No Pena Nieto Miracle, Mexico's Politics At A Crossroads

Where to now?
Where to now?
Luis Rubio
The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) governed Mexico, at times with an iron fist, for 70 years until it lost the presidency in 2000. It returned with Enrique Peña Nieto’s victory in this year's presidential elections. But have politics changed in Mexico? Will the PRI resort to its old ways, asks Luis Rubio,* or will it help build a modern system to face the challenges of the 21st century?
MEXICO CITY — In her book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, Anne Applebaum argues that when Soviet-imposed communism collapsed in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, the countries with the most successful transitions were those that had developed “alternative elites,” and had already debated questions about modernizing the economy and expanding civil rights. Where people had forged collaboration and trust-based relations, transition to democracy was smooth and almost natural.
In Poland, the Solidarity trade union led by Lech Walesa had been articulating different forms of government for a decade before transition. In Hungary, economists had been comparing economic development models. And where such debates were absent, communist politicians retained power disguised as democrats. I wondered as I read her book, which of the two models does Mexico resemble?
The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)’s return to the presidency after a 13-year absence has provoked tremendous expectations given the “love-hate” relationship many Mexicans have with a party that held almost all powers from 1929 to 2000. Mexicans inevitably have a different question: What do the changes imply for our rights, for the country’s development, our family earnings and security?
If success depends on the development of an alternative elite, how do we compare to the Eastern Bloc countries? Mexico has for decades developed an extraordinary, technical capacity for managing the affairs of government, while civil society has evolved and taken ever-more sophisticated forms, which suggest similarities to the successful states.
But traits like the dysfunctionality of recent policies suggest similarity to the other, less successful group. In contrast with the totalitarian Soviet model, the Mexican political model allowed the (limited) development of opposition parties and, begrudgingly, tolerated their occasional victories.

A new path?
It would be logical to think that with their growing presence in local, then state-level government, those parties would have developed a capacity to govern. Yet, barring notable exceptions, this has not been the case with the two main opposition parties: the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD). The fact that almost all candidates fielded by PAN-PRD coalitions have been former members of the PRI says it all.
People have proposed a range of explanations for this fact, from the absence of democratic-minded politicians, or the PAN’s “lack of motivation” after the Herculean achievement of winning the presidency in 2000. Some have even said that the PANistas — as “Christian Democrats” — have a political culture fundamentally at odds with government. They lack the malice required to exercise power.
Applebaum wrote in a Washington Post article that alternative elites do not emerge from the void, and may require years to establish themselves. They needed years to do so in Eastern Europe, and may just be emerging in the “Arab Spring” countries. Are the PAN and the PRD opposition parties, both in deep need of fundamentally redefining themselves, in a similar point in their evolution?
The PRI government, meanwhile, may secure its position, remove obstacles that have half-paralysed the country and achieve the dream of retaining power for as long as it can. It may also turn in a mediocre performance that will see it again swept out of office.
Most reforms of the past decade have been unplanned, mediocre and the source of heated national debate. Events in coming years will depend on all the actions taken by citizens and their organizations, on how political parties evolve and on the government’s level of success.
The government’s powers and responsibilities give it the opportunity to create the conditions for the development of that alternative elite. Instead of allowing itself to return to the old PRI inertia, it could actively work to create a political system compatible with the challenges of the 21st century. Mexico has survived the alternation of parties in power, but has yet to consolidate a modern system of government. It can continue in a state of mediocrity, collapse or try the path of true development.
*Luis Rubio is president of Mexico’s CIDAC (Centro de Investigación para el Desarrollo), an independent political and economic research body.
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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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