By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Scott Sady, AP/Wide World
MEXICO CITY — "This is like voting for the future of Mexico — even if it is fake," affirmed Alejandro Miranda, 26, peering at the paper "ballot" in his hand. As his nation teeters on the brink of a second economic collapse in four years, Miranda’s own future has been reduced to selling sunglasses part time outside a central-city market.
The young street vendor carefully examined the invitation to participate in a national consulta(consultation) on the Fund To Protect Savings (FOBAPROA), President Ernesto Zedillo’s answer to the American S&L crisis, an initiative to shift $65 billion of bad bank debts onto Mexican taxpayers. "It’s a complicated issue, but we can’t let Zedillo and the bankers have their way. If I ever get a real job, I could be in debt for the rest of my life," fretted Miranda, finally taking his place in a line of citizen voters that stretched along one flank of the great Zócalo plaza.
The rise of the consulta — an unofficial referendum or popular plebiscite — is establishing a new way of doing politics in Mexico that has accompanied both the decline of the ruling party and disillusionment with the party system itself. And while the country’s elite dismisses the referenda as little more than grandstanding, the consultasare gaining ground with the national electorate.
The FOBAPROA initiative, sponsored by the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), served as a case in point, turning out more than 3 million of Miranda’s compatriots from Chiapas to Chihuahua on the last Sunday in August. In its drive to make the consultation truly a national one, the PRD invested a million dollars USD, blanketed the country with leaflets and videotapes, and established 15,000 polling places — a few as far north as Chicago — to afford Mexicans living in the U.S. an opportunity to vote on their homeland’s economic future. The balloting was a facsimile of the official process — even right down to inking participants’ thumbs with indelible ink to prevent double voting. As in "real" elections here, the ink proved not to be very indelible.
Across the Zócalo from the polling place, inside the National Palace, the seat of Zedillo’s government, a spokesperson for the Finance Ministry, which campaigned fiercely against the consulta, scoffed at the voters lined up out on the plaza. "They are being manipulated. This is an exercise in futility," said Marco Provencio, whose ministry advocates dumping the multibillion FOBAPROA debt to the public treasury. "This consultation has no legality and does not contribute to the democratic system to which we all aspire."
In an effort to discourage voter participation, the Zedillo government outspent the PRD by tens of millions of pesos, issuing its own videos and even a book (The Truth About FOBAPROA) and barraging electronic media with batteries of pro-FOBAPROA commercials that sometimes ran back-to-back. The propaganda blitz apparently had an unintended impact, focusing much more public attention on the plebiscite than PRD flacks could have dreamed of drumming up. Few were swayed, however: A full 97 percent voted against the government plan.
Although the 3-million-plus votes cast in the consultahave no legal weight, they will not be easily dismissed by a Mexican legislature that will decide the fate of FOBAPROA this winter. In this sense, the consultabrought Mexico’s usual backroom decision making to the public plaza, reasons political gadfly Luis Hernandez Navarro. "This government sought to make FOBAPROA into a technical issue that the people were not competent to decide. Three million votes are testimony to the failure of this elitist strategy."
The heavy turnout for the PRD’s plebi scite this summer did not much please the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which is sensitive to the criticism of a government it has dominated for seven decades. "The figure of the referendum does not yet exist in our legal system," argued PRI congressional leader Arturo Nunez, a less-than-candid interpretation of the current juridical status of such consultas. While not carrying the constitutional clout of California state initiatives, legalization of referenda, plebiscites and other forms of citizen participation was agreed upon during the 1994 national elections by all parties and their presidential candidates — including Ernesto Zedillo. A 1996 congressional overhaul of electoral law gave the referendum constitutional standing, but no implementation law was ever enacted, leaving the measure in legal limbo.
Nonetheless, an increasingly active opposition has taken the matter into its own hands and conducted a series of national consultations, of which the FOBAPROA balloting was the most successful to date.
In the spring of 1993, 320,000 Mexico City denizens cast ballots in a popular referendum organized by the nonpartisan Alianza Civica (Civic Alliance) to decide whether or not the capital and the surrounding federal district should become Mexico’s 32nd state. Although the overwhelming majority of participants called for the establishment of the new state, little progress has been recorded since then toward making the will of the people a reality.
Two years later, the rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) held a national consultation to decide its own political future. Some 1.2 million citizens (and noncitizens) participated (some via the Internet) in the August 1995 balloting. Voters decided by a narrow margin that the EZLN should transform itself from an armed to a political organization, a conversion the Zapatistas seem slowly to be effecting.
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