The latest turn in the Mexican election drama only confirms that it’s too soon to tell who will lead the country into the next decade. But barring a demonstration of truly massive fraud, it’s safe to say that Mexico will be led by a man who little more than a third of Mexican voters marked on their ballots on Sunday. The next President of Mexico will be the winner of what was ultimately a contest between Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Felipe Calderon, a contest which a third of Mexico’s voters gave up the chance to weigh in on when they chose to vote for one of the three other candidates instead.
Some will no doubt respond that democratic elections are full of tough choices, and it’s on each voter to weigh whether it’s more important to pull the result towards one of the two foreseeable results (the first face of power, if you will), or to shift the sense of the politically feasible (the second face). But it’s worth asking whether that sort of calculation, scintillating as it may be – the same sort of calculation many Connecticut Democrats will have to make if faced with a three-way ticket come November – is good for democracy in the broader sense of how much control individuals have over the decisions that determine the conditions of their lives (a greater problem, by that standard – David Held’s – is the long shadow global capital casts over contests like this week’s).
Because it isn’t necessary that that sort of calculation be necessary.
Mexicans have far less cause than Americans to worry about throwing their votes away in congressional elections because Mexico has proportional representation. Both countries could take a further step towards reducing the centrality of cynical calculation from presidential voting by implementing instant run-off voting.
Instant run-off voting forces politicians to pitch themselves as ideal elected officials if they hope to be viewed in victory as something other than everyone’s second choice. And in elections like the one in Connecticut, and the one in Mexico, where critical, ideological choices are laid out more starkly than we ususally get to see them, it facilitates voters following Paul Wellstone’s imperative to vote for what you believe in – and observers judging better from the results what kind of leadership those voters want.
The cover story in the January/ February edition of Foreign Policy is an article by Amherst Professor Javier Corrales arguing that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is perfecting the art of dictatorship for the 21st century. He offers a list of Chavez’s crimes against democracy which (like an ADL report on antisemitism which conflates incidents like the Iranian President’s diatribes against Jews and some professor’s criticism of the separation wall) combines clear offenses, deft but legal manipulation of the law, and economic policy Professor Corrales doesn’t like.
Some of the abuses Corrales describes are indeed direct assaults on the democratic freedoms of Venezuelan citizens, like keeping public databases on citizens’ votes and outlawing demonstrations of “disrespect” towards government officials. Observers on the left should indeed condemn such human rights abuses, when they are clearly demonstrated, as quickly when perpetrated by leaders on the left as when perpetrated by leaders on the right. Hugo Chavez’s claims to a democratic mandate are indeed weakened by his failure to uphold some principles of democracy, and Corrales is right to call attention to these. Some ostensible abuses Corrales describes amount to effective manipulation of the parliamentary system to reduce the power of minority parties and increase what can be accomplished legislatively by a bare majority (you may know this as “the nuclear option”). I’d agree that such maneuvers are often effectively undemocratic, as long as democracy is understood as a spectrum (as a theorist like Dahl would advise) rather than a dichotomy (as a theorist like Schumpeter would). Certainly, many political structures and policies – the electoral college and the Senate come to mind – reduce the control of individual citizens over the political process. Corrales’ argument that using a majority in parliament to increase his majority on the Supreme Court itself makes Chavez a dictator makes one wonder how he views some other national leaders. Given that Corrales’ qualifications for dictatorship include intentionally polarizing the electorate so that more moderates will break to your side, it’s hard to imagine who doesn’t qualify.
