The populist city

Mexico City is a highly complex urban organism. Sophisticated and harsh at the same time, the city poses different political challenges in almost every front. Since the city functions as the country’s financial, cultural and political heart, every action, every protest, every deed that takes place within its streets resonates at the national scale. Thus, the political complexity in the city makes up an interesting mix where emerging political figures from different corners of the country concur with a growing civilian engagement, the latter organized in a myriad of independent organizations that claim for a wider public scrutiny over the former . This was beginning to be the case before 1997, already under the PRI’s regime , but it became even more so after the elections that year , when the leftist opposition party PRD won with an ample support .
The political reform that gave way to those elections, the first for the capital city after the 1917 revolution, was bolstered by the economic changes brought in with the NAFTA in 1994. But this did not come in naturally, as a political evolution. After the 1995 economic crisis (caused by internal structural economic and political complications) politicians were not fully aware of the political implications of the economic structural adjustments demanded by the international lending institutions that financed the indebted nation. The economic treaty created a different relationship with the US and the international community, towards whom Mexican authorities wanted to appear more legitimate. Following a liberal agenda on the economy, the government started accepting restrictions on its behavior and allowed the country to be subject to the continuous scrutiny of the international community. The new economic environment granted new political freedoms as an involuntary consequence rather than reasoned choice. As one analyst argued: “Fearing international repercussions, the Mexican government could no longer afford to repress a political movement, as [president] Salinas did in early 1994 with the Zapatistas, nor keep political participation an exclusive and exclusionary game, run unfair and predictable elections or offer loyalty and accountability in exchange for benefits.”
It could be said that, in a way, democracy was involuntarily imported into the city. Without a deep-rooted tradition of democratic practices, nor the existence of strong democratic institutions that could channel disagreements, conflict or dissent, the newly elected officials faced a new political landscape. Hence, a new political configuration was produced. Important adjustments were needed. On the one hand, this implied an exercise in fine-tuning democratic objectives at a level of discourse, sometimes even in concrete actions . On the other, it also pressed politicians into mastering the use of the political tools at hand for their own survival, such as the construction and operation of a new political platform, the promotion of majorities and the political use of economic resources. However, these arrangements departed at the same time from a simple and clear-cut understanding of a democratic and transparent practice, leading to the intrusion of a rather different political logic: a form of populism within democracy as a political rationale that, as we will see, focuses on the notion of discourse and the dynamic formation of identities through new forms and uses of local policies. In what follows, we will delve into a better understanding of these configurations and how they become a tangible political mechanism. We will do this by examining two case studies where this political rationale turns into a consistent policy with concrete consequences on the urban level.

Understanding populism and the nature of the populist demand

Populism is a controversial term, the diversity of its definitions is staggering. With Laclau, we’ll assume that populism is a way of constructing the political. As many cases show, it has become indeed the leading form of politics in contemporary democracies functioning under the logic of late semio-capitalism. Populism has typically been associated with an excess of a political rationale. As we know, it is a phenomenon that can be traced to antiquity, but its precise definition has been until very recently attributed to common traits among different social movements and moments. Laclau’s analysis is pertinent because it attends the problem of an ideological foundation as the mechanism of identity formation that can be mobilized for political purposes. In other words, for Laclau, the formation of an identity as a trigger for political action and engagement is the key factor to understand populist impulses in various degrees.

Descargar texto