[From the diaries by susanbhu.]

Cross-posted at DailyKos

The NYTimes reports this morning that Mexican president Vicente Fox has backed down in his confrontation with Mexico City mayor Andres Lopez Obrador.  Here are some key points:

The legal proceedings that threatened to knock Mexico’s most popular politician off next year’s presidential ballot and to plunge this country into turmoil seemed to come to a sudden end on Wednesday night, when a beleaguered President Vicente Fox announced the resignation of his attorney general and a review of the government’s case against the politician.

The announcement comes only a few days after nearly one million people thronged the streets of the capital to protest the Fox government’s campaign to prosecute Mr. López Obrador. The case against the mayor was based on a minor contempt of court charge for disobeying an order against the construction of a hospital access road. Still, it threatened the mayor’s political career, and could have landed him, the leading contender to succeed Mr. Fox, in jail.

The Mexican press (Spanish-language site) gives a little more context to the story. This is a major victory, but the fight is not quite over … More on the flip:
According to La Jornada, the Mexico City left-leaning daily newspaper, the money quote from Fox’s speech last night was: “My government will prevent no one from participating in the coming [2006 presidential] elections.”  As Lopez Obrador is currently leading all challengers by double digits, allowing him to run would almost certainly imply his election to the presidency.

Yesterday’s actions, however, do not guarantee that Lopez Obrador will be able to run.  At the moment, he has been formally accused of a crime, contempt of court in a minor land dispute case, and Congress has stripped him of the immunity from prosecution he would otherwise enjoy as a public official.  Until the charges are lifted, Mexican law currently prevents him from running for any office.

In last night’s speech, president Fox also announced he has proposed a law in Congress guaranteeing the rights of citizens accused of crimes.  If Congress passes this law, Lopez Obrador would be considered innocent until proven guilty, and would therefore be able to run for office.  The question is whether Congress will pass the law, but there are hopeful indications it will.

First, a little context.  It’s helpful to remember that Mexico had a revolution in the 1910s.  Those of us who have studied the Mexican Revolution consider it, due to its sweep and violence and the kinds of social issues that underlay it, as one of the major social revolutions of the modern age — on a par with the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions (note that neither the American nor the Cuban revolutions are on that list, but the Mexican is).  The Mexican revolutionary Constitution of 1917 was written by followers of the popular revolutionary leaders Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, and under their influence guaranteed labor rights and promised agrarian reform.

These constitutional guarantees, however, were mostly ignored until the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas in the late 1930s.  Cardenas, who had been a revolutionary general, wove together corrupt and populist elements of the government and mobilized peasants and workers around a populist program of agrarian reform and the nationalization of such industries as the railroads and oil production.  He also helped consolidate a single-party state, dominated by a party his successor would call the PRI.

In the succeeding sixty years (1940-2000) the PRI dominated Mexican politics, and constructed an effective and powerful interventionist state.  Occasionally violent, the PRI state was always corrupt, but it also could occasionally promote sustained periods of economic growth.

The edifice of PRI power started to come apart after the devastating 1985 earthquake, that killed as many as 20,000 people and left the downtown of Mexico City in ruins.  The government’s response to the quake was late, disorganized, and ineffective, and post-quake investigations that most people died in fairly modern buildings that did not meet Mexico’s quite rigorous building code.  Building inspectors had accepted bribes to allow them to go up.

Public outrage translated into political action, and in 1988 Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, Lazaro’s son, led a leftist faction of the PRI into the opposition.  Most analysts today believe Cuauhtemoc actually won the 1988 presidential elections, but the PRI carried out a vote-counting fraud that gave the election to their candidate.  Over the 1990s, the PRI allowed a gradual process of democratization, leading to the election of President Fox in 2000, the first president since the Revolution who came from an opposition party.

Today, there are three main political parties in Mexico.  The PRI continues to control a number of states, and has a significant presence in Congress.  Cuauhtemoc’s party, the PDR, has a substantial presence in Congress, also controls some states, and has the government of Mexico City.  Lopez Obrador is a member of the PDR.  Finally, the presidency is in the hands of the PAN, a right-wing party that has always had close ties to the Republican Party, USA.  President Fox himself is a former vice-president of Coca-Cola Mexico, and counted himself a personal friend of George Bush before the two were elected in their respective countries.

Many people believe the PAN, the PRI, and the US Embassy have worked together for years to prevent an electoral victory by the center-left PDR.  Fox’s election in 2000 was seen as the victorious outcome of a strategy to “democratize” Mexico without allowing the left to come into power.  But Fox has been an ineffective leader, and his public support has collapsed as he heads into the last year of six-year term.  Lopez Obrador, the center-leftist who has done an excellent job as mayor of the country’s capital, has emerged as the leading contender for the presidency.  The trumped-up charges against him were widely seen in Mexico as a political ploy to prevent his election to president.

It turns out that Fox’s hand in the current crisis was forced by two members of his own party, who paid the bail for Lopez Obrador.  Facing a revolt from within the PAN, in addition to the increasingly virulent protests on the street, Fox had to back down.

Congress still must act, but given the President’s own retreat it is likely that it will.  Given Lopez Obrador’s political skills, he will almost certainly be the next president of Mexico.

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