When is it a civic uprising and when is it populism run amok?

During the eighties there was a raging ideological debate within the United States about which regime was more brutal and/or repressive, El Salvador or Nicaragua. It was impossible to condemn or support both governments — the ideological divide was too strong. I bring this up because there’s an interesting contrast to make between developments in ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast.

During the eighties there was a raging ideological debate within the United States about which regime was more brutal and/or repressive, El Salvador or Nicaragua. It was impossible to condemn or support both governments -- the ideological divide was too strong. I bring this up because there's an interesting contrast to make between developments in Mexico and Bolivia. In the former country, James C. McKinley offers a sympathetic explanation in the New York Times for why Andr?s Manuel L?pez Obrador has been able to keep a third of the country mobilized behind him: [W]hy do between a quarter and a third of voters, according to recent opinion polls, agree with him? One reason is history. After decades of one-party rule sustained by fraudulent elections, many Mexicans still deeply distrust their institutions and courts. But it is also because Mexicans have a very different notion of electoral fraud than voters in the United States, a notion that goes beyond stuffing ballot boxes.... For instance, most of Mr. L?pez Obrador?s supporters complain bitterly about the ?intervention? of President Fox in the election. They talk about ?a state election? and the ?imposition? of the candidate from Mr. Fox?s conservative party, Felipe Calder?n, whom the electoral tribunal finally proclaimed president-elect on Tuesday. There is no doubt that Mr. Fox used his position as president and his official tours to campaign vigorously against Mr. L?pez Obrador. Though he never mentioned the leftist candidate by name, he used code words for him, railing against populism, demagogy and false messiahs.... The magistrates? decision not to see the errors on tally sheets as evidence of fraud has fed suspicions that the court cannot be trusted, a theory that Mr. L?pez Obrador reiterates in every speech and which is fortified by the country?s long history of corrupt judges, though no proof has been presented. Mr. L?pez Obrador?s followers also have no confidence in the Federal Electoral Institute, which organized the election. In October 2003, when congressional leaders were making deals to appoint new members to the institute?s governing board, Mr. L?pez Obrador?s party was shut out. Since then the leftists have regarded just about every decision the electoral institute makes with suspicion. In the end, the court ruling may have put Mr. Calder?n in the president?s office, but it has not dispelled feelings among Mr. L?pez Obrador?s supporters that they were robbed. ?What more proof do you need?? said one L?pez Obrador supporter, Enrique Ram?rez, after the ruling. ?At his rallies, Andr?s Manuel has given us the proof of fraud, and we believe him, or at least I do.? Mr. L?pez Obrador is now calling for a ?national convention? this month to mount a civil disobedience campaign to ?re-found the republic? and reform ?institutions that don?t deserve any respect.? How far the movement can go and whether it can remain peaceful remains to be seen and may depend on how deep the suspicions of fraud, as seen in Mexico, run. What is sure is that Mr. L?pez Obrador has defined himself for many voters as the candidate who lost the election, not through his own errors but because the entire apparatus of the state was against him. That is an old tune in Mexico, one that many know the words to. Depending on my readers' political inclinations, I have every confidence that they know whether they side with Calder?n or Obrador. Now, we come to Bolivia, where there's a similar problem but the politics are reversed. Hal Weitzman explains in the Financial Times: Bolivia?s regional and social divisions may be deepened by allegations that President Evo Morales is seeking to dominate an assembly to rewrite the country?s constitution. Four of the country?s nine departments have called a general strike for Friday in protest over proposals by Mr Morales?s allies in the Constituent Assembly to change the rules for voting within the body. The legislation passed by Bolivia?s Congress to establish the assembly specified that constitutional measures could be approved only with a two-thirds majority of the delegates. The governing Movement to Socialism (MAS) party wants to lower the limit to allow proposals to pass with a simple majority. The MAS controls 137 seats in the 255-seat body, short of the 170 votes it would need to have two-thirds of the assembly?s votes. Opposition parties say the proposed change in voting rules is a power-grab by what they view as an increasingly authoritarian government. The general strike has been called by departments in the eastern lowlands, where much of the opposition to Mr Morales is based. The four regions voted in June for greater autonomy from La Paz, and hope to use the assembly to entrench regional devolution in the new constitution. Many activists want to pull out of the assembly if they cannot secure autonomy. Mr Morales said the strikers ?want to divide the country? and warned them he could use troops against civil unrest. ?We call on the armed forces to assume their constitutional role to defend sovereignty and the national territory,? he said.... Mr Morales?s approval ratings have fallen from 81 per cent in May to 61 per cent, according to a poll released this week by Apoyo, a respected regional pollster. My ideological predilections tell me to sympathize with the Bolivians as rejecting the erosion of the rule of law, but to tut-tut L?pez Obrador?s supporters for similar (though not identical) actions. Question to readers: is there any non-fascist formulation whereby one can sympathize with either both governments or both protest movements?

