Thursday, January 22, 2015

Today's Headlines: The PRD keeps sinking and its best and brightest keep bolting. Put it on the endangered species list.

Sprawling and teeming, Mexico City is divided into 16 administrative districts called delegaciones, many of which have larger populations than most cities. “Delegación” is often translated these days as “borough,” since the system is reminiscent of, though not exactly equivalent to, that of New York.
    The borough chief is still usually referred to as the delegado, a term left over from when each was appointed by the regente, or head of the Federal District (Mexico City), himself appointed by the federal executive branch. Now everybody’s elected, and the borough chief position is roughly equivalent to what a municipal president— a mayor — would be if Mexico City were a state rather than a Federal District.
    Except no borough has a legislative body — no city council or cabildo. There’s only the citywide Federal District Legislative Assembly, or ALDF. Hence a borough chief’s function is strictly administrative, with almost all effort aimed at land use decisions, borough-specific public works projects and the handling of local law enforcement.
    The nature of the job, then, puts it firmly into the political stepping-stone category, a launching pad for higher office. It’s also akin to a baseball umpire — only your failures are noticed. And, inevitably, it attracts charges of corruption.
    This mini-civics lesson is by way of introducing today’s slightly hysterical lead headline in El Universal, which brings together those three elements of the job description: “Chapulines leave behind chaos in public works and security.” This needs some exegesis, so let’s take a look.
    “Chapulines” comes from the native Náhuatl word for grasshoppers. It’s operative slang for political office holders who are abandoning their incumbency to run for a different position. The term especially applies to those Federal District borough chiefs seeking to make the hop to a legislative post, either as a federal deputy or member of the ALDF. It’s not meant as a compliment.
    All 14 PRD delegados acted en masse this week, taking leaves from their posts to seek their party’s nomination as deputy candidates. The exodus was unpopular, and is attacked almost daily in the press.
    Never mind that their terms are up this year and they can’t run for re-election. Never mind that they can’t be borough heads and seek a congressional nomination at the same time. In the public eye, their action removed all doubt about their commitment to personal gain over governing well. And the fact that they can come hustling back to their jobs if their new dreams don’t work out, like cheating spouses, infuriates their constituency all the more.
    El Universal’s story today attempts to stir the pot by showing the business of the 14 PRD borough chiefs-on-leave is not only unfinished but poorly performed. An “analysis carried out by El Universal” finds that the crime rate increased in half the boroughs, and the number of complaints about land use or construction violations went up in eight of the 14.  “In some cases,” the paper concludes, “the situation is worse than when they took office in 2012.”
    That’s hardly “chaos.” If crime is up in half the boroughs, it’s down in the other half. If “some” PRD boroughs are worse off, then most are better off. It’s all how you look at it.
    The real story of the chapulines is that virtually all of them have been accused of corruption or something resembling it. Some of the charges are petty and all are unproven. But the fact remains that the 14 PRD borough chiefs (the two others belong to the conservative PAN and the PRI-affiliated Green Party) have contributed more than their share to the party’s increasingly wretched reputation.

Things are so bad chez PRD that several of its most respected members have bolted in recent weeks — either to retirement, to Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s nascent left-of-center alternative party (Morena), or to as-yet-undefined greener pastures. The latest is former Mexico City Mayor and current Senator Alejandro Encinas, an avuncular professor-type who balances solid man-of-the-left credentials with a respectable image and responsible demeanor.
    He summed up his reasons for leaving rather convincingly yesterday: “There’s a great disenchantment, a malaise, much indignation, even shame at the current situation in the PRD.” An equally honest way of putting it might have been: “I’m getting out of this hell-hole while I still have a piece of my reputation intact.” El Universal’s No. 2 front-page head puts it a third way, quoting Encinas: “The PRD is hopeless.”
    Encinas hasn’t yet revealed what he’ll be doing, or with whom. Perhaps more will be forthcoming at another speech he has planned for today. The guest list is interesting: PRD co-founders Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, Porfirio Muñoz Ledo and Ifgenia Martínez, plus fellow former Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, once the party’s shining light and as of now still a member.

To be fair, the PRD is probably no more corrupt than the PRI, no more dysfunctional than the PAN, and no more riven with self-absorbed careerists than any of the nine parties, large or small. But the worst of its woes are more recent than those of other parties, and they include the biggest fish of them all — the alleged mass murder mastermind of Iguala, the former PRD Mayor José Luis Abarca.
    And as luck would have it, the party’s latest scandals are of the lingering variety, such that each day’s headlines take its image down another notch. Today’s example is Reforma’s main front-pager: “Line 12 gets worse.” This refers to the newest addition to Mexico City’s once-proud Metro system, which was built to take passengers from the isolated Tlahuac borough 25.5 kilometers across the southern part of the city. Half of it was shut down last March because of construction incompatibilities, just months after its much-ballyhooed inauguration.
    The closure was a political blow for Ebrard, not to mention for the hundreds of thousands of commuters that used the line daily. It was during Ebrard’s administration that the mega-project was planned, built and put into service. Now the “incompetent” label that political enemies had tried to pin on the PRD city government — unsuccessfully, as the city noticeably improved during the party’s 17-year reign — finally had a basis in reality. 
    City leaders under Ebrard’s successor, Miguel Ángel Mancera, knew the only way to stop the hemorrhaging was to get the damn thing fixed. That hasn’t happened. Now it looks like the trains will never fit the curvy tracks of the above-ground stretch of the line. Replacing them will be costly, to say the least, and will also remind everybody of the strange decision to lease the current cars for more than what it would have cost to buy them.
    The fallout from all this is that the PRD faces the prospect of losing its majorities in the ALDF and among the 16 borough chiefs in the June election (Mancera has three years left in his term). That scenario becomes even likelier when you factor in the intention of AMLO’s Morena party to go all out in the DF, splitting the left vote. If the abstention or annulled-vote campaigns amount to anything, that will hurt the PRD as well, since most of that movement’s advocates reside on the left.
    Mexico City has been the PRD’s bastion since the party was born in 1989. With no real nationwide presence, they don’t have much if they don’t have the capital. A dwindling minority in the federal Congress, maybe a few governorships, a state legislature or two. That’s it.
    Unless the PRD base somehow holds, Mexico is looking at a stretch without a viable progressive electoral force. Even its traditional detractors, such as big business, will lament the loss, as right-wing pols trot out the old bromide, “Mexico needs a responsible alternative on the left.” What they’ll  mean, of course, is, “We need a convenient straw man to scare people with.” But they’ll still be right.

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