Mexico was rocked by powerful revolts against neo-liberalism throughout the 1990s, and these struggles have continued into the 21st century. But until now none has succeeded in building a broad political movement that could challenge for power at a national level.
Armed insurrections in the countryside, trade union rebellions, the struggles for indigenous rights, the anti-privatisation and student strikes - each reached a plateau, gained either minimal or meaningless concessions from the state, and subsided.
Mexico’s left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) has been incapable of nurturing these struggles. In 1988 it swallowed the fraud that robbed its candidate of victory in the presidential elections, and since then the PRD has followed the contradictory course of most social democratic parties in the current period.
It has accepted neo-liberal policies, while attempting to present policy alternatives to its electoral base in the working class.
The result has been a steady erosion of internal party life and of working class electoral participation. The PRD wins a large share of its votes on the basis of respect for particular candidates or because it is seen as the “least bad” option.
If the current PRD presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (known as Amlo) had been announced as winner in the 2 July elections, this scenario would probably have changed little.
As mayor of the capital, Mexico City, Amlo practised “neo-liberalism from below”, while retaining his left base and a popularity rating that never dipped below 60 percent.
During the elections, he performed the delicate act of running a centre-left campaign domestically while assuring the international press and markets that his “alternative nation building project” did not entail a departure from neo-liberalism. He won sympathetic coverage in the Financial Times and the New York Times during his campaign.
If there was a political leader in Mexico who seemed to promise effective rule combined with neo-liberal continuity, it was Amlo.
However the Mexican ruling class thought differently. It views Obrador, and his working class and peasant supporters, with a fear and hatred that recalls the reaction of the Venezuelan elite to the rise of radical president Hugo Chavez.
Through its clumsy political interventions it has now closed the possibility of stable neo-liberal rule in Mexico for the foreseeable future.
Attempts by the Mexican elite to discredit and smear Amlo politically during the year leading up to the elections, to disqualify him from running and ultimately - as almost half the country believes - to defraud him of electoral victory, have changed everything.
There is now a major political upheaval as a movement demands honest elections and an end to the neo-liberal model. Organisers of this movement say the country has not seen anything on this scale since the nationalisation of petroleum in the 1930s. It is broader and more promising than the student-led democracy movement of 1968.
Mexico in motion
This radicalisation is both political and social. The political crisis has developed rapidly - moving from a demand for legitimate elections to demands that call the constitution and the whole legal system into question.
The decisive shift took place on 28 August when the country’s electoral tribunal refused to call for a full recount of the votes. In the first count, Felipe Calderon of the right wing party PAN came out ahead by 244,000 votes.
The tribunal ruled for a partial recount of 9 percent of the votes, which found, even in this limited sample, that over 230,000 ballots had to be disqualified. Despite this Calderon was declared president.
Instead of the tribunal lending its legitimacy to the vote, the illegitimacy of the vote tainted the tribunal.
Amlo called a national democratic convention, set for this Saturday, to be held in Mexico City’s central square, the Zocalo. Up to a million delegates will invoke article 39 of the Mexican constitution and return all political authority to the people.
The political crisis would not have developed this rapidly were it not for the social crisis produced by neo-liberalism. The PRD’s talk of “macroeconomic stability” has gone, replaced by condemnations of neo-liberalism and promises of a redistribution of wealth.
When participants in the massive assemblies and demonstrations are asked why they take part, they invariably mention both electoral fraud and economic inequality. Mexico has the fourth largest number of billionaires in the world while half its workers earn less than £4.50 a day.
By taking his campaign onto the streets, Amlo has opened the door to all of the social movements which have emerged to challenge neo-liberalism. In the early days of the recount mobilisations, after the protests reached the million mark, a decision was made to occupy the Zocalo and Avenida Reforma - Mexico City’s main thoroughfare, where many of the city’s luxury hotels and corporate headquarters are located.
Encampments stretch for seven miles and include living, meeting and concert spaces, communal kitchens and recreational areas. On weekends and evenings especially, the encampments become mass forums for discussing all aspects of Mexican politics and the next steps for the movement.
Amlo recognises the need to pull Mexico’s movements on board, and his politics have shifted accordingly. By early August, he was slamming the country’s rich and vowing to create a “cradle to grave” welfare state.
