FROM RECOUNTS TO RUN-OFFS

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.

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DEMOCRACY IN LATIN AMERICA

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.

The LA Daily News reports that a few more congressmen have joined up with a bid to repeal the 22nd Amendment’s two-term limit for presidents. Doesn’t seem to have a chance, and it’s hard to get worked up over one way or the other, but I do think the country would be a hair more democratic without the amendment. I generally think it’s a good thing for us to have social norms against third terms of the kind that already existed before 1947, but that’s a decision for primary and general election voters to make for themselves (or, in the case of FDR, not to) in each election year, not one for another generation to make for us. And it’s a norm individual voters should each decide to uphold or reject in their own selections, not grounds for a current or past majority to deny members of a minority or future majority the chance to vote for the candidate of their choice (same goes for the far less sympathetic ban on foreign candidates, especially in an era when the ostensible threat some English prince using his wealth and residual pro-British-empire sympathies as a springboard to the Presidency is that much less of a reasonable concern…). As Aaron Sorkin once wrote, when the system works, “we have term limits in this country: they’re called elections.”

The real implications of term limits are far greater here in Mexico, where elected officials at all levels are government are limited to single terms. I heard a convincing lecture here at UDLA last week echoing what some political scientists in the US have warned about term limits: they shatter the already-fragile subject-agent relationship between voters and candidates, in which voters do their best to evaluate the performance of their representatives and reward or punish them at the voting booth. That’s why the conventional wisdom we’ve heard repeated non-stop recently is that your first term as President is for re-election, and the second is for history – a charming idea, maybe, but not a very democratic one. And it becomes much worse when no one’s term at anything is concerned with getting elected again. Defenders of the term limits I spoken to here argue that in a parliamentary system where voters are choosing parties rather than candidates (a set-up the lecturer is opposed to as well, though I’m not), this makes little difference, even holding voting based on parties constant, in a scenario without term limits voters have the chance in party elections to reward or punish incumbents, and if those incumbents make it to the top of the party’s list, then all voters get the chance to take performance into account. This professor isn’t the only Mexican I’ve spoken to here who identifies term limits as one of the reasons they feel ignored by their elected leaders, who are looking ahead not to re-election but to currying favor with party elites to make it onto the ballot for a different office (Mexico also seems to provide support, incidentally, for another hypothesis about term limits: that they reduce institutional conflict between different branches of government as you see more of the same people cycling through different offices). Of course that concern is also heightened by the overwhelming perception of party corruption, which is itself the main argument I’ve heard from Mexicans for keeping term limits in place. So earning faith that the system works seems the first step here towards convincing voters here that elections are term limits enough.

Even after last summer’s daily voter registration rejections in Tampa, the level of cynicism about Mexican electoral politics manifested in the limited number of conversations I’ve had about it with folks in Cholula is pretty striking. Students and others here have told me they weren’t planning to vote next July, that they didn’t care who won, or that that they were planning to cast blank ballots. Even the few people I talked to who were firmly behind a candidate were fairly resigned about future prospects. One thirty-something public employee in Fox’s PAN acknowledged significant disappointment with Fox’s term but blamed it on PRI obstructionism and union intransigence, and called the PRI’s Madrazo a selfish egomaniac and the PRD’s Lopez Obrador a corrupt socialist encouraging dependency. A student who wants to work as an engineer for Pemex (Mexico’s national oil company) told me Fox is criminally corrupt, Madrazo is out for his own power, and only Lopez Obrador seems to care about the Mexicans who are struggling – though his populism scares her. She was dubious about whether Fox and the Mexican elites supporting him would make it possible for Lopez Obrador to take office.

There’s certainly plenty to be cynical about. On the other hand, here the front-runner in next year’s election is a self-identified “humanist” who’s overcome the majority party’s legal bid to eject him from the race and seems to be gaining despite the opposition of economic elites throughout the country and abroad. Which certainly wasn’t the kind of pitch I was able to make last summer.

My nomination for most bizarre use of a violent piece of art in an advertising context has to be the one we drove by recently with several images from Guernica. It was only on the way back that I was able to catch the text: (roughly translated) We sell the largest burgers of all. That’s right. The advertising pitch is essentially, remember all those cattle massacred (representing humans massacred) when they bombed the city in the Spanish Civil War? Well we scraped them up and put them on your plate.

Any of our meat-eating readers find that appealing?

Thursday while I was on a community service project with Mexican students in Puebla, a few seven year-old boys who I’d been playing with for a while told me matter-of-factly that they didn’t like Americans because we all wanted (loosely translated) “to conquer Mexico.” I suggested that the US in fact had no designs on its southern neighbor, and we discussed the difference between the policies of a country’s government and the sentiments of its people (turns out they’re not big fans of Vicente Fox either). So quick, someone call Karen Hughes and tip her off that it’s not just in the Middle East that they “hate us for our freedoms.” Unless, that is, there may be some other reason that hearts and minds the world over are finding the concept of America as an arrogant imperial power more credible than they might have a few years back.