During the eighties there was a raging ideological debate within the United States about which regime was more brutal and/or repressive, El Salvador or Nicaragua. It was impossible to condemn or support both governments — the ideological divide was too strong. I bring this up because there’s an interesting contrast to make between developments in Mexico and Bolivia. In the former country, James C. McKinley offers a sympathetic explanation in the New York Times for why Andr?s Manuel L?pez Obrador has been able to keep a third of the country mobilized behind him:

[W]hy do between a quarter and a third of voters, according to recent opinion polls, agree with him? One reason is history. After decades of one-party rule sustained by fraudulent elections, many Mexicans still deeply distrust their institutions and courts. But it is also because Mexicans have a very different notion of electoral fraud than voters in the United States, a notion that goes beyond stuffing ballot boxes…. For instance, most of Mr. L?pez Obrador?s supporters complain bitterly about the ?intervention? of President Fox in the election. They talk about ?a state election? and the ?imposition? of the candidate from Mr. Fox?s conservative party, Felipe Calder?n, whom the electoral tribunal finally proclaimed president-elect on Tuesday. There is no doubt that Mr. Fox used his position as president and his official tours to campaign vigorously against Mr. L?pez Obrador. Though he never mentioned the leftist candidate by name, he used code words for him, railing against populism, demagogy and false messiahs…. The magistrates? decision not to see the errors on tally sheets as evidence of fraud has fed suspicions that the court cannot be trusted, a theory that Mr. L?pez Obrador reiterates in every speech and which is fortified by the country?s long history of corrupt judges, though no proof has been presented. Mr. L?pez Obrador?s followers also have no confidence in the Federal Electoral Institute, which organized the election. In October 2003, when congressional leaders were making deals to appoint new members to the institute?s governing board, Mr. L?pez Obrador?s party was shut out. Since then the leftists have regarded just about every decision the electoral institute makes with suspicion. In the end, the court ruling may have put Mr. Calder?n in the president?s office, but it has not dispelled feelings among Mr. L?pez Obrador?s supporters that they were robbed. ?What more proof do you need?? said one L?pez Obrador supporter, Enrique Ram?rez, after the ruling. ?At his rallies, Andr?s Manuel has given us the proof of fraud, and we believe him, or at least I do.? Mr. L?pez Obrador is now calling for a ?national convention? this month to mount a civil disobedience campaign to ?re-found the republic? and reform ?institutions that don?t deserve any respect.? How far the movement can go and whether it can remain peaceful remains to be seen and may depend on how deep the suspicions of fraud, as seen in Mexico, run. What is sure is that Mr. L?pez Obrador has defined himself for many voters as the candidate who lost the election, not through his own errors but because the entire apparatus of the state was against him. That is an old tune in Mexico, one that many know the words to.

Depending on my readers’ political inclinations, I have every confidence that they know whether they side with Calder?n or Obrador. Now, we come to Bolivia, where there’s a similar problem but the politics are reversed. Hal Weitzman explains in the Financial Times:

Bolivia?s regional and social divisions may be deepened by allegations that President Evo Morales is seeking to dominate an assembly to rewrite the country?s constitution. Four of the country?s nine departments have called a general strike for Friday in protest over proposals by Mr Morales?s allies in the Constituent Assembly to change the rules for voting within the body. The legislation passed by Bolivia?s Congress to establish the assembly specified that constitutional measures could be approved only with a two-thirds majority of the delegates. The governing Movement to Socialism (MAS) party wants to lower the limit to allow proposals to pass with a simple majority. The MAS controls 137 seats in the 255-seat body, short of the 170 votes it would need to have two-thirds of the assembly?s votes. Opposition parties say the proposed change in voting rules is a power-grab by what they view as an increasingly authoritarian government. The general strike has been called by departments in the eastern lowlands, where much of the opposition to Mr Morales is based. The four regions voted in June for greater autonomy from La Paz, and hope to use the assembly to entrench regional devolution in the new constitution. Many activists want to pull out of the assembly if they cannot secure autonomy. Mr Morales said the strikers ?want to divide the country? and warned them he could use troops against civil unrest. ?We call on the armed forces to assume their constitutional role to defend sovereignty and the national territory,? he said…. Mr Morales?s approval ratings have fallen from 81 per cent in May to 61 per cent, according to a poll released this week by Apoyo, a respected regional pollster.

My ideological predilections tell me to sympathize with the Bolivians as rejecting the erosion of the rule of law, but to tut-tut L?pez Obrador?s supporters for similar (though not identical) actions. Question to readers: is there any non-fascist formulation whereby one can sympathize with either both governments or both protest movements?

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner

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