Open Forum

From the Polls or the Populace


Three years ago Mexico ended more than 70 years of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) with the election of Vicente Fox. Since then Mexico has rushed from euphoria to apathy in record time. In the July 6th federal and state elections, 59 percent of registered voters abstained. Mexico appears to have been so successful in creating a U.S.-style tweedle-dum, tweedle-dee party system that the electorate lost interest in the multimillion-dollar midterm campaigns. A study by the Federal Electoral Institute concludes that recent high abstention rates reflect discontent with political parties and a sense that, according to a quote from a citizen survey, the vote “doesn’t contribute at all to changing things.”

Widespread disillusionment in Mexico led to an unexpected comeback for the PRI, particularly in the northern states. The party, proclaimed to be a dinosaur after 2000 garnered 36 percent of the popular vote, while Fox’s National Action Party (PAN) received 30 percent, and 17. 7 percent went to the Party of the Democratic Revolution. While the PRI’s traditional “hardcore” vote rolled in, many opposition voters just stayed home.

In 2000, the change from more than seven decades of Institutional PRI rule to a presidency led by a member of the PAN was heralded as the revitalization of the political party system and of government itself. Many leaders of grassroots organizations and citizen movements looked forward to a new era of participation, openness, and transition.

Now the speed with which those hopes were dashed is juxtaposed with the snail’s pace of real change.

Latin American countries have long been encouraged to emulate U.S. representative democracy, channeling ebullient social movements into party-building and electoral processes. Since the 1970s, most opposition movements have taken the plunge into party politics with varying degrees of success.

But throughout the hemisphere, the relationship between grassroots mobilization and electoral participation has come under the scrutiny of political analysts and activists alike. In Brazil, a government born out of an opposition movement walks a tightrope between its grassroots constituency and its obligations to maintain stability and appease the international finance system. In Bolivia, coca-leader Evo Morales’ close run for the presidency has strengthened the resolve of the movement supporting him to continue participating in local and national elections.

On the other hand, the members of the powerful Ecuadorian social movement that brought Lucio Gutiérrez to power led by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador have called the president to task for what they consider a betrayal of the popular mandate. They’ve begun to question their participation in party politics and government.

A similar reevaluation of the role of elections in democracy is taking place in the United States, but in strangely contradictory ways. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) recently launched an attack on nongovernmental organizations, warning of the growing power of “the unelected few.” By attacking citizen groups that seek to inform policymaking as “unelected,” the implicit assertion is that voting is no longer just one form of democratic participation, but rather the sole legitimate exercise of democracy.

The second implication—that NGOs have no valid role to play in policymaking or governance—is, as many have pointed out, ironic because the AEI is itself an NGO and plays an unprecedented role within the Bush administration. Moreover, since Al Gore actually won the popular national vote by a fair margin, the Bush administration itself holds office in violation of the popular vote that the AEI now claims is the be-all and end-all of political action.

While criticizing these views, progressive organizations have begun to look seriously at returning to the electoral arena. Recently,—the million-and-a-half member Inter-net group that catalyzed anti-Iraq War actions across the country—sponsored a political primary, a year and a half before the presidential elections. Other grassroots organizations that have avoided electoral politics like the plague are suddenly talking about participating due to what they perceive as the urgency of unseating the ultra-conservative Bush administration.

This infusion of activism in electoral politics could reduce the traditionally high abstention rates in U.S. elections, which in itself would be a triumph for the democratic system. What remains to be seen is whether the doddering Democratic Party will respond to pressure from a revitalized base or continue to cater to entrenched interest groups.

The conclusion that can be drawn from all these developments is that among factors resulting in social change, going to the polls is just one variable. Real democracy depends on a keen interplay between electoral participation and grassroots movements. Serious political analysts should examine closely the participation rates in Mexico’s July 6 elections. High absenteeism is a wake-up call not only for that country’s major political parties, but also for parties throughout the hemisphere.

If political parties in the United States and Latin America insist on distilling complex demands for change into a media-centered battle for the vote, they may soon be writing their own epitaphs.

Laura Carlsen directs the Americas Program (online at of the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC, online at She can be contacted at [email protected].