Thursday, September 7, 2006

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When is it a civic uprising and when is it populism run amok?

During the eighties there was a raging ideological debate within the United States about which regime was more brutal and/or repressive, El Salvador or Nicaragua. It was impossible to condemn or support both governments -- the ideological divide was too strong.

I bring this up because there's an interesting contrast to make between developments in Mexico and Bolivia. In the former country, James C. McKinley offers a sympathetic explanation in the New York Times for why Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been able to keep a third of the country mobilized behind him:

[W]hy do between a quarter and a third of voters, according to recent opinion polls, agree with him?

One reason is history. After decades of one-party rule sustained by fraudulent elections, many Mexicans still deeply distrust their institutions and courts. But it is also because Mexicans have a very different notion of electoral fraud than voters in the United States, a notion that goes beyond stuffing ballot boxes....

For instance, most of Mr. López Obrador’s supporters complain bitterly about the “intervention” of President Fox in the election. They talk about “a state election” and the “imposition” of the candidate from Mr. Fox’s conservative party, Felipe Calderón, whom the electoral tribunal finally proclaimed president-elect on Tuesday.

There is no doubt that Mr. Fox used his position as president and his official tours to campaign vigorously against Mr. López Obrador. Though he never mentioned the leftist candidate by name, he used code words for him, railing against populism, demagogy and false messiahs....

The magistrates’ decision not to see the errors on tally sheets as evidence of fraud has fed suspicions that the court cannot be trusted, a theory that Mr. López Obrador reiterates in every speech and which is fortified by the country’s long history of corrupt judges, though no proof has been presented.

Mr. López Obrador’s followers also have no confidence in the Federal Electoral Institute, which organized the election. In October 2003, when congressional leaders were making deals to appoint new members to the institute’s governing board, Mr. López Obrador’s party was shut out. Since then the leftists have regarded just about every decision the electoral institute makes with suspicion.

In the end, the court ruling may have put Mr. Calderón in the president’s office, but it has not dispelled feelings among Mr. López Obrador’s supporters that they were robbed. “What more proof do you need?” said one López Obrador supporter, Enrique Ramírez, after the ruling. “At his rallies, Andrés Manuel has given us the proof of fraud, and we believe him, or at least I do.”

Mr. López Obrador is now calling for a “national convention” this month to mount a civil disobedience campaign to “re-found the republic” and reform “institutions that don’t deserve any respect.”

How far the movement can go and whether it can remain peaceful remains to be seen and may depend on how deep the suspicions of fraud, as seen in Mexico, run.

What is sure is that Mr. López Obrador has defined himself for many voters as the candidate who lost the election, not through his own errors but because the entire apparatus of the state was against him. That is an old tune in Mexico, one that many know the words to.

Depending on my readers' political inclinations, I have every confidence that they know whether they side with Calderón or Obrador.

Now, we come to Bolivia, where there's a similar problem but the politics are reversed. Hal Weitzman explains in the Financial Times:

Bolivia’s regional and social divisions may be deepened by allegations that President Evo Morales is seeking to dominate an assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution.

Four of the country’s nine departments have called a general strike for Friday in protest over proposals by Mr Morales’s allies in the Constituent Assembly to change the rules for voting within the body.

The legislation passed by Bolivia’s Congress to establish the assembly specified that constitutional measures could be approved only with a two-thirds majority of the delegates. The governing Movement to Socialism (MAS) party wants to lower the limit to allow proposals to pass with a simple majority.

The MAS controls 137 seats in the 255-seat body, short of the 170 votes it would need to have two-thirds of the assembly’s votes. Opposition parties say the proposed change in voting rules is a power-grab by what they view as an increasingly authoritarian government.

The general strike has been called by departments in the eastern lowlands, where much of the opposition to Mr Morales is based. The four regions voted in June for greater autonomy from La Paz, and hope to use the assembly to entrench regional devolution in the new constitution. Many activists want to pull out of the assembly if they cannot secure autonomy.