Some of those leaders are distinguished from Chavez when it comes to economic policy, the area into which a third set of Corrales’ critiques of democracy in Venezuela fall. Corrales makes some of the same seemingly contradictory charges levelled against Chavez’s economic policy by a series of neoliberals and conservatives: the problem with Hugo Chavez is that he bribes the poor to like him with economic resources and that he doesn’t really provide them with economic resources and that he doesn’t really make the poor like him. Corrales’ claims of bribery of the poor in Venezuela are echoed by Ann Coulter’s complaints that Americans who benefit from government programs are allowed to vote for the perpetuation of those programs. Corrales’ grievance that Chavez distributes economic benefits as a means of reward and punishment is an important one. His attacks on Chavez for spending large sums of money to help the poor at all are less persuasive though. And his description of Chavez’s investments in alleviating poverty as a demonstration that he is a dictator will be compelling only if one believes that democratization and the right-wing economics of privatization, government-shrinking, and deregulation perversely called “economic liberalization” are one and the same. This postulate – that the “structural adjustment programs” of the IMF and the democratic reforms pursued by human rights groups are two sides of the same coin – are accepted uncritically by too many ostensibly liberal theorists in international relations and economics (not to mention the Wall Street Journal). It’s on full display in Corrales’ article, which faults Chavez as a dictator because “Rather than promoting stable property rights to boost investment and employment, he expands state employment.”
I don’t fault Corrales for seeing economics and democracy as interrelated. I’d say progressive economics that provide more people with economic resources and opportunities also empower them to exercise real voice over the choices which determine the conditions of their lives. Unfortunately, the economic regime Corrales and company favor too often has the opposite effect, plunging more people into conditions of abject poverty in which ever-greater portions of their lives slip from their control. When structural adjustment programs drive down wages, dirty water, and turn a blind eye to violent economic coercion, they erode democracy. And, as David Held argues, the means by which these programs are enacted are corrosive to a robust conception of democracy as well: they remove critical decisions about countries’ economic futures from the province of democratic oversight by citizens to the authority of distant technocrats. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the past decade has seen one Latin American country after another throw neoliberal and conservative leaders out and replace them with populists who run on opposition to the undemocratic “Washington Consensus (including Bolivia this weekend; Mexico looks likely to be next).” It’s unfortunate that some of those populists have democratic deficiencies of their own.
So I’d say Corrales gets the correlation between democracy and neoliberalism backwards, and that his opposition to Chavez’s economics drives him to put some shaky examples along with the solid ones on his list of grievances about democracy in Venezuela. Unfortunately, too many on both the left and the right go beyond arguing that economic policies increase or decrease democracy to instead reducing democracy to the favorability of a country’s economic policy. Too many let bona fide dictators like Pinochet or Castro off easy because of the economic policies they implement. People who live under such leaders deserve better.
Two things that were striking in reading local news in Puerto Rico while we were there:
One of the dominant stories was Rumsfeld’s much-anticipated list of base closings, which Puerto Rico’s Buchanan ultimately escaped. What generally goes unstated in news write-ups of the process by which base closing decisions are made is what all the major players – the Secretary of Defense and his commissi on, the President, the US House, and the US Senate – have in common: no one in Puerto Rico gets to vote for them, or for the people who appointed them. While it goes without saying in local papers, it’s striking from an outsider’s perspective, and deeply problematic from a Heldian perspective that understands democracy as a measure of control over the decisions which shape one’s life, though arguably no more so than the situation of groups like the poor in the continental US who – largely – have the formal franchise but face significant obstacles to political mobilization and to getting a hearing from economic elites, or of the people’s of other countries which while not US territories are drastically affected by policies of the US government and its delegates over which they have no form of democratic control.
The other dominant story was an intensifying showdown between the territory’s Popular Democratic Party Governor and its New Progressive Party-controlled legislature over the Governor’s Cabinet appointments, especially his appointee for Secretary of State, whom the legislature voted down but who began serving in the job anyway. What was really striking to me as an outsider to Puerto Rican politics, but almost as true of coverage of the struggle over judicial appointments in the US Congress, is the total suffocation of any kind of issue background by horse race coverage – that is, speculations about who’s winning. Over five days of reading articles about this fight, I was unable to find a single sentence discussing the ideologies of any of these appointees or the issues at the heart of the power struggle. I know that Governor Acevedo Vila thinks Pont would be an excellent Secretary of State, and that NPP leaders think she’d be terrible, but I honestly could only guess what the areas of contention are. Seriously, if you know, I’m pretty curious at this point. And I doubt I’m the only one. Meanwhile, pundits in the continental US complaining about how boring the filibuster fight is to the American public should consider why the very real ideological issues driving forward the collision – like the power of the American people to harness government to pursue racial and economic justice – have been sidelined in the presentation of that fight.