The Mexican leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who, according to official figures, was very narrowly defeated in Mexico’s July 2 presidential election, has received brutal treatment from European and American journalists, who have depicted him as a sore loser and an authoritarian demagogue. To assume that the resolution of the postelection conflict depends solely on his personal whim–as these journalists have repeatedly implied–is an analytical mistake that muddles these complex and tempestuous issues.
Mexico’s current conflict has its origins in a multiplicity of factors. That López Obrador, of the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), made strategic and tactical errors and committed rhetorical excesses is unquestionable. When AMLO, as he is known, told President Vicente Fox to “shut up, chachalaca!” (a reference to a noisy bird in AMLO’s home state of Tabasco), many voters, who still revere the office of the presidency, were offended. Nonetheless, a number of individuals and institutions contributed to the current crisis: Felipe Calderón of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), the triumphant candidate; the mass media (primarily the two major TV networks, both of which have a center-right orientation); Mexico’s business elite; and above all, President Fox himself.
Fox won in 2000 on the PAN ticket by incarnating the nation’s collective desire to jettison the authoritarian regime led by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled Mexico for seventy years. But Fox very quickly acquiesced to the murky forces of the old regime. For example, he promised to investigate the crimes from Mexico’s “dirty war” against the left in the 1960s and ’70s, establishing a Special Prosecutors Office to undertake that difficult task. But the office has accomplished very little.
As Fox stumbled on a variety of fronts, AMLO burst onto the national scene as the mayor of Mexico’s capital city and began to snatch the banner of reform from the president with a number of creative, populist initiatives. Thus began a sordid and ferocious confrontation between the two men. Fox took advantage of his presidential bully pulpit in pursuing an obsessive campaign to hinder AMLO. As time passed, the social and political forces in the country began to polarize to an unusual and worrying degree. The election campaign–a long, costly, dirty affair–left wounds and tore the social fabric.
Amid this politically charged environment, approximately a third of the citizenry–most of them, presumably, PRD supporters–remain unsatisfied with the election results. Decades of fraudulent polling have instilled in Mexicans a deep skepticism of the authorities and the electoral machinery. In 2000 many progressives, myself included, switched their votes from the leftist candidate, who was far behind in the polls, to Fox to forestall the triumph of the old ruling party. At the beginning, I believed Fox was a true democrat willing to recognize the ideological plurality of Mexico. I was initially baffled, and then offended, by his blatant activism in favor of his own party’s candidate (Calderón) and against AMLO. Fox ceased to be the president of all Mexicans. I understand that in other countries campaigning by the head of state is normal. But Mexico is different. Such behavior is illegal and immediately brings to mind the imperial, omnipotent presidents of the past who appointed their own successors in a secretive rubber-stamp process. Thus, Vicente Fox–the man who broke the PRI’s stranglehold on power in 2000–ended up behaving, in some respects, like the predecessors he once denounced.