Mr Morales said the strikers “want to divide the country” and warned them he could use troops against civil unrest. “We call on the armed forces to assume their constitutional role to defend sovereignty and the national territory,” he said....

Mr Morales’s approval ratings have fallen from 81 per cent in May to 61 per cent, according to a poll released this week by Apoyo, a respected regional pollster.

My ideological predilections tell me to sympathize with the Bolivians as rejecting the erosion of the rule of law, but to tut-tut López Obrador’s supporters for similar (though not identical) actions.

Question to readers: is there any non-fascist formulation whereby one can sympathize with either both governments or both protest movements?

posted by Dan on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM


Hmm I sympathize with both protest movements in the sense that I support a right to non-violent civil disobedience. I may or may not support the causes they protest for, but I support their right to protest.

posted by: wml on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]

One mistake gringos often make in looking at Latin America is to assume you are looking at Western mindsets like in the US -- except that the countries involved are poor. Close, perhaps, but off the mark enough to cause confusion like in these two examples.

Both Mexico and Bolivia are conquered nations -- and carry the baggage that comes with that. Unlike the US (or even Argentina) where the native populations were decimated to make sure everyone had the same mindset and to "pave the way for progress", Mexico's and Bolivia's indigenous populations survived the conquests and remain a clear but downtrodden majority: in Mexico, only 9% of the population is white, with 90% being either mestizo or amerindian. In Bolivia, whites make up 15% of the population with 85% being Quecha, Aymara (like Morales) or mestizo.

These tend to represent the poor and poorly-educated masses, and guess who runs the place since the time of the conquistadores? Those few white guys who have all the money and education. Mistrust comes from much more than a tradition of corrupt politicians; it flows in their blood. Hence it shouldn't surprise that populists periodically make waves, and that men such as Morales and Lopez Obrador gain popularity. The true natives simply want their land back.

But to contrast for a moment, Lopez Obrador is your stereotypical slimey politico using the people for his own benefit, but Morales is more of an idealist. Perhaps I should say, "was": he is quickly finding that big ideas cannot survive without hard skills (the whole oil/gas nationalization thing is falling apart), and he seems to feel the need to muscle the constitution before his popularity falls too low. I betcha he's thinking he has to break a few eggs to make an omelet.

posted by: St. James the Lesser on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]

A couple of things come to mind.

First of all, in the Bolivian case, the government is acting against the rule of law. In the Mexican case, the protestors are acting against the rule of law. Evo is trying to overthrow the legitimately derived rules of the convention, whereas it's Obrador who seeks to overthrow the electoral rules, which have been followed in the Mexican election.

In both cases, Evo and Obrador wish to overthrow the established rules and procedures because they are in the way of what they want, while the Bolivian protestors and Calderon are in the position of defending the rule of law.

By contrast, the classic teen rebel 'stick it to the man' ideology would back both groups of protestors because the government is always wrong and protestors against it always right. Lots of 60s Hippies took this view.

The previous commentor also pointed out a related approach--a willingness to support civil disobedience could lead one to support both protest groups so long as they remain non-violent.

I can't think of a very non-fascist reason to back both governments against the protestors, though, beyond maybe a pietist withdrawal from the world and obedience to Caesar.

Ultimately, I myself don't trust Evo Morales or Obrador because they're both buddies with Chavez, who has shown he thinks brutal dictators are the best people in the world and must be hugged. (Not joking about the hugging thing, either)

posted by: John Biles on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]

I disagree in part with John Biles. According to Dan's description, in Bolivia the government is not disobeying the law but trying to change it, and the minority party is objecting about the proposed change. I don't see any analogy between the two countries, except that in both there is a minority griping about unfair treatment by the majority. Further, there is an important difference, namely, that the conduct of the Mexican government, while apparently lawful to our "gringo" eyes, is viewed as fraudulent and unlawful by the minority, while the Bolivian majority is viewed simply as dirty S.O.B.s.

