Explaining Peace in Mexico

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, September 15, 2006; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- The news from Mexico is at times bizarre, at times amazing. The results of the July 2 presidential election are contested and the hugely popular second-place finisher moves into the capital's central square, pitches a tent and vows to start his own government.

Thousands of supporters join him, blocking major thoroughfares in the world's second largest urban area. Bad traffic gets worse and business languishes as life and politics-as-usual are disrupted. For the first time in Mexican history, the president cannot even mount the podium to deliver his annual report to Congress. President-elect Felipe Calderon, in turn, has to use the city's bullring for his victory rally, a small venue that could be easily secured.

Suddenly, a nation that just six years ago collectively broke the shackles of single-party dictatorship now appears deeply polarized and shaken by its experiment with democracy. More than 60 percent of Mexicans polled last week by the daily Reforma said they believe the political situation will get more tense and more than two in three told the research institute GEA-ISA that violence will erupt.

Mexicans have good reason to be concerned. During the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, political dissent was often forcefully repressed. The dirty war of the late 1960s and early '70s marked a particularly low point in government abuse when students and leftist dissidents frequently were murdered. In the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, the army used tanks and helicopters to suppress student protesters rallying in Mexico City, killing scores. Government repression of indigenous movements in the south during the 1980s brought about the rise of the Zapatista armed rebel movement in 1994. That same year, a presidential candidate was murdered at a rally.

So far, the current situation hasn't come to blows. Despite the thousands of protesters in the streets, unprecedented disruptions, calls for a parallel or alternate government and deep national fissures, the country and its government remain peacefully tolerant, prudently civil.

Much of the credit for the peace can be attributed to the very man detractors say is the cause of the crisis: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The losing candidate of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, has gone out of his way to avoid violence. According to one of his top advisers, Manuel Camacho Solis, "every day he tells the people that the movement is peaceful."

Lopez Obrador and his advisers have deliberately avoided pressing into situations that might trigger violence. They voted not to march to a heavily guarded congressional building the day President Vicente Fox was to make his annual report to Congress. Lopez Obrador has also vowed not to interfere with the military parade during Independence Day celebrations this weekend.

The avoidance of violence clearly has limited the government's ability to react. Fox has already signaled that an armed resolution is unacceptable. Perhaps more significantly, however, the mechanisms of repression are no longer what they were -- or at least their attentions are directed elsewhere.

In a matter of historical accident, according to political historian Lorenzo Meyer, the military's justification for its repressive policies against the general population disappeared with the end of the Cold War.

Now the illegal drug trade consumes the attention and resources of the military's intelligence apparatus and clandestine operations.

Meyer is quick to add that the lack of violence cannot be credited to a conscientious internal reform intended to root out oppression. In fact, the government's apparent maturity and restraint are due more to lack of preparation and inexperience with democracy than any kind of purposeful decision. As Mexican writer Jorge Volpi puts it, the government is "stunned" and unable to figure out how to respond to the Lopez Obrador phenomenon.

Mexico's accidental peace in the face of the electoral crisis will be tested further in the next few days and beyond as Lopez Obrador pushes his supporters into making real his alternate government. This weekend he has called for a national convention to name him, at the very least, the leader of an opposition movement made up by Mexico's poor and disaffected.

Historically, Mexico has not been tolerant of grass-roots opposition. But this is the first of such movements to blossom since the country's plunge into democracy in 2000. How Fox and future President Calderon -- as well as Lopez Obrador -- react will either mark a sad setback for that fledgling democracy or set Mexico on a path to greater inclusion and equality.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company