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Jewish World Review
Sept. 13, 2006
/ 20 Elul 5766
End the Mexican Standoff
Americans typically don't take much note of what happens in Mexico. Yet Mexico remains our closest and most important neighbor, a big customer, and a major supplier of oil and gas-and people. It matters very much that Mexican democracy not be hijacked by demagogic ambition, and that is the threat now posed by the conduct of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leader of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).
López Obrador is behaving less like a democrat than like the Mexican caudillos, the strongmen from one party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who ruled Mexico for 71 years. They were arbitrary supreme bosses among bosses, ruling over a group of regional bosses until 1987, when Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a Ph.D. from Harvard, became president. He brought in a group of young, free-market, highly educated técnicos, who banished the bosses.
I met all of these reformers in a series of interviews in the early 1990s. The most impressive was Ernesto Zedillo, the minister of planning, who succeeded Salinas as president. Zedillo introduced an independent federal election authority with autonomy for conducting, monitoring, and verifying every federal election, an independent electoral court to review any violations, media access for all parties to conduct their campaigns, and independent financing to protect the elections from undisclosed sources of funds, especially from drug traffickers looking for political protection. Critically, Zedillo declared the end of dedazo, the pointing of the big finger, which enabled one president to personally select his successor, thus ending a system of serial despotism. Zedillo decided that the PRI presidential candidates would henceforth be determined by a national primary, rather than being arbitrarily selected by the president alone.
Revolt. Ever since then, elections in Mexico have been seen as fair and credible and the results astonishing. In 1997, the PRI lost its majority in the Chamber of Deputies, then it lost control of the mayoralty of Mexico City. In 2000, the PRI lost the presidency to Vicente Fox, the leader of the center-right opposition PAN party, ending decades of oligarchic rule.
Democracy, however, is defined not by the voluntary abdication of power once, but twice. The big test came with the election of July 2. On that day, the votes of almost 42 million Mexicans were monitored by 25,000 national observers and more than 600 international observers. López Obrador campaigned on a radical vision to help the poor and dispossessed through an economic revolution that he believes Mexico needs. But he failed to convince quite enough voters of the wisdom of his vision. The leader of PAN, Felipe Calderón, beat López Obrador by a narrow majority of 240,000, whereupon López Obrador declared himself the winner. He claimed a massive fraud and orchestrated civil uprisings to protest the election-but said nothing about the fact that voters had made his leftist coalition the second-largest party in the legislature and awarded it the mayoralty of Mexico City. In response, the Federal Electoral Tribunal ordered a recount of 9 percent of the total vote from polls weighted in López Obrador's favor. The charges of fraud were not validated, and the tribunal has now confirmed the election results.
López Obrador, however, refuses to accept those results, even though his civil revolt since the election had caused his support to drop to 30 percent, compared with Calderón's 54 percent, and now says he will convene his own National Assembly and set up a parallel government.
Such behavior threatens to undermine the ability of elected authorities at all levels in Mexico to govern effectively, while potentially encouraging extremists to take violent actions on López Obrador's behalf. This is tantamount to kidnapping Mexican democracy, much like the actions of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who obeys the law only when it suits him.
López Obrador must fail. He must be limited by the constitutional separation of powers, the press, the respected Federal Electoral Institute, the powers of the governors, the individual Mexican states, the church (which already opposes López Obrador's power grab,) and the Army.
Truly, Mexican democracy is not perfect. Losers often cry foul and try to destroy the legitimacy of the victor in an atmosphere suffused with political and drug-related violence; Mexico's major cities are overwhelmed by crime, especially by kidnapping. Still, there remains genuine cause for optimism as Mexico enters the 21st century. Fiscal responsibility has become the norm, vast expanses of the economy have been privatized, and the North American Free Trade Agreement is generating nearly $200 billion in trade-all in the context of creating more equitable economic policies to combat poverty and inequality.
Forceful American support for the legitimacy of the election of Felipe Calderón will be a critical step in continuing the progress of our important southern neighbor, of whom it has long been said, "So far from G-d, so close to the U.S."
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© 2005, Mortimer Zuckerman