West promoting 'people power' when it suits

The US and the Western media back protests over controversial elections when it is convenient to their interests, but they are keeping silent about the current situation in Mexico

By Mark Almond  /  LONDON , THE GUARDIAN

Sat, Aug 19, 2006 - Page 9

A couple of years ago television, radio and print media in the West just couldn't get enough of "people power." In quick succession, from Georgia's rose revolution in November 2003 and Ukraine's orange revolution a year later, to the tulip revolution in Kyrgyzstan and the cedar revolution in Lebanon, 24-hour news channels kept us up to date with democracy on a roll.

Triggered by allegations of election fraud, the dominoes toppled. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was happy with the trend.

"They're doing it in many different corners of the world, places as varied as Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan and, on the other hand, Lebanon ... And so this is a hopeful time," she said.

But when a million Mexicans try to jump on the people-power bandwagon, crying foul about the July 2 presidential elections, when protesters stage a vigil in the center of the capital that continues to this day, they meet a deafening silence in the global media.

Despite Mexico's long tradition of electoral fraud and polls suggesting that Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador -- a critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) -- was ahead, the media accepted the wafer-thin majority gained by the ruling party nominee, Harvard graduate Felipe Calderon.

Although Mexico's election authorities rejected Lopez Obrador's demand for all 42 million ballots to be recounted, the partial recount of 9 percent indicated numerous irregularities. But no echo of indignation has wafted to the streets of Mexico City from Western capitals.

Maybe Israel's intervention in Lebanon grabbed all the attention and required every hack and videophone. Back in 2004, CNN and the BBC were perfectly able to cover both the battle for Fallujah and the orange revolution. Today, however, not even a news junkie like me can remember a mainstream BBC bulletin live from among the massive crowds in Mexico City.

Faced by CNN's indifference to the growing crisis in Mexico, only a retread of an old saying will do: "Pity poor Mexico, so far from Israel, so close to the United States."

Cuban President Fidel Castro's failing health gets more air time than the constitutional crisis gripping thecUS' southern neighbor, which is one of its major oil suppliers. Apparently, crowds of protesters squatting in Mexico City for weeks protesting against alleged vote-rigging don't make a good news story.

Occasionally the commentators who celebrated Ukrainians blocking Kiev's main thoroughfares condescend to jeer at Mexico's sore losers and complain that businessmen are missing deadlines because dead-enders with nothing better to do are holding up the traffic.

Ukraine's Viktor Yushchenko was decisive when he declared himself president, but isn't Lopez Obrador a demagogue for doing the same?

The color-coded revolutionaries of the former Soviet Union had a pro-Western agenda -- such as bringing Georgia and Ukraine into the US-European security organization and the EU -- but in Latin America radicals question the wisdom of becoming members in US-led bodies such as NAFTA and the WTO. The crude truth is that Washington cannot afford to let Mexico's vast oil reserves fall into hands of a president even half as radical as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

But didn't the Western observers certify the Mexican polls as "fair," while they condemned the Ukrainian elections? True, but election observers are not objective scientists. The EU relies on politicians, not automatons, to evaluate polls. Take the head of its observer mission, Jose Ignacio Salafranca: as a Spanish speaker in Mexico, Salafranca had a huge advantage over many of the observers in Ukraine, but he is hardly neutral. His right-wing Popular Party is an ally of Calderon's National Action Party, which is in power in Mexico. Calderon was immediately congratulated by Salafranca's colleague Antonio Lopez-Isturiz on the "great news."

The days of left-wing fraternalism may be over, but the globalist right has its own network, linking the Spanish conservatives, US Republicans and Calderon's party -- and they provided the key observer.

To paraphrase Stalin: "It doesn't matter who votes, it matters who observes the vote."

Salafranca has a track record as an election observer. In Lebanon's general elections last year he had no problem with the pro-Western faction sweeping the board around Beirut with fewer than a quarter of voters taking part and nine seats gained without even a token alternative candidate.

"It is a feast of democracy," he declared.

His mood changed when the democratic banquet moved to areas dominated by Hezbollah or Christian maverick General Michel Aoun.

Suddenly, "vote-buying" and the need for "fundamental reform" popped up in the EU observation reports.

Unanimity on the scale seen across Lebanon suggests that the cedar revolution -- despite the hype -- did nothing to promote real democratic pluralism. Hezbollah's hold on the south is the most controversial aspect of the sectarian segmentation of Lebanese society, but everywhere local bosses dominate their fiefdoms as before. Similarly, more scepticism about Ukraine's revolution would have left people better informed than the orange boosterism that passed for commentary 18 months ago.

But Mexico is different because it is so under-reported. The cruel reality is that "people power" has become a global brand. But -- like so many global brands -- it is owned by those in the US. Mexicans and any other "populists" who try to copy it should beware that they're infringing a copyright. No matter how many protesters swarm through Mexico City or how long they protest, it is US President George W. Bush and company who decide which people truly represent "The People." People power turns out to be about politics, not arithmetic.

Mark Almond is a history lecturer at Oriel College, Oxford University.