As long as both governments are acting lawfully under their countries' laws, it's not hard to "support" both in at least one sense.

posted by: John on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]

Actually, Morales is trying to change the rules about changing the rules in Bolivia, reducing it from a 2/3 vote to a majority vote, enabling him to rewrite the constitution. This is a subversion of the constitutional process in Bolivia. Moreover, by reducing constitutional amendment to majority rule, you are inviting chaos or dictatorship, or both.

posted by: Jay B on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]

As long as both governments are acting lawfully under their countries' laws, it's not hard to "support" both in at least one sense.

...and so long as the protests remain peaceful, it's difficult to object to their right to protest.

What Jay B says about lowering the threshhold for changing a constitution is correct- it is not a good thing for a change to only require a simple majority.

A lot of non-first-world countries seem to have politicans who do not understand that they will not be the majority party indefinitely, and someday, another group will gain control of the levers of power. When that happens, they will be quite tempted to use the power of the majority against the opposition, just as their predecessors did.

Morales and Obrador do not seem to understand this. Obrador, in particular, does not seem to understand that trashing the established order to get into office makes governing far more difficult, as the institutions you attacked to achieve power are the tools you use to get things done once you're there.

posted by: rosignol on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]

One thing about both Mexico and Bolivia that people are ignoring is the problem of history.

In 1988, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the leader of the PRD (Obrador's party) was the victim of massive fraud in the presidential election of Mexico. He almost certainly was fraudulently denied power. People still resent this and remember it, and it is a driving force in this situation. I see no reason why Mexico didn't decide to implement a full recount and spare the country the current trauma. It seems to me that Calderon favors power over legitimacy or social peace. If there had been a full recount and if necessary a new election with stringent oversight, the people would have accepted the results, whatever they might have been. Now, at least a third of the country no longer believes that its vote will be counted, and it is difficult for a democracy to survive under such conditions.

The same thing could be said of Morales, who is driving the country toward confrontation because he sees it as the only way to break the stranglehold of the white elites in Bolivia. I think he is wrong about this, and is also unnecessarily risking the country over his pursuit of power.

So I think it is definitely possible to sympathize with both protest movements. One needs to move away from this view of "capitalists good, socialists bad" or "American puppets good, American opponents bad". Ideology is not the only way to view these things.

posted by: franck on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]

What about moving away from "capitalists bad, socialists good" and "American puppets bad, American opponents good"?

Heaven knows those attitudes are a lot more common south of the Rio Grande than the ones you describe.

posted by: rosignol on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]

Any analysis that comes down in favor of both governments would surely be contrived. What we are looking at in Bolivia is precisely Mexico's alternate future had AMLO won in July. Both men will do whatever it takes to get and keep power. Theoretically, this characteristic has nothing to do with the man's left-right orientation. But in practice it's much easier for a populist/leftist to manipulate his followers. One poster mentioned that Morales is an idealist and maybe he started out that way, but both are clearly acting in their personal self interest, the pueblo be damned.

The connection with Chavez cannot be ignored either. As one poster pointed out, Morales' proposed change in the consitution is nothing more than a power grab, similar to what Chavez did in Venezuela. While technically legal, it certainly is not good for democracy or for Bolivia's people. For his part, AMLO has described himself as a revolutionary in the tradition of Benito Juárez or Francisco Madero. This certainly plays well with the 40 million desperately poor (mostly indigena) in Mexico, but he is a lot more like Chavez than like Juárez. (The symbolism is important in another sense because Juárez was indigena and is revered by Mexicans of all ethnicities.) Mexico is nothing like the anarchy that existed in 1910. The biggest threat to Mexico today is the potential harm to the democratic process that AMLO himself is causing.

The situation in Mexico is further distinguished by the fact that, despite the shameful history of election fraud prior to 2000, Mexico's election commision (IFE) is very highly respected, and this election was considered exceptionally clean by all international observers. AMLO has had ample opportunity to provide documentation of fraud and has provided nopthing more than innuendo. Also, despite IFE being dominated by PRI in 2000, PAN won by a landslide in 2000, and there were no accusations of fraud.

