Saturday, January 31, 2015

Is intentionally nullifying your ballot the same as voting for a corrupt system? Javier Sicilia, the much-loved and highly respected poet and activist, thinks so. A boycott of the June 7 elections is the only way to make a difference, he says. Not everyone agrees.

Javier Sicilia is a poet and peace activist who’s urging Mexicans not to vote in the June 7 mid-term elections.
    He’s not promoting, as others are, internationally nullifying your ballot to register a countable protest against corrupt government and compromised political parties. Even that, he says, is too accommodating of an obsolete state and of a meaningless election process.
    Sicilia’s method of choice is a total boycott, mass abstention nationwide. His is not the only voice raised in that cause. But his brings with it a certain moral authority, well-earned via a track record of advocacy on behalf of the disenfranchised, the poor and the screwed.
    In 2011, after his son was killed, a victim of drug-war violence, Sicilia put together a Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, demanding an end to the mounting deaths and disappearances. Unlike some of today’s activists in Guerrero and elsewhere, Sicilia’s movement didn’t resort to violence and impunity in the name of ending violence and impunity. It emulated freedom riders, caravaning in buses and walking hundreds of kilometers.
    The marches attracted tens of thousands who might otherwise have been watching soap operas. It got much media attention and led to meetings with elected officials, including then-President Felipe Calderón.
    What it did not achieve were results. Nothing changed. In fact, as we all know, things got much worse in the three-plus years that followed.
    Sicilia recently engaged in a weeks-long exchange in the letters section of the magazine Proceso, defending his abstention call against the criticisms of like-minded activists who support him in spirit but not in practice.
    One objection is that a voter boycott is nebulous. There’s no way to tell how much of a low turnout is the result of the boycott rather than of a lack of interest or energy. That distinction apparently doesn’t matter to Sicilia —as long as they don’t vote.
    Martí Batres, a former congressman of more than usual intellectual heft, insisted to Siciia that the only kind of election protest that will accomplish anything is a vote for a true political alternative. Batres, by coincidence, is president of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s new Morena party, which presents itself as precisely that alternative.
    Sicilia responded politely that the problem isn’t which people run the state, it’s that the corrupted state swallows good people whole along with the bad. If López Obrador had won the 2012 presidential election, Sicilia offered by way of illustration, the only difference we’d see today is that it would be he, AMLO, on the hot seat for the crimes of Iguala and Tlatlaya instead of Peña Nieto. 
    Voto nulo advocates say the only election protest that will do any good is intentionally fouling the ballot in the booth. It’s a proactive strategy. You actually do something. And they count up the annulled votes; they’re on the record. Reach a certain percentage and the “voters” have sent a clear message: nothing matters more than ending corruption and impunity now.
    But Sicilia doesn’t want to reform what he considers an irredeemable and obsolete state. He has come to bury it and dance on its grave. He’s akin to the 19th-century ironists, perceiving the end of an established order and encouraging conditions to bring on a new one. Unlike them, though, he’s a confirmed left-wing Catholic whose politics, according to the historian Enrique Krauze, is influenced by the philosopher-priest Ivan Illich, who lived in Cuernavaca for several years and promoted, Krauze says, a sort of Christian-anarchism.
    Sicilia sees the 2015 election boycott as a step toward setting up a committee of national salvation, which will lead to a new constitution. The outcome will be a collection of small self-governing autonomous entities with direct citizen control. No more state.
    There are some problems with this vision, beyond the obvious one that none of it is going to happen. It’s not exactly democratic. If we can’t vote through elections organized by the retro state, who gets to decide who’s on the committee? Are you disqualified if you supported the energy reforms, as Sicilia has hinted? Who drafts the new constitution? Can Carlos Slim participate? Or only individuals who qualify as “the people”?
    What’s actually annoying about the scenario is that it needlessly imposes ideology and utopianism on a decidedly non-ideological, real-life situation. If the goal is pushing elected officials to do something about violence and corruption, that imposition is self-defeating. If the goal is the withering away of the state, to coin a term, then the whole enterprise is off-topic.
    Here's what's on-topic: Mexicans across the political spectrum are at the boiling point and ready for unusual action. A meaningful number of them might be convinced to convert the June election into a protest. A considerably less meaningful number will be willing to sign up for the elimination of the Mexican state in favor of a complicated proposal for radical political re-organization.
    Rule of thumb, it’s generally not a good idea to require people to overthink things when encouraging them to act — or not act, in this case. Right now there’s unprecedented support for ending corruption. But for ending the Mexican state? Not so much. One thing at a time.

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