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Preserving Neoliberal Democracy

The profound challenge and gradual weakening of the PRI’s legitimacy produced in its wake a new unifying political fantasy of democratization. The country’s social ills were blamed principally on its failure to democratize and its continued reliance on authoritarian rule. Modernization, in this regard, came to be predominantly associated with political reform, the institution of competitive elections and the ability to hold corrupt officials accountable. These desires, while initially held and strategically utilized by parties across the ideological spectrum, soon became deployed in the name of implementing economic marketization at all costs.

This increasing replacement of “revolutionary nationalism” by desires for democracy was witnessed in the growing nationwide popularity of the left-wing FDN (National Democratic Front) candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas (Leyva, 2007) as the 1988 elections approached. While many were drawn to his populist anti-neoliberal economic positions, even more embraced his demand to deliver real democracy to the country. Cardenas explicitly associated socioeconomic justice with political democratization, presenting the latter as a necessary condition for the former. He declared:

We have gathered together to contribute to the formulation of viable alternatives to the national progress, [alternatives] capable to safeguard our independence and sovereignty ... to promote the integral democratization of society and to impulse the equal development of the Mexicans. (Cardenas and Ledos, 1987: 11)

His democratic credentials were further bolstered by the public support for his candidacy of surviving members of the earlier 1968 student democracy protests that had been brutally suppressed by the PRI.

This affective narrative of democratization spread throughout the political classes. More precisely, it stood as a new hegemonic discourse for organizing public support and achieving ideological legitimacy. Indeed, the conservative PAN (National Action Party) echoed the FDN’s call to dissolve the PRI and eliminate the “old system.” It also extended to smaller radical parties, such as the Mexican Socialist Party (PSM), whose leader, Herberto Castillo, only days before the election threw his support behind Cardenas with the reasoning that “In this time of profound change, Mexico needs to advance towards its full democratization ... The progressive forces must commit to uproot the authoritarian aspects of the Mexican State” (Castillo, 1988). The far-left Revolutionary Party of the Workers, similarly, denounced the presidential system entirely as despotic, advocating instead for “a new representation of national power organized from the bottom up” (Cardenas and Ledo, 1987: 11).

The PRI meanwhile was undergoing an extreme political rebranding, now presenting themselves and their neoliberal agenda as the only authentic force for achieving real democratic change. Whereas previously, democratization was at best a marginal and marginalized ideal in the party’s broader aims of “stability development,” it now took center stage, at least rhetorically. Throughout the 1988 campaign the PRI’s candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, made a point of including “democracy” alongside the country’s other “four big challenges” of the “social,” “economic” and ‘sovereignty” (Gortari, 1988). He, moreover, declared that it was now imperative that Mexico prioritize “practicing democratic methods and not authoritarianism [because] if politics does not modernize its everyday actions . the great cultural and economic transformation of the country can become in anarchy or repression” (ibid.: 12).

Crucial to this strategy, as the above quote highlights, was the attempt by the PRI to condemn their opponents as “anti-democratic” and therefore a threat to progress. Importantly, this politics of demonization was one common to all the parties. During the campaign the FDN candidate championed how presently “modern fascism Mexico is rising up” (Alvarez, 1988). He repeatedly railed against the country’s “democratic deficit” and the need to protect it from electoral fraud by the authoritarian PRI, noting “the government pretends to modify the electoral results in its favor and to close the roads for democratic participation” (Castro, 1988). These concerns seemed prophetic in the wake of the PRI’s widely challenged official victory (Bruhn, 2010; Foweraker,

1989). In its immediate aftermath, all the major opposition parties joined with civil society leaders and intellectuals to form the “Commitment to Democracy” with the express purpose of safeguarding democratization. In their own words it was a public:

[M]andate for the democratization of the country demands, as a starting point, the most strict respect of the effective suffrage and greater responsibility in the post-electoral qualifying dispute ... The Federal Electoral Commission and the Electoral Dispute Tribune constitute the only legitimate fundament to qualify the elections: finding another one can only lead to the dispurpose of claiming the annulment of the elections. (Azuela et al., 1988)

Not surprisingly, the PRI deployed an almost identical strategy of depicting their defeated rivals, especially the FDN, as “enemies” of democracy, which they were trying desperately to preserve. Hence, the PRI pronounced sanctimoniously after the election that “there is no justice without observing the law, just like there is no possible defense outside the resources that the law establishes” (PRI, 1988). This defamation campaign could be glimpsed even prior to the election results, evidenced in the Minister of the Interior Manuel Bartlet’s accusation of Cardenas’ criticisms as “anti-democratic.” Their attacks on the ruling party revealed the FDN’s “true political nature: authoritarianism and its obvious detachment from popular mandate” (Hiriart and Alvarez, 1988).

Bolstered by the election, the party deployed its newfound commitment to democracy in order to strengthen its authoritarianism politically and neoliberal agenda economically. It quickly distinguished between its opposition, who were undemocratic “agitators,” and the majority of Mexicans who in re-electing the PRI “demonstrate that it is through law that they want the changes and transformations in the country to be done maintaining the national sovereignty above all political and ideological differences” (Rodriguez and Tejada, 1988). Furthermore, they retrospectively legitimized their unpopular marketization policies as being democratically enacted. While campaigning, Gortari championed the economic liberalization measures of his predecessor, depicting him as “the leader that, democratically, has made possible the structural changes that Mexico needs” (Gortari, 1988: 7).

To this extent, democratization became inexorably bound up with market “reforms” in a broader official discourse of national modernization. Anti-market leftists, even those who primarily focused on the country’s lack of democracy under the PRI, were portrayed as “populist Frankenstein.” Simultaneously, the PRI’s elite financial supporters, notably the influential entrepreneurial association Confederation of the Mexican Republic (COPARMEX), openly warned that those who opposed marketization “undermined the progress of the country” by wearing a “democratic disguise that restricted economic, political and educative freedom” (Paredes, 1988). Their strategy could not be more transparent, in this respect the only road to democracy lay in marketization. For the sake of these political reforms, all those who dared to question this agenda must be repressed and eliminated.

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