Enrique Pena Nieto took the oath of office as Mexico’s new president on Saturday, promising a list of specific reforms that are part old-party populist handouts to the poor and new assaults on the entrenched systems and sacred cows that have hampered the country’s development.
Pena Nieto, marking the return of the institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, promised everything from a new integrated program to prevent crime to ending the patronage and buying of teacher positions that rule the public education system and opening up broadband Internet service now dominated by just a few telecommunication monopolies.
“It’s time to move Mexico and to achieve a national transformation,” Pena Nieto said. “This is the moment for Mexico.”
The return of the PRI after a 12-year hiatus started with violent confrontations in the streets and protest speeches from opposition parties inside the congress, where Pena Nieto took the oath of office. Protesters continued vandalizing downtown businesses, smashing plate glass windows and setting office furniture ablaze outside.
Protesters clashed with tear gas-wielding police, calling the inauguration of Pena Nieto an “imposition” of a party that ruled with a near-iron fist for 71 years using a mix of populist handouts, graft and rigged elections. At least two people were injured, one gravely, police said, and a police officer who was bleeding from the face was taken for medical treatment
Like so many young people in the Middle East, Ali dates his political awakening to protest activity, having taken part in demonstrations in Bahrain when they first broke out over a year ago. The 23-year-old, who declined to provide his full name for safety reasons, responded to Millennial Letters’ recent blog post, “Where’s the News Coverage of Bahrain?” by explaining that the opposition is often misunderstood on the outside.
In Bahrain today, “it’s not a simple Sunni vs. Shiite divide,” the young accounting student explains in an e-mail interview. “More accurately, it would be Shiite Islamists + liberals (both Sunni & Shiite) vs. Sunni Islamists + rich liberals close to royal family (which I think is an oxymoron, how can a liberal be pro-dictatorship?).”
Ali is very active on Twitter (@S_Bahraini) and although he lives far away from the main cities, he says he makes a point of attending major opposition-led demonstrations. These protests have also challenged the opposition, he says, because the slogans shouted on the streets—many of which call for the end of the monarchical system—conflict with the stated demands of most opposition parties, many of which he says still call for a reformed monarchy in Bahrain. “It is increasingly awkward for them when they schedule rallies and the protesters call for the fall of the regime,” he says, “and when the groups demand a constitutional monarchy, this angers the crowd, so there is still this disconnect between the parties and the people.
Soviet leaders had a poor record of keeping their promises. Nikita Khrushchev’s pronouncement that Communism would be fully implemented by 1980, or Mikhail Gorbachev’s pledge to give every family its own apartment by 2000, only provided more fodder for political jokes. Dmitri Medvedev’s assertion, at a meeting with Western Kremlinologists in September 2009, that direct gubernatorial elections will not return “in a hundred years” was of the same order. The replacement of elected regional governors with Kremlin appointees—in a country whose Constitution still purports to be federal—was carried out by Vladimir Putin on the pretext of the “fight against terrorism” after the Beslan school siege in 2004, and was widely considered to be the last stroke in the construction of his authoritarian “power vertical.” In the final years of the Soviet Union, and during the short-lived democracy of Boris Yeltsin’s Russia, it was the elected local leaders, with their own power base and legitimacy, who presented the most formidable challenge to the government in Moscow. By abolishing gubernatorial elections, Putin’s regime pursued two goals at once: imposing its top-down control over the country and eliminating the main source of potential opposition.
But Medvedev’s “hundred years” turned out to be shorter than anyone had anticipated. By December 2011, as tens of thousands of people filled the streets of Moscow in the largest pro-democracy demonstrations in two decades, the government was forced to retreat. The protests, which became known as the “Snow Revolution,” were triggered by widespread fraud in that month’s parliamentary elections, when some thirteen to fifteen million votes were reportedly “stolen” in favor of Putin’s United Russia party (its official result of forty-nine percent, though still embarrassing for a party of the self-proclaimed “national leader,” was much higher than the thirty to thirty-five percent estimated by independent observers).
The underlying cause of the protests was the “job swap” between Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev, announced to the public two months prior to the vote. The protesters were not backing any particular party or candidate, or even a particular political cause: their rallies, which brought together liberals, socialists, and nationalists, were about their dignity as citizens of their country. After a decade of Putin’s authoritarian consolidation, a very significant (and the most prominent) part of Russian society was no longer willing to tolerate the absence of a political voice. “We are not cattle” was one of the most popular slogans as some one hundred thousand demonstrators gathered on December 10th on Bolotnaya Square, across the river from the Kremlin walls, to demand free and fair elections, the legalization of opposition parties, and the release of political prisoners. Twelve days later, Medvedev announced a package of reforms that, although timid and half-hearted, represented the first political retreat by the regime in its more than a decade-long rule. The measures included a significant easing of the hurdles for establishing new political parties and gaining access to the ballot, as well as the reinstatement of direct popular elections for all of Russia’s eighty-three regional leaders.
