The Rise of Morena

The success of Mexico's newest left party has been tempered by the challenges of working inside a corrupt political system.

A new electoral force is capturing the imagination of the Mexican left: the National Regeneration Movement (Morena). Morena’s rise is generating equal parts enthusiasm and skepticism and generating debates about incrementalism and the role of social movements in elections. Many leftists hope that Morena will be the force to finally bring the Left to power in Mexico, while others remain skeptical of Morena and of electoral campaigns in general.

In the midterm elections this June 5, when twelve states chose governors and mayors and Mexico City elected a constitutional assembly, Morena had a modest but promising performance. Running on pledges to obstruct neoliberal structural reforms and defend the gains of the Mexican Revolution, Morena established itself as the primary political force in Mexico City and won control over several municipalities across the nation. In the state of Zacatecas, it became the second political force, and all around the country, Morena displaced the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) as the primary party of the Left.

Morena’s prospects for future elections are even better: early polls for the June 2018 presidential elections show Morena’s highly popular candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (often referred to by his initials as AMLO) as the clear front-runner. The three other major parties, each facing internal crises, are struggling to find viable candidates for the presidency.

López Obrador, the candidate who promises “regime change” if he is elected, who rails against neoliberalism and US imperialism, who claims the legacy of Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón, is the candidate to beat in the 2018 presidential elections in Spanish America’s largest country.

But is Morena really a revolutionary force? The Left is split on that question. In an editorial for La Jornada, leftist political scientist John Ackerman wrote that the rise of Morena and the education conflict create a “historical convergence” that will finally allow the Left to topple Mexico’s authoritarian system.

The Trotskyist (Trotskyist Fraction–Fourth International) Movimiento de los Trabajadores Socialistas (MTS), which publishes Izquierda Diario, responded to John Ackerman, criticizing Morena for its roots in the corrupt Mexican political system and calling Morena a “bourgeois political force.” While not criticizing Left electoral campaigns in general, the MTS argues that Morena doesn’t truly represent the working class, and instead encourages leftists to organize behind their own electoral campaigns such as that of Sergio Moissen.

Other leftist groups, such as the Cliffite Izquierda Revolucionaria (of the International Socialist Tendency), which publishes el Militante, and Izquierda Socialista (International Marxist Tendency, a leading proponent of Trotskyist entryism) offer “critical support” of Morena and encourage their members to enter the party to push it to the Left. An article by Felipe Castro in the May 2016 issue of el Militante criticizes Morena for “subordinating all of the party’s actions to electoral campaigns,” but does not discard the possibility of left support.

As it stands, el Militante sees Morena as a tool to advance the Left’s goals that has the potential of being transformed into a real revolutionary force. The article continues:

If Morena really wants to play a role in the transformation of the country, based on the support of the Left, declarations of solidarity with social movements, moralistic calls to revolutionize consciousness and honest candidates will not be enough. Morena must fight in the streets with the teachers, the peasants, the students and other sectors engaged in active mobilizations.

The Rise of the PRD

Morena was founded in early 2013 when it split from the PRD over the latter’s support for neoliberal structural reforms. The PRD had itself emerged in 1989 as a left-wing electoral alternative to the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The Left initially supported the PRD, but that support produced mixed results: the founding of the PRD created a viable left-wing electoral opposition to the PRI, which had never existed before in postrevolutionary Mexico, but also pacified the militant Marxist left. For many Mexican leftists, the Left died the day the PRD was founded.

Before the PRD, Mexican politics was dominated by the PRI. Founded in 1929 after the violent phase of the Mexican Revolution by a fragile coalition of peasants, workers, and liberal businessmen, the PRI sought to institutionalize the revolutionary process and streamline the demands of different social sectors into a corporatist project of class collaboration.

Early PRI politicians such as Lázaro Cárdenas, president of Mexico from 1936–1942, described himself as a socialist. Cárdenas carried out many socialist programs, such as nationalizing oil and expropriating land from large landholders to create a system of collective farms. But after Cárdenas, the PRI began to abandon its principles of nationalism, socialism, and anti-clericalism. In what right-wing Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa called “the perfect dictatorship,” the PRI’s handpicked candidates won every single presidential election for the rest of the twentieth century, often with more than 80 percent of the vote.

The PRI’s dominance was maintained by an “internal left”: socialist and leftist parties that were outwardly critical of the PRI but did not oppose it in elections. These parties, including the Authentic Party of the Mexican Revolution (PARM) and the Popular Socialist Party (PPS), may have nudged the PRI slightly to the left, but they also legitimated the PRI’s image as a revolutionary party even as it moved further and further to the right.

