The Smoking Volcano

The Smoking Volcano

As election officials in Mexico recount only a handful of contested voting districts in the flawed presidential elections, Andrés Manuel López Obrador walks a tightrope between defiance and keeping a lid on his steamed-up constituents.


Mexico City

As Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s demands for a vote-by-vote recount in the tarnished July 2 presidential election here was being rejected by Mexico’s top electoral tribunal (known as “the TRIFE”) last Saturday, thousands of his supporters huddled around hand-held radios in the forty-seven encampments they have set up on crowded Mexico City streets, listening intently to the proceedings. Others gathered in the great Zocalo plaza or were posted outside the TRIFE headquarters in the south of the city. Everywhere, their mood was as dark as the incessant downpours that have drilled down on the makeshift camps for days. Some sobbed, others beat on the bars of the TRIFE gate in frustration. “If there is no solution, there will be a revolution!” shouted 73-year-old farmer Ponciano Aguirre from Puebla state as the seven-judge panel pronounced its reasons for rejection on the big screen that had been hung in the Zocalo.

Voto por Voto!” had been the battle cry of this amazing month-long civil resistance of los de abajo–those from down below–and now the seven justices had wrecked their slender hopes. The tribunal is the court of last resort, and there is no appeal.

The election, which the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) awarded to the conservative Felipe Calderón by a razor-thin 243,000 votes out of nearly 42 million cast, featured two highly dubious computer counts, manipulation of manual vote tallies and their transmission to the IFE, which also badly bungled the announcement of the results. In their case for a vote-by-vote recount, López Obrador’s legal team submitted evidence of miscounts in 73,000 of the nation’s 130,000 casillas, or polling stations in addition to charges of pre-election inequities by the IFE that favored Calderón and his National Action Party (PAN), and the unconstitutional interference of President Vicente Fox, a member of the PAN, in the electoral process. In turning down López Obrador’s petition, the judges cited a technical failure by his Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) to file individual complaints in each challenged polling place.

Nonetheless, the TRIFE softened the blow by ordering a partial vote-by-vote recount in nearly 12,000 casillas (9.7 percent of the total vote). The recount begins August 9 and lasts through August 13 under the strict supervision of electoral judges. The votes will be tabulated by IFE technicians, raising doubts about the legitimacy of the new tally. Most of the recounts will be in states that heavily favored Calderón, who could see his lead shrivel to nothing if the process favors his opponent. With 4 million votes hanging in the balance, López Obrador has to pick up twenty votes (or Calderón has to lose twenty) in each of the contested casillas to tie the race. Moreover, if the recount demonstrates that fraud was afoot in the July 2 balloting, the TRIFE could order a wider recount–or even declare the election annulled.

The TRIFE’s decision to open some ballot boxes is a stinging blow to the IFE’s integrity. Under fire since July 2, the Federal Electoral Institute, backed by a leading business federation, has been airing prime-time spots in which actors impersonating citizens object indignantly to the suggestion that the presidential election was anything but pristine.

López Obrador, known to his supporters as AMLO, quickly rejected the tribunal’s “10 percent solution,” demanding “100 percent democracy!” The fact that the judges refused to open all of the ballot boxes “is proof that we have won!” he thundered to his supporters on a rain-soaked Zocalo on the night of the decision. The judicial twists and turns frustrate AMLO people, who are increasingly tuning out the legal niceties. Mexico’s judiciary, as López Obrador points out in nightly “informative assemblies” with his supporters, has rarely decided in favor of the nation’s poor–as los de abajo can readily attest. “Airport! Airport!” they kept chanting at a massive rally held the morning after the TRIFE decision, urging a shutdown of Mexico City’s busy international airport, now ringed by hundreds of federal police in anticipation of demonstrations. Last week, López Obrador’s supporters shut down the stock market, and other targets nominated at Sunday’s big meeting included the National Palace, the Congress and the nation’s petroleum-drilling platforms. There was a call for a general strike. One woman yelled out that everyone should just get naked à la Spencer Tunick, a uniquely Mexican form of protest.

López Obrador walks a tightrope between defiance and keeping a lid on his steamed-up constituents. He often quotes Gandhi at his rallies (the movie bio is shown in the encampments) and urges the militants to keep “a hot heart and a cool head.” Nonviolent trainings are in the works, and hundreds of musicians have volunteered their services to soothe the savage breast–but when one band struck up a rolla just after the TRIFE decision was delivered, the furious crowd in the Zocalo told the musicos to just shut up.

How long López Obrador can contain the people’s fury is the crucial question in this high-stakes drama that is certain to build through September 6, when the TRIFE must either confirm a winner or annul the election.

Indeed, on the morning the judges decided against a total recount, as if it were echoing the mood of AMLO’s people, Popocatepetl, the smoking volcano south of the capital whose eruptions traditionally presage dark days for this distant neighbor nation, exhaled seven great gasps of fiery rock and ash for the first time in several years.

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