In short, the answer to Dan's question is "no".

posted by: OpenBorderMan on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]

I am extremely skeptical of claims that the rank-and-file protestors, or any other actor in these events, are idiots/dupes/morons.

That doesn't mean all protest are good however. The textbook "good" protest comes about when the majority screws a minority so much and so hard and so long that the minority finally get motivated enough to engage in protests and civil disobedience. A "bad" protest comes about when a minority is so well organized that it is easy for them to protest and engage in civil disobedience, even when they have no legitimate grievence. Their protests become a kind of extortion from the majority.

Thinking of actors as morons is sloppy thinking and probally more indicates ignorance on our part as outside observers - before concluding that someone acting strangely is acting stupidly, one should take more time to become aware of the history and facts. It also distracts from analysizing the "supply side" of a situation. That is, to tell if a protest is a bad one from a good one, not only should one evaluate the legitamacy of the cause (demand side) but also the organizational ease of protesting (supply side).

posted by: wml on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]


We're talking about the views of Americans here, like Dan Drezner, who has admitted to being ideologically motivated to support the capitalists and pro-Americans in both cases.

I still don't see why Mexico couldn't end up like Ukraine, where the election is rerun, the place is flooded with observers, and the results grudgingly respected. I think that is a small price to pay for social peace and I don't understand why Calderon resists paying it. Do the full recount and see what happens.

posted by: franck on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]

Those of us who've been following this story know that a new election is the last thing AMLO wants. All the polls say that, following his recent performance, a significant number of his ex-supporters have changed their minds and he would lose big. Neither does he genuinely believe that there was fraud. He is cynically making the claim just to influence his hard-core supporters. He know that his best bet to wield any kind of power is by force. This guy is scum.

posted by: OpenBorderMan on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]


If that is true, than Calderon can force AMLO's hand easily. All he has to do is run a clean election with the help of foreign monitors, and he wins. Simple. I still haven't heard a decent reason for not recounting all the votes, putting some PRD people on the Electoral Commission, and as a final taste, rerunning the election. So why doesn't Calderon do this. I can only surmise that he isn't sure he would win a new election.

From here, it sure looks like Calderon has settled for the old PRI bargain: power instead of social peace and legitimacy.

posted by: franck on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]

I still don't see why Mexico couldn't end up like Ukraine, where the election is rerun, the place is flooded with observers, and the results grudgingly respected.

Well, the reason is incredibly obvious: because there's no reason to think that the results would be "grudgingly respected" the second time around either.

Sore losers don't suddenly become gracious losers.

Either Obrador wins the new election (and cites this as proof that the old one was fraudulent) or he loses the new election (and continues to claim without evidence that this election and the old one were fraudulent).

posted by: David Nieporent on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]

The reason Mexico will not hold a new election or do a full recount is that current law forbids it in the absence of documented fraud. I suppose the reason for this is to prevent the country being held hostage by violent protests and forced to hold a new election whenever they want (which by the way is an expensive luxury for Mexico). Imagine how Americans would have reacted had Al Gore made such a demand -- and he certainly had more cause. As David N points out, AMLO will not suddenly become a gracious loser.

posted by: OpenBorderMan on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]

Oh, and by the way, Mexico WAS flooded with foreign observers on July 2, and all said that the election was exemplary.

posted by: OpenBorderMan on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]


You and I both know that there is no one from the PRD on the Federal Electoral Tribunal, and that there is a long tradition of electoral fraud in Mexico specifically targeted against the PRD. There are a million legal ways that a full recount could happen. Don't hide behind legal reasoning. If Calderon and Fox wanted to, they could get a full recount.

They don't want to. They would rather have protests and the capital city shut down and months and possibly years of civil unrest. Is that what you want? Do you really think Mexico can function if large numbers of people think the election was stolen?

