Mexico City

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.

As soon as the July 2 polling was completed, those disturbed by various aspects of the electoral process joined AMLO’s supporters in requesting a complete recount, especially since Calderón’s margin of victory was minuscule: 0.56 percent. Calderón consistently said he would respect whatever decision came down from the electoral tribunal, the country’s highest election authority. Calderón’s rhetoric was legally impeccable but politically insufficient. On September 5 the tribunal certified his victory after rejecting a full recount (the court had earlier decreed that 9 percent of the ballots should be recounted). For many citizens, the court’s decision–amid allegations that Fox had aggressively lobbied the judges to rule on Calderón’s behalf–merely confirmed what they already believed was a fraud.

Did fraud occur? That question cannot be clearly determined; much documentation is missing, and considerable research must still be undertaken. But many citizens believe that whether or not ballot boxes were stuffed or otherwise manipulated, as AMLO alleges, the process itself was flawed. Indeed, the judges agreed that Fox had behaved improperly by campaigning so openly for Calderón; they also criticized a series of TV commercials, paid for by business interests, that viciously attacked AMLO and linked him to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.

As president-elect, Calderón now has the opportunity to build bridges to his opponents and to demonstrate his commitment to transparency, democracy and fairness. The best opportunity for him to do this is by supporting a citizen recount. After the election, 800 individuals, businesses and NGOs requested that the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), which managed and administered the election, release the ballots so that civil society can undertake a full recount. The exercise lacks any legal value, but in the current atmosphere a recount could reduce tensions, especially if it confirms the official results.

The IFE now has to choose between two contradictory laws: It can obey electoral legislation that requires it to destroy the ballots, or it can bow to a transparency law and deliver the ballots to the petitioners. It seems that the answer will come in court. The burning of ballots, alas, has a long history in Mexico. In 1988 Carlos Salinas won the presidency as a result of monumental electoral fraud; months later, the ruling PRI (along with the PAN) approved a legislative initiative to burn the ballots. In doing so, it destroyed crucial evidence about a stolen election and confirmed the worst suspicions of its opponents. This time around the ballots are once again set to be incinerated, though the date is pending. If there’s a bonfire, the opportunity for social harmony will evaporate and Mexico will experience a retreat to its authoritarian past.

Access to public information is an essential pillar of democracy. Amid the pending legal battle between the citizen recount petitioners and the IFE, Calderón will buttress his democratic credentials if he supports the citizen recount. He could even encourage the participation of conservative civil society organizations, to lend it greater authenticity. It’s clear that a citizen recount will take place only if sufficient pressure is brought to bear. Although the campaign for one has a dynamic independent of actions pursued by López Obrador, it will be affected by the September 16 decision by hundreds of thousands of his supporters to name him “the legitimate president” in a “National Democratic Convention.” López Obrador’s social mobilization is one of the factors that are making the future unpredictable. For the time being, Mexico’s feeble democracy is at risk.