There is a remarkable consistency over the course of Russian history: Every authoritarian regime perished not because of destiny’s blows or enemy onslaught but because of internal disease. In the 20th century, it happened twice: the February Revolution of 1917 and Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika.
The slow-motion collapse of Vladimir Putin’s regime is no different. After more than a decade of authoritarian rule, Mr. Putin’s self-described “glorious deeds” have become the object of contempt not just on opposition websites but increasingly on the streets of Moscow and in the mainstream media.
Two events this year sharply accelerated the decline of trust in the regime among elites and the general public. The first was the shameful deal struck with President Dmitry Medvedev on Sept. 24 clearing the way for Mr. Putin to run next year for a third presidential term. The reaction across the country was explosive. Even the most thick-skinned citizens saw that turning the presidency into the object of a private swap made a mockery of the Constitution.
The second event that greatly deepened the current political crisis was the clearly fraudulent Dec. 4 parliamentary election. Independent observers believe that 15%-20% of the votes were falsified in favor of the ruling United Russia party. This scale of vote-rigging was unprecedented even by Mr. Putin’s standards. The election violations began well before Dec. 4, when nine opposition parties were forbidden from participating in the election.
These events have completely undermined the legitimacy of Mr. Putin’s regime and made it a laughing stock in the eyes of the general public. The presidential election scheduled for March 4, even if it results in an official “victory” for Mr. Putin, will likely be another major step toward the regime’s downfall.
What is happening in Russia today is similar to the rejection of authoritarianism the world witnessed in what is now called the Arab Spring. As with the Mubarak regime in Egypt earlier this year, the Putin regime has lost the battle for the hearts and minds of its own people. On Dec. 10, more than 60,000 Russians turned out in the streets of Moscow to protest the regime. Among them were many young people who do not see any future under the current regime. After this protest, Russia will never again be the same. Though the rally was organized by the liberal Solidarnost movement, people of varying political creeds and from all walks of life participated, proof that a mature civil society has taken root.
There is no way to hold back the growing wave of protests. Most Russians now understand that the current legal and economic system in Russia lacks the basic elements of a free-market system. The concept of private property is practically nonexistent and things can be easily taken away or awarded depending on loyalty to the regime.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday dismissed opposition allegations that fraud had helped his ruling party win a parliamentary election and signaled he would not bow to calls at mass protests for the poll to be rerun.
In his annual televised call-in question-and-answer session he tried to shrug off the significance of the biggest opposition protests of his 12-year rule. Initial reaction on social media suggested many Russians see him as out of touch with his people.
Putin, dressed in a suit and tie behind a desk as he took questions by phone and from a studio audience, looked less at ease than in previous years in an appearance intended to help rebuild his authority before a presidential election in March.
“From my point of view, the result of the (December 4) election undoubtedly reflects public opinion in the country,” Putin said in a show broadcast live to the nation.
“As for the fact that the ruling force, United Russia, lost some ground, there is also nothing unusual about this. Listen, we have gone through a very difficult period of crisis, and look at what is happening in other countries.”
He said it was now significantly easier for the opposition to recruit dissatisfied people to their ranks.
“But United Russia after all retained its leading position, and that’s a very good result,” he said.
The organizers of the mass protests on Saturday over the allegations of irregularities in the December 4 election and his long rule have made five demands including rerunning the election, sacking the election commission head, registering opposition parties and freeing “political prisoners.”
But Putin gave no indication he would respond to any of their demands and appears to be intent on riding out the protests, even though another day of protest is planned by the opposition for December 24.
President Dmitry Medvedev ordered an investigation on Sunday into allegations of fraud in Russia’s parliamentary election, one day after tens of thousands of protesters demanded it be annulled and rerun.
Medvedev responded on his Facebook site to the protesters’ complaints that the December 4 election, won by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia, was slanted in its favor.
But he did not mention their calls for an end to Putin’s rule and received one insult after another on his Facebook site from people who made clear his reply was insufficient.
“I do not agree with any slogans or statements made at the rallies. Nevertheless, instructions have been given by me to check all information from polling stations regarding compliance with the legislation on elections,” Medvedev said in a post on the social media site.
His statement was a sign that the Russian leadership feels under pressure after the biggest opposition protests since Putin rose to power in 1999. The protesters themselves used social media to organize their rallies.
But the protesters have demanded much more than just an investigation and are unlikely to be satisfied.
They want a rerun of the election, the sacking of Central Election Commission chief Vladimir Churov, the registration of opposition parties and the release of people they define as political prisoners.
Within hours of his statement, Medvedev had received several thousand comments on his Facebook site, many of them negative, plenty of them disrespectful and some of them highly insulting.
“We don’t believe you,” wrote Natalia Akhi.
Irina Arapova asked: “And who’s going to do the checking? The executive authorities (United Russia)?”
The next big day of protests is planned on December 24 when Alexei Navalny, one of the protest leaders, will have served a 15-day jail term received for his role in a protest last week.