Every time people show a little flexibility, even if AMLO continues, he would lose more and more support. That's why taking steps to make sure the election is viewed to be fair are so important, even if they require great efforts and expense. It's one of the most important things in a democracy - that people view the elections as fair. So yes, I'm pretty sure a full recount or rerun election would be grudgingly accepted, especially if every action was taken to make it free and fair.

Also, Al Gore did push for a full recount, and he would have gotten it, if Bush's stooges on the Supreme Court hadn't shut it down. The Republicans on the court decided to elevate party loyalty over the good of the nation, and it has left a lot of bitterness in the country. It's going to be a lot worse in Mexico. The historical record in Latin American countries is not good here. Stolen elections or the perception of stolen elections tend to lead to very bad situations.

posted by: franck on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]

I appreciate your thoughts on this, but I'm afraid you're mistaken on each of your main points.

It's true that TEPJF is dominated by PRIstas, but why they would risk their necks to help PAN? Obviously, PRI and PRD are idealogically much closer. The new IFE (post 1994) and TEPJF and the election process have won high marks and admiration from international observers. To smear the new IFE with the reputation of the old IFE really isn't fair. Furthermore, it's not legalistic to say that the law doesn't allow for a new election in this situation. Mexico is a country of laws in the same sense as the US. Mexico can't change the rules after the election, any more than the US could.

It seems clear Calderón would win big in a re-run, so why wouldn't he support the idea if it were possible? I am certain that neither Fox nor Calderón want to shut down the city as you say. What possible benefit could they derive from that? The only person who wants to shut down DF is AMLO. AMLO has promised to make the country ungovernable, and he fully intends to do it. Fox has carefully avoided a confrontation, even allowing AMLO to prevent him from giving his annual address to congress last week.

Fox's "kid gloves" approach has indeed contributed to the AMLO's decline in public opinion. But above all, you must remember WHY these people think the election was stolen. There was no ballot stuffing, no intimidation outside the polling places, no butterfly ballots, no documented fraud of any kind. In spite of a very transparent process, wall-to-wall news coverage, and clean bill of health from international observers, and against all evidence to the contrary, 20-30% believe the election was stolen because AMLO SAYS SO. I'll leave it to the astute observer of human nature to put two and two together.

The situations I was comparing are AMLO-post-tribunal vs Gore-post-Supremes. What if Gore had taken his supports to the streets after the SC decision and threatened violence if he didn't get a full recount or new election? I'm pretty sure that would not be seen well by any but the most hard-care supporters.

Give Mexico some credit. The problem is not the system. It's one man.

posted by: OpenBorderMan on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]


You misunderstand me. My point is that if Calderon would win a runoff and thus avoid a maqssive shutdown of the city and enduring social peace, then he should do that. I don't understand Calderon's passivity here. Does he think this will just blow over? Does he think that the huge bitterness on display will just dissipate. It is in his interest and Mexico's to defuse the tensions. So why isn't he doing anything? You seem to have no idea what to do about the situation but say that "Mexico is a country of laws" and heap abuse on AMLO. That's not going to cut it. There needs to be some real leadership shown here, and I don't see why Calderon can't exhibit it.

20-30% don't believe the election was stolen because AMLO say so. You are simply wrong about that. They think that because they know AMLO was extremely popular and way ahead, so much so that Fox intervened in a very public way to get him disqualified and failed. Fox and others then led a hysterical campaign against him and made sure the Federal Electoral Campaign was stacked against him. They also remember their history and the theft of the election from Cardenas. There is a lot of history and emotion here, and you are wrong to think it is all just cult of personality stuff.

There are huge problems in Mexico, and you know it. The treatment of Indios is still horrible in the South. Mass murderers and drug traffickers run around scot free. There still hasn't really been a satisfactory explanation for the Mexico City massacre.