Throughout the decades, the PRI steadily became more repressive while aligning itself with the United States and the business class. In the 1980s, the PRI began implementing neoliberal policies under President Miguel de la Madrid. As it did so, the PRI’s total control of Mexican politics began to slip. A group within the PRI opposed neoliberal reforms in favor of democratization. This group, led by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, son of Lázaro Cárdenas, founded the left-leaning Democratic Current within the PRI.

In 1988, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas broke with the PRI after failing to secure its nomination for the presidency. Instead, Cárdenas announced that he would run for president as the nominee of the PARM. A broad coalition came together to support his bid for the presidency, including the PRI’s internal left and the Marxist left. Trotskyists, communists, and Maoists joined millions of Mexicans who had been left behind by the Revolution to pledge their support for Cárdenas and his National Democratic Front (FDN).

The official election results supposedly showed that Cárdenas had lost the election to Carlos Salinas de Gortari of the PRI. However, the election was marred by irregularities, and most historians believe that Cárdenas was the true winner. Cárdenas decided that he would accept the results, leaving the movement that had been built around his candidacy at an impasse. Which direction should it take? Should it remain a “movement” or become a new political party? Continue serving as an antagonistic foil to the PRI, or become a viable contender for political power?

Cárdenas decided on the latter. In the first months of 1989, the FDN reincorporated itself into the PRD. The PRD presented itself as a Mexican Revolution fundamentalist party, a party that would defend the gains of the Mexican Revolution while fighting for democratization.

The founding of the PRD swallowed much of the old Mexican left. The Mexican Socialist Party (PMS) was the successor to the Mexican Communist Party (PCM). After the PCM was legalized in 1978, it joined other small socialist parties to form the Unified Mexican Socialist Party (PSUM), which eventually became the PMS.

The PMS and its predecessors had been the strongest, most coherent forces on the Mexican Marxist left, consistently winning around five percent of the vote and maintaining significant presences in labor unions and social movements. However, in 1989, the PMS decided to dissolve itself to allow the newly formed PRD to use its party registration.

The PMS had been able to maintain its independence while supporting Cárdenas’s presidential campaign, but joining a new party would be different. According to historian Dan La Botz, the PMS’s dissolution was such a blow to the Left that it nearly purged “socialism” from the political vocabulary.

Without the existence of the PMS, groups like the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party (PRT) were simply too small and marginal to make socialism a genuine option. When the PMS voted itself out of existence, it sawed off the left end of the political spectrum . . . Mexican politics shifted to the right, so the center also moved to the right. The collapse of the left parties made politics in general more conservative.

The collapse of the Left also reduced the political options for the independent labor unions, peasant organizations, and other social movements. In part, the suicide of the Left in 1989 helps to explain why the Zapatista Chiapas Rebellion of 1994 would not, or could not, explicitly place socialism on the agenda. By 1994, that alternative had become politically unthinkable. By default, the PRD had become the Left.

Since 1989, when the PRD “became the Left,” it has shifted steadily to the right, despite scoring electoral victories and gaining legislative influence. But controlling only a minority of the legislature, the PRD was unable to stop Salinas de Gortari’s neoliberal agenda.

The massive mobilizations for the election did nothing to strengthen organized labor or make it more militant. Many labor leaders decided that they could accomplish more through corporatist relations with the PRI than through support for the PRD.

When Salinas de Gortari began a series of brutal privatizations in the nineties, most notably of telephone systems, organized labor offered little opposition. The Mexican Telephone Workers Union (STRM), which had once been one of the most militant leftist unions, agreed to Salinas’s plan to privatize Mexican telephone lines in exchange for minor concessions.

The PRD played a vital role in breaking the power of the PRI and bringing about Mexico’s transition to a multi-party system — a process many political scientists mischaracterize as “democratization.” Instead, the weakening of the PRI at the PRD’s hands instead allowed the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) to win the presidency in 2000, and again in 2006. The earnest religious conservatives of the PAN, replacing the cynical technocrats of the PRI, drew Mexico deep into the US “war on drugs,” a conflict that has killed over 150,000 people in Mexico since 2006.

History Repeated?

A highly charismatic but divisive figure, Andrés Manuel López Obrador started his political career as a member of the PRI and helped found the PRD in 1989. Representing a tendency within the PRD to the left of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas but to the right of former PMS members such as Herberto Castillo, AMLO rose within the ranks of the PRD to become president of the party in 1996.

In 2000, AMLO replaced Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas to become the second democratically elected mayor of Mexico City, and then became the PRD’s candidate in the presidential election of 2006. In another election that most observers agree was fraudulent, AMLO lost by a fraction of a percent to Felipe Calderón of the PAN.

