Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas’ formal separation last November from the party he founded surely hastened the PRD’s ongoing descent into irrelevance. But his departure didn't cause the free fall. It was the result of it.
Some background: Cárdenas, dour-faced but radiating integrity, is the son of one of only two revered Mexican presidents — the 1930s reformist Lázaro Cárdenas (the 19th century’s Benito Juárez is the other). After failing to democratize the by-then sclerotic and authoritarian PRI, he bolted the ruling party, formed a leftist coalition and in 1988 challenged the official candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, for the presidency.
It was an audacious move, and he almost pulled it off. Only official fraud, most agree, denied him victory.
The showing provided the momentum for the formation in 1989 of a new, permanent political force — the Party of the Democratic Revolution. The left now had a viable home for electoral pursuits, and though Cárdenas lost two more presidential bids, the PRD soon won and kept winning in Mexico City, and has governed the capital reasonably well for two decades.
But from the beginning the PRD consisted of a cobbled-together assortment of impatient pols pushing competing ideologies, from committed democrats and anti-corruption idealists to former revolutionaries and current socialists, not to mention opportunistic party-hoppers. The resulting instability and internal dissension recalled the old Will Rogers line: “I belong to no organized party. I’m a Democrat.”
Worse, the party activists, no doubt from years of habit, showed themselves more skilled at protesting the transgressions of their opponents than promoting their own proposals. This earned them a reputation as whiners and malcontents, which their opponents exploited to further brand the party as more interested in effecting change from the street rather than from the voting booth.
The charges were exaggerated, but they took on new life in 2006. It was then that the PRD’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who had invigorated the party with his credible presidential bid, tried to influence a pending court decision on his challenge of the official results (he lost by a handful of votes) by occupying Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City’s signature boulevard.
When that didn’t work, he declared himself the winner anyway, Mexico’s “legitimate president.”
The first action ticked off most of the population, including a certain percentage of supporters. The second called into question both his maturity and his judgment. There have been times in Mexican history (1876, for example) when aggrieved would-be leaders called themselves “presidente legítimo” and really meant it. The consequences were not pretty.
Those poor decisions doomed AMLO’s second run for the presidency against the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto in 2012. Still, his respectable second-place finish with 31.6% of the vote in a three-way race confirmed the appeal of a left-of-center candidate in Mexico.
But the PRD’s image continued to sink, hitting rock bottom last October in the aftermath of the massacre of 49 young people in Iguala, Guerrero. That city’s mayor and his wife, who are accused of sharing power with a criminal organization and ordering the murders, are PRD members. The party that once considered itself the cleanest of the lot, is now seen as a cauldron of corruption.
Now, most people who pay attention to these things understand that all three major parties have members in office who are vulnerable to threats or seduction from organize crime. But the faction that has come to power inside the PRD — known as the Chuchos — managed to make a horrible situation worse by refusing at first to condemn the Iguala mayor. Sane people will turn their heels and put as much space as possible between them and mass murderers, regardless of party affiliation. The PRD leadership defended them.
That was the last straw for Cárdenas, or at least the pretext for executing a previously planned exit. When I interviewed him in 2011 upon the publication of his autobiography (reviewed in English here), he was clearly disillusioned with the party leadership and had been for a while.
“What they’re doing is not the right thing for the party and not right for Mexico’s progressive sectors,” he told me (in near-perfect English, by the way). “I’d like to think they’ll realize what the real priorities of a party like the PRD should be.”
Then he named the priorities: “Strengthen the citizen base, offer a clear proposal for the nation, and set an example for personal conduct.”
None of those things has happened. What has happened is the party’s soul has flown.