With the all the newspaper ink dedicated to a historic economic decline and record-breaking figures for drug murders, there’s not been a lot of leftover attention for polarizing social issues in Mexico. While US politicians and pundits were battling it out over Terri Schiavo and the War on Christmas, comparable issues provoked relatively little attention south of Texas.
To a certain degree, that has changed. They may have been long conspicuous for their absence, but the culture wars have arrived in Mexico.
The first recent catalyst was, fittingly, abortion. After Mexico City legalized abortion in 2007, there was a brief flurry of outrage from the Church and the extreme right, but then the issue largely disappeared from public attention.
Under the radar, however, the backlash intensified. Over the past three years, a series of states enacted statutes criminalizing abortion, culminating with Veracruz’s prohibition in November. Veracruz brought the number of states criminalizing the practice to 17, thus reaching the required minimum for a constitutional amendment to be passed. Veracruz politicians then submitted a nationwide ban to Congress in Mexico City, which the federal legislators are obligated to consider.
This episode was followed by the legalization of same-sex marriage in Mexico City, a couple days before Christmas. Mexico City became only the second entity to legalize same-sex unions, but the first to provide an avenue to not only marriage but also adoption for homosexual couples.
The reaction was striking in both cases; responding to the same-sex marriage initiative, the National Action Party (PAN) promised a national campaign for a constitutional ban. Cardinal Norberto Rivera, Mexico’s foremost clergyman, said that the “family is being beaten down with these laws and the most terrible thing is that with these laws they want to ignore the fundamental rights of children.” The archbishop of Mexico City, Hugo Valdemar, referred to the “murder of innocent children” and accused politicians who supported the measure of declaring war on Mexican society.
On the other side of the divide, the Veracruz law provoked heated demonstrations in late November at the site of the governor’s State of the State speech. Protests of the Church position outside Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral led to injuries and one arrest on December 27.
So is this an anomalistic deviation into polarization, or is it the opening of a new era of conflict over values in Mexico, comparable to the 1960s in the US?
Most signs point to the former. Social issues in Mexico provoke more measured ambivalence than rabid anger, and social issues do not swing elections. There’s no local version of the religious right whose turnout is vital to the Republicans winning presidential contests, nor is there a contingent of Mexican Limbaughs, whose soapbox can fire up millions.
One wild card, however, could be the Supreme Court, which has promised to address the statewide bans later this year. A ruling that strikes down the prohibitions (it has already upheld the Mexico City law) could in turn increase the likelihood of a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion nationwide. Such a result would at the very least vault the issue to the front page once more, and could also turn it into an enduringly controversial issue.
Another big question is how all this will shake up support for the various parties. For the PAN and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the impact will likely be limited. The PAN‘s opposition to socially liberal positions is longstanding, as is its relationship with Church leaders, so the present opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion will only reaffirm its bonds with the hard-right section of Mexican society.
As for the PRD, the debates have forced them to mount a more full-throated defense of social liberalism, which is a positive development for the minority of Mexican voters who cast votes based on leftist social positions. But most of those voters were already supporters of the PRD (or one of the smaller allied parties), so the net gain is nil.
The impact on the Institutional Party of the Revolution (PRI) has the potential to be more significant. The PRI, an ideologically amorphous party that collected dozens of client groups over the course of its 70 years in power (which ended in 2000), has a significant leftist economic current operating within it, and has made noise about moving further left in recent years. With the recent implosion of the PRD and the PAN firmly established as the right’s preference, such a move would likely bring about long-term electoral gains. But despite that, the PRI has been as stalwart in their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage as the PAN.
The PRI’s confusion is exemplified by the powerful party president Beatriz Paredes. Despite labeling herself a feminist, Paredes emitted nary a peep of opposition as the 17, mostly PRI-led state governments imposed strict penalties for terminating a pregnancy. After Veracruz (also governed by a PRI executive) passed its law and a national ban became a real possibility, commentators began to question her abdication of leadership on the issue. In response, she penned a barely coherent, laughably self-reverential defense of her position, in which she reaffirmed her feminist credentials, but said that she couldn’t impose her views on other members of the PRI.
In short, she and her party want to have it both ways: they want to be a credible vote for leftists fed up with the PRD’s ineptitude and infighting, but they don’t want to offend the majority of Mexicans who express disapproval (however mild and qualified) of same-sex marriage and abortion.
That could wind up being the worst possible position. The PRI’s present ideological contortions might remind voters of a past when it stood for nothing and its raison d’etre was merely to maintain power. The culture wars will likely fade into the background in a matter of weeks, but the impression of the PRI as a party of lily-livered wind-followers could linger.