López Obrador created Morena as a civic organization within the PRD to support his candidacy for the 2012 presidential election. Even though AMLO’s politics were to the left of most of the PRD leadership, his charisma and popularity made him the strongest possible candidate they could put forward, and the PRD again chose him as their presidential candidate. But after he was defeated by Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI, centrists associated with Jesús Zambrano Grijalva took over the PRD, and entered into the Pact for Mexico with the PRI and PAN.

The Pact for Mexico is an agreement between the three major parties — who at that time controlled over 90 percent of the legislature — to pursue a series of neoliberal structural reforms, which include the highly controversial educational reform, which seeks to limit the influence of teachers’ unions, and the energy reform, an initiative to privatize Mexican petroleum.

Like the PRD before it, Morena entered into an internal debate about whether to remain a “movement” or to form a new political party. Morena decided to break from the PRD to form what they hoped would be “a new kind of party.”

Morena sought to avoid the pitfalls of its predecessors by maintaining its relationships with social movements while vigorously opposing neoliberal structural reforms that sought to dismantle the gains of the revolution. In its first legislative test in June 2015, Morena won a plurality in the Mexico City legislature, alarming the PRD, which had maintained solid control of Mexico City government since 1997.

A Test for Morena

In the run-up to the elections of June 5, 2016, Morena faced a particularly difficult dilemma in the Federal District of Mexico City. Although vote-buying and clientelism remain widespread in Mexican elections, such practices are not as prevalent in Mexico City as in the rest of the country. But the elections for the crucial Mexico City Constitutional Assembly were governed by an undemocratic procedure specifically designed to limit Morena’s influence.

Mexico City, as a federal district, has a status similar to Washington, DC, with limited rights to self-governance. In January 2016, the Federal District Political Reform Law gave Mexico City more of the rights of other federal entities, including the right to its own constitution. The federal act also created a Constitutional Assembly for drafting the constitution.

The Constitutional Assembly is critical to the future of Mexico City. Morena’s proposals for the constitution include protecting the right to protest (which has been called into question by other parties contesting the election). Morena has also called for incorporating radical urban planning concepts, such as requiring neighborhood referenda to approve large development projects and banning privatization of public spaces.

Yet the system for electing representatives to the Constitutional Assembly is highly undemocratic. The assembly will consist of one hundred representatives, only sixty of which were elected by the people of Mexico City by proportional representation. The remaining forty were appointed by President Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI, the mayor of Mexico City (Miguel Ángel Mancera, of the PRD) and the PRI-controlled federal legislature.

It was clear that the undemocratic selection process for the assembly was designed to weaken Morena, and Morena and its supporters publicly criticized it during the lead-up to the elections. Martí Batres, leader of Morena in Mexico City, excoriated the process at a press conference in January.

“There is no historical, legal, rational or ethical justification for forty of the one hundred deputies to be appointed from above,” said Batres. “It will distort the popular will in the Constitutional Assembly . . . and put at risk Mexico City’s precarious autonomy and ability to govern itself.” However, after an internal debate, Morena decided to participate instead of promoting mass abstention.

The sixty elected representatives were chosen on June 5 through proportional representation. Even though Morena won the election with a plurality of 33.06 percent of the vote, 4 percent more than the PRD, Morena will only have twenty-two out of one hundred seats in the Constituent Assembly. Meanwhile, the PRI, which only won 7.75 percent of the popular vote, will have twenty-one seats.

This system for choosing delegates to the Constitutional Assembly was a clever plan on the part of the Pact for Mexico parties. By giving themselves the right to select 40 percent of the delegates, the PRI and PRD secured control over the constitutional drafting process, even though they have limited support in Mexico City. Meanwhile, the fact that a small majority of the delegates were elected democratically gives the process a semblance of legitimacy that weakens claims that it is being imposed undemocratically.

Furthermore, during the campaign period and the constitutional drafting process (which will last from September to January 31, 2017), the Left’s attention and energy has been focused on a political process that it has little capacity to influence. As Pedro Miguel noted in an editorial for La Jornada, this practice of convening semi-democratic elections has served Latin American dictatorships well in the past.

In 1980, Miguel recalls, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet saw himself forced to make some sort of move towards democratization. He drafted a constitution that allowed for free and democratic legislative elections, but mandated that 30 percent of the legislature would be appointed by Pinochet himself and other government officials loyal to him. The dictator was able to stay in power for ten years after the constitution went into effect.