Is Mexico improving? Absolutely. But you can't just will people to accept a result. Some persuasion is necessary, and dismissing 30%+ of the population as idiots under the sway of demagogues (especially after you already have excluded the PRIstas) is nuts.

posted by: franck on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]

Franck, you've got a point that it's pretty obvious that I don't think much of el peje. It appears that you also think the election was stolen. I don't know where you're getting your facts.

Yes, a year ago, AMLO was ahead in the polls, but he wasted his lead by making beligerent statements, failing to show up for the first debate, and flaunting his friendship with a certain Venezuelan nut-job, among other things. He shot himself in the foot repeatedly. A week before the election, it was a statistical tie. But then you should no this.

Yes, Fox intervened to get AMLO amnesty on the legal problem AMLO had involving the rezoning of some valuable property in DF. Fox did not do this out of idealogical dedication to fair play. He did it because he thought his buddy Calderón could more easily beat 2 lefties in a 3-way election. Nevertheless, it was the right thing to do, and no one cried foul. Fox may have said things critical of AMLO during the campaign, but it fell far short of campaigning on Calderón's behalf.

You insist on raising the ghost of the Cardenas election, and refuse to acknowledge that the election system has been completely redesigned and is now superior to that of the US. You need to get your facts up-to-date.

Yes, the indigenas are treated badly, but that is not of Calderón's doing and this issue nothing to do with whether the election was fair.

You sound like an admirer of AMLO so it's clear we will never see eye to eye, but we should at least get the facts straight.

posted by: OpenBorderMan on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]

It occurs to me that many gringos may believe AMLO's accusations of fraud because they have incomplete information. In 2006, Mexico is a real democracy, with transparency, strict campaign regulations, and a balloting system as close to foolproof as any in the world. The shameful history of one-party rule is not yet ancient history, but it IS history.

I personally know people who voted for AMLO and are now sorry. The polls say they are millions like this. The reason is that he has cynically manipulated his hard-core supports and threatens to cause serious unrest. As I have stressed before, AMLO has had ample opportunity to document his allegations and provided nothing more than innuendo.

Let me be perfectly frank: AMLO's hardest core supporters, those that are camped out in Paseo de la Reforma, are unemployed and mostly iliterate. Many don't even speak Spanish, but rather one of 40 or so indigena languages. They've been mistreated all their lives and have a legitimate beef with a govt that mostly pretends they don't exist. It was major campaign issue. The difference in approach between the two major candidates was basically a classic left-right divide. Whichever candidate you agree with, none of that concerns whether the election was fair. But imagine millions of poor, iliterate people who can't read the paper and didn't listen to the debates, and a very eloquent candidate who speaks their language in more way than one and validates their feelings of victimhood. You bet your ass I think he is manipulating them, and I am not alone.

posted by: OpenBorderMan on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]


You're wrong in more ways than one. I'm not an AMLO supporter, and I actually don't think the election was stolen, though one can't be too sure.

The reason I keep bringing up the history is because it is important for AMLO's supporters and others. Regardless of whether you think Mexico is now clean as a whistle, they don't. And what they think does matter, despite your attempts to paint them all as illiterate Indios, easily swayed by demagoguery. In fact, that sort of voter is far more common in rural areas of Mexico dominated by the PRI, where vote-buying and patronage networks still survive. AMLO was mayor of Mexico City, and it is still the stronghold of his support.

I'll say it again. I don't understand why Calderon doesn't do something to show leadership and assuage the concerns of this 20-30% of Mexico. It isn't enought to just tar everyone who speaks of this as a problem as an AMLO supporter. Mexico's own history is pretty clear on this point.

posted by: franck on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]

Maybe we're not so far apart. Your point is well taken. Even if the protesters are 100% wrong, Calderon has to satisfy their concerns somehow. But I still think you underestimate the power a smoothtalker can have on uneducated people. I am not disrespecting them in saying this; AMLO is disrespectiong them by taking advantage of them.

posted by: OpenBorderMan on 09.07.06 at 02:58 PM [permalink]

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