Peasant organisations support him because he offers democracy and aid to the countryside. Public sector workers support him for democracy, more social spending and a halt to all privatisations. Old people support him for democracy and pensions.
Women’s groups have raised the demand for reproductive rights. Indigenous peoples are organising for the convention, and will be demanding autonomy for their communities. Gays and lesbians will propose legislative changes to gain equal rights.
The tension in Mexico continued to build in early September with no sign of either the movement or the ruling class backing down. Speculation that the parliamentary wing of the PRD would soon break with Amlo was dispelled on 1 September, when PRD representatives stormed the podium in Congress to prevent outgoing president Vicente Fox from giving his annual address to the nation.
Police forces shut down a large working class section of the city surrounding the Congress, expecting that it would be the movement that would attempt to prevent the address.
In the Zocalo, Amlo argued that the state would use the moment to justify repression of the movement, and asked protesters to remain in the square.
The important thing, he said, was to continue building for the convention and not fall for provocations. The question was put to the assembly, and his position was agreed by consensus. It was a remarkable display of a disciplined movement thinking strategically on its feet.
Back in the encampments, thousands gathered around television sets tuned in to the events in Congress. When Fox was forced to retreat, a mere seven minutes after arriving, they erupted in celebration of what they consider to be their first victory.
By its actions, the PRD has gone some way to re-establish its credibility. Amlo has demonstrated his ability both to keep the parliamentary party on board, and, once again, to out-fox Fox. That night new slogans emerged from the encampments: “Fox has fallen, Felipe will fall”, “Not one step backwards”.
There is a whole series of such moments lying ahead in September and the following months.
On Friday of this week, Fox is scheduled to give another address to the nation, this time in the Zocalo. On Saturday, the date of the convention, the army customarily marches through the streets now covered by the encampments. Calderon is set to be officially sworn in as president on 1 December.
The constitutionality of each moment will be contested by the movement. After the weekend, if not already, Mexico will have two political powers - a right wing neo-liberal government that talks of further privatisations, and a rebel left government, of some form, which will be launched by the convention.
Workers’ struggles hold the key to the future
Historically in Mexico, movements such as these have been dealt with by applying selective repression, coming to a negotiated arrangement with the leadership, and afterwards slowly pushing through either democratic or social reforms. This was the strategy successfully applied in 1968 and 1988. There are reasons to doubt that this will be viable in the current context.
Repression will be difficult to apply. Both Amlo and Fox appeal to the army on a regular basis. It is said that the army is split and cannot be relied upon to repress such a broad citizens’ movement. The city police sympathise with the movement and are under the command of a PRD mayor.
This leaves the federal police force and newly forming paramilitary units, which could only be deployed at the cost of massive political damage to whoever uses them. Both the movement and the state recognise that the first to shoot, loses.
Until now, Amlo has refused to even acknowledge Calderon, much less negotiate with him. The extent of negotiations between PRD leaders and PAN is unclear. Amlo himself is being given very little space to reach a negotiated solution, and has so far refused to back down.
Calderon and PAN are talking of political reforms and increased social spending, but while the movement is still on the streets these will be perceived as concessions or derided as too little, too late. The current strategy of the right appears to be simply to wait for the movement to exhaust itself.
The movement is regionally uneven, concentrated in Mexico City. In the southern state of Oaxaca, an economic strike has turned political. Teachers, among the most militant sectors of the Mexican working class, have formed a broad labour front and taken power in some parts of the state.
Throughout Mexico, miners are engaged in militant struggle with the state. Neither strike movement has yet effectively connected with the movement in Mexico City. The same is true of the Zapatistas, who ran an ambiguously abstentionist “Other Campaign” during the elections, and hence will have to figure out how to intervene in the new moment.
Their best known spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos, who is currently living in Mexico City, has yet to comment on the movement there. The huge concentrations of industrial workers in the northern states that border the US remain quiet. All of this could change very quickly.
More seriously, organised political forces to the left of the PRD are still weak. The PRD will be unable to carry this movement forward. In the encampments the question of organisation is being posed but left regroupment will take time.
The situation in Mexico is very fluid and a variety of scenarios are possible. But it is beyond doubt that the left tide rising from Latin America is now heading north.
Ian MacDonald is a postgraduate student at York University, Toronto, Canada