Left Abstentionism

Some on the Left, however, chose to abstain from the Constitutional Assembly elections rather than legitimate an undemocratic process by participating. In March 2016, a group of left forces, including socialist parties and community organizations, convened the Popular and Democratic Constitutional Assembly, led by the Popular Front of Mexico City (FPCM). Their criticisms of the undemocratic election procedures echoed those of Morena, but unlike Morena, the groups organized around the FPCM concluded that the Left should refuse to participate.

The FPCM’s assembly plans to act parallel to the official assembly, made up of representatives from community organizations and social movements, and to use direct actions to prevent the imposition of the official constitution. The FPCM’s mobilizations are unlikely to succeed in obstructing or delaying the official constitutional process. But their refusal to participate may play a positive role by delegitimizing the imposed constitution and the city government during social conflicts in the future.

This withholding of legitimacy would have been much more powerful if Morena had also signed on to the abstention campaign. However, Morena seems to have decided that the marginal role they will be able to play in drafting the constitution with only twenty-two delegates is more important than delegitimizing the undemocratic process.

The FPCM’s calls for abstention may have had more impact than Morena’s calls for participation. Although Morena won a plurality, only 28 percent of eligible voters participated in the polls, a historic low for Mexico City. The two winners of the June 5 elections in Mexico City were Morena and abstentionism.

The PRI’s Crisis

Across Mexico, the results of the June 5 elections were generally positive for Morena, and also for the right-wing PAN. The losers were the PRI and the PRD.

After the departure of Morena, the PRD was facing very bad prospects before the June 2016 elections. In a desperate move to avoid slipping into irrelevance, the party cynically entered into a set of alliances with the PAN. Such “alliances” in reality consisted of the PRD endorsing PAN candidates.

In all of the states where a PRD-PAN alliance won governorships (Veracruz, Durango, Quintana Roo), the alliance’s candidate was a panista, while in most states where the PRD contested elections independently, they were beaten out by Morena. The PRD-PAN alliances prove that the PRD is no longer anything resembling a leftist force, and further alienate a PRD base that was already weakened by the departure of Morena.

The June 5 elections were also bad news for the PRI. The party lost governorships in five states, including three where it had never lost an election before: Tamaulipas, Veracruz, and Chihuahua. Only a few decades ago, the PRI routinely won presidential elections with over 80 percent of the vote; now, it struggles to win four-way split gubernatorial elections with 30 percent.

According to political observers, the PRI’s weak performance represented a vote of punishment against the PRI. After returning to the presidency in 2012, the PRI has failed to deliver on its promise of returning stability and the rule of law to the country, which was pulled deep into the US drug war during the mandate of PAN president Felipe Calderón (2006-2012). Now, after the outcome of the June 5 elections, the PRI faces a precarious situation for the 2018 presidential election.

The Future of Morena

Social movements rarely come out of electoral campaigns, and social movements that incorporate themselves into political campaigns usually come out weakened. The kind of movement infrastructure needed to build a successful electoral campaign doesn’t look like the infrastructure of a successful social movement.

Although supporters such as John Ackerman may see Morena as a “movement party” whose main goal “is not to win elections but to transform the country,” as soon as election campaigns begin, electoral considerations almost inevitably take precedence over everything else.

When social movements do support electoral campaigns, they should maintain their independence. The dissident teachers of the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE) offer a model for how social movements can support political campaigns while remaining independent. The CNTE, a radical leftist teachers’ union, is engaged in a fierce struggle with the Mexican government against a neoliberal education reform.

Before the June 5 elections, AMLO and Morena made various overtures to the CNTE, promising that in states where Morena won governorships, the education reform would be cancelled. The CNTE responded with a lukewarm endorsement of Morena less than a week before the elections. Refusing to make a formal alliance with Morena, the CNTE encouraged its members to vote for Morena to punish the other parties, especially in Oaxaca, where the education conflict is most intense.

However, as Morena won no governorships, there is little the party can do to support the CNTE from a position of political power. Nevertheless, after the elections, the CNTE was able to bring the federal government to the negotiating table through a series of roadblocks, protests, and strikes. Senators have even offered to modify the education law to include the CNTE’s demands. Had the CNTE invested more of its political capital into Morena’s campaign, the union may not have been able to claim that victory.

Either way, the corporatist equilibrium of the PRI is in terminal decline. It remains to be seen whether a cohesive left-wing alternative will rise to the occasion. Morena could be that alternative, but it must overcome a deeply established system of clientelism and the justified skepticism of many in the Mexican left. It must go further than empty declarations of solidarity with social movements to offer genuine, active support, while not demanding that social movements sacrifice their independence.