fishermen. Manila is seeking support for those very sea-goers, who believe they are trawling their own, Philippine waters. The Spratly Islands are in a triangle of proximity to the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei but are much nearer to Filipino land than anybody else. Despite this China bellows its claims and is far more than the regional power. It is a global player and the US is being very cautious with what help is openly offers to Manila.

The Philippines and China seem still to be at a stage where a resolution to the dispute could be reached peacefully but relations are deteriorating. Last week there were reports of another kidnapping by suspected Islamist extremists in the south of the Philippines. This time the abductors, who the military believe to have links to al-Qaeda, grabbed two Chinese iron ore traders. There was little reported evidence to suggest that the kidnappings had anything to do at all with the maritime disputes taking place far away in the seas to the west but it was another hurdle for Beijing and Manila to navigate.

There are half a dozen sovereign states battling for control of Scarborough Shoal and the Spratlys and Beijing is angling for bilateral meetings to debate the issues. The smaller countries on the shores of the South China Sea much prefer multilateral discussions. One player that is only dipping its feet in the water at the moment is the US, carefully offering low-level support and calling for urgent talks to avoid escalating the tension. But while the type of summits are sorted out, the contested fishing, naval patrolling and flag-waving will continue through the multiple claims to the multiple cayes, shoals, reefs and rocks in the region.

Triumph of a people

Danilo Medina has been elected as the new president of the Dominican Republic

“More than the triumph of a man, of a party or of a colour, this is the triumph of a people.”

These are the words of the new leader, employing the usual Latin power oratory to celebrate winning the contest that took place at the end of last month.

“I am not on an electoral campaign, I am building a dream.

We have chosen to change the present and design a better future for our children, one in which all Dominicans, at home and abroad, will feel proud of, having been born on this beautiful island.”

But has the present really been changed? This is Medina’s first shot at the big-time, having been beaten to the top job in 2000 by the man he saw off this time, Hipólito Mejía. But whilst the face may have changed, the body has not, as Medina was the candidate from the governing Dominican Liberation Party (PLD). Outgoing president Leonel Fernández has been supported internationally, especially by the United States, and the many foreign investors in the country will be eager to see Fernández’ legacy continued. The leaving president has certainly written his name into the history books, as he was the first politician from the PLD to win a free presidential election and has been in charge for three terms (1996-2000, and 2004-12).

Danilo Medina campaigned on a string of promises, ranging from “creating 400,000 decent jobs in the next four years” to “kick-starting a new model of public investment that will bring progress to the most lowly in our society”. Can he really build such a dream? Domestic aims, such as “unleashing a merciless war against unemployment” were popular on the campaign trail but will be hard to accomplish in their entirety. Rising crime is a growing issue on the island and Medina has intimated that criminality is growing from a listless youth, something he wants to get rid of by getting the young to participate in the ‘energy and progress of the country’.

The election was not problem-free and Medina’s rival Hipólito Mejía, who served as president from 2000-2004, complained about the outcome of the vote, which saw him poll 47% to Medina’s 51%, saying “[the results] are the product of manipulation and an abuse of power”. His would-be vice-president has said that the Dominican Revolutionary Party will table a report detailing alleged incidents of fraud but the Organisation of American States has been pretty pleased with the freedom and fairness of the election.

One issue that did not come up much in the campaign was the problem of the neighbours. Haitians are the largest minority in the Dominican Republic but the relationship between the two countries that share the island of Hispaniola can be rocky. The former French colony is the more impoverished of the two by a clear margin and is still recovering from 2010’s earthquake. Dominicans are wary of any destabilising effects that Haitian problems could provoke in their own half of the island.

A stable economy is important not just to Santo Domingo but to the region and wider interests, such as the US. But it is hard to try to balance parochial protectionism with altruistic development support. At the moment, the bombastic rhetoric of the traditional Latin president may suffice. La república is doing well; whether this new president can sustain the charge in the face of unruly neighbours, rising regional crime and global economic unrest will be a serious challenge. As Dilma knows in Brazil, inheriting your predecessor’s similar party political footsteps is the easy part. Trying to slip into them and carve out your own path at the same time is more difficult.