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 consultas are 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 consulta have 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 consulta brought 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.
Other consultas and popular plebiscites have been more local. Just south of the capital in the state of Morelos last March, 100,000 citizens cast ballots demanding the resignation of Governor Jorge Carrillo Olea because of alleged ties to kidnapping gangs and narco-traffickers. Although both the PRI and the government insisted that the consultation had no legal standing, two months later Carrillo resigned.
The opposition has utilized the popular plebiscite even when it controls local government. Since the PRD’s Cuauhtemoc Cardenas assumed the mayoralty of Mexico City, the process has been used to poll the public on a proposal to plant trees on the otherwise barren Zócalo esplanade and to determine priorities in the city’s 16 delegations or boroughs. This past August, in the Del Valle colony in southern Mexico City, the delegation sponsored a citizens’ consultation on the shuttering of a troublesome street market, and over 3,000 neighbors took time out to cast a ballot. “We saw the consulta as a way of evaluating our decision to shut down the market, but what we found out was that the people have a tremendous hunger to be part of their government,” beamed delegation chief Ricardo Pascoe.
Despite the pooh-poohing of the PRI and the government it has run for so long, the public consultation process is becoming increasingly credible. Next up on the consulta calendar will be a referendum on indigenous autonomy to be spearheaded by the Zapatistas and their allies in civil society. Breaking a stony, monthslong silence, the EZLN has called upon Mexican citizens to vote up or down the 1996 agreements reached between the Zedillo government and the rebels that the president has refused to implement. Instead, Zedillo has sent his own Indian-rights legislation on to Congress, where it languishes for lack of consensus between the parties.
The Zapatistas reject the Zedillo initiative and endorse the version of the accords codified by the COCOPA, the congressional commission that oversaw the agreement. In an effort to make that support manifest, the rebels have pledged to break out of the military encirclement of their base areas in the jungle and highlands of southeastern Chiapas and send representatives to each of the nearly 2,500 municipalities (counties) in the land to campaign for the COCOPA version.
The response of the Zedillo administration to the EZLN call for a plebiscite on indigenous autonomy parallels its attitude toward the FOBAPROA consulta. “Laws are made in Congress — not in the jungle,” snapped Interior Minister Francisco Labastida Ochoa, Zedillo’s chief political operator.
Yet increasingly throughout Latin America, the referendum or plebiscite is becoming a factor the established authorities must reckon with. Ten years ago, a Chilean plebiscite on the future of the Pinochet dictatorship proved the beginning of the end for that regime. On the same day that the FOBAPROA consulta took place here, over a million Panamanians participated in a plebiscite on constitutional changes that would have permitted President Ernesto Perez Balladares to seek a second term in office — 63 percent of the voters said no.
In Mexico, the rise of consultas has been accompanied by other democratizing strophes, including communal assemblies in indigenous zones, the introduction of legislation in Congress by popular initiative, and open primary elections (with which even the PRI has experimented).
The concept of the consulta dovetails nicely with the EZLN credo of building democracy from the bottom up without interference by the political parties. Few decisions are taken in the Zapatista structure without consulting their own citizen assemblies. In endorsing the PRD’s FOBAPROA plebiscite, Zapatistas spokes person Subcomandante Marcos wrote, “The struggle for democracy is not just for clean elections or a multiparty system or alternating who wields power — it is for the ‘citizenization’ of our political system.”
But politics is a cynical discipline in a system vitiated by seven decades of one-party rule. “I suggest that next Sunday we all go to the Zócalo to vote on whether or not the Miss Universe contest should be canceled because the beauty of the contestants could depress our wives and daughters and lead them to suicide,” wagged Radio Red philosopher Ikram Antaki, who recently expressed her admiration for “citizen apathy” because it contributes to the efficient functioning of government — activists are “marginal” and “totalitarian,” the philosopher expounded in a recent El Universal op-ed.
Writing in the national daily La Jornada, Rodrigo Morales took a more serious — if equally critical — view of the consultation process. Asking how many votes were necessary to declare a mandate, Morales lambasted the loaded nature of the questions posed by the sponsors of popular consultas, the results of which are always a foregone conclusion. Instead, Morales lobbied to legislate the referendum procedure, arguing that credibility in this “valuable tool to construct democracy” could be rescued if Congress regulated the consultas.
PRD president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the guiding spirit behind the big anti-FOBAPROA vote, agrees that the process needs to be better regulated, but is more pragmatic: “The way to make the consulta and the referendum into an authentic crucible of citizen participation is just to keep on using it . . .”