Mexican Democracy: Negotiating Too Close to the Fire

Research Fellow Michael Lettieri, who will remain in Mexico for another week, has prepared an Op-ed version of this piece and other aspects of Mexico’s disputed Presidential election.
Communications regarding the possible use of his Op-ed may contact:Michael Lettieri: 011 52 551844336 (U.S. numbers)
044 551844336 (within Mexico)
COHA Director Larry Birns: 202-215-3473

Reflections on an Unfinished Election

The pressure is truly on in Mexico, as there is still no conclusion in sight for the riskiest election since Mexico began its transition to democracy 20 years ago. This morning, the country will begin an intensive count of the ballots cast in Sunday’s presidential election, and with less than one percent now separating left-leaning PRD presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his ruling conservative PAN opponent Felipe Calderón, tensions are mounting. Both men have trumpeted their certain victories over the other, leaving Mexicans to wait anxiously, knowing that the two rivals are locked in a near breathless tie that may defy easy resolution and test the viability of Mexico’s political institutions.

At this point, both the PAN and the PRD apparently ardently believe that they have won the presidency and that the official results will ultimately vindicate them. However, in a country where electoral fraud is a historic reality, trust between political rivals is non-existent, and the 2006 campaign has witnessed mounting acrimony and incivility between the opposing parties, the possibility for dialogue is extremely tenuous. Yet simultaneously, the need for reconciliation and cooperation between the two camps has never been more important. All actors, including both President Fox and the Federal Electoral Institute, must work to carry out the recount under conditions of the utmost transparency in order to construct the necessary confidence among all concerned. If this is not done, there is a real possibility that Mexico could plunge towards chaos and civil strife.

Both the PAN and the PRD were parties forged in the crucible of electoral fraud, and are willing and able to contest – through both legal and popular channels – an outcome which they view as illegitimate. The danger is clear: social mobilizations could end in unregulated violence and a legal challenge could drag on dangerously. Indeed, at this juncture the only positive exit from the current situation is a clear, institutionally and electorally validated winner, and that outcome can only be achieved with the participation of all parties. This can only be achieved by the good faith efforts of the government, the electoral authorities, as well as the PAN and the PRD.

In some regards, such a near-crisis was not impossible to foresee. While it was evident well before Sunday’s somewhat surprising result that the country would be torn between two opposing visions – Calderón’s of continuity and López Obrador’s for profound change – the closeness of the race has helped to underscore the fundamental need for reconciliation and compromise. The final preliminary tally, concluded Monday afternoon, showed that neither candidate had attained more than 37 percent of the vote, hardly a ringing endorsement of either man. Given that the legislature has split as predicted, with neither party having a distinct majority in the Chamber of the Deputies, Mexico has perhaps moved towards the “doomsday scenario” of a president lacking both legitimacy and a mandate who is forced to confront a gridlocked congress. Even if the count, which begins on Wednesday, results in an uncontested victor, Mexico must still move towards reconciliation, something both candidates have recognized – though it is far from certain whether such bitter rivals will ultimately be able to meet each other halfway.

If no candidate received the overwhelming support of the nation, it is nevertheless clear that the electoral process was a marked success. Given the pre-ballot tensions and historic penchant for electronic irregularities, Sunday’s vote went as smoothly as could have been hoped, and there are few reports of on-site polling place problems. While there is still time for more serious allegations of malfeasance to emerge, and isolated incidents are perhaps already compounding suspicions in the PRD camp, it appears as though the election day calm was not a façade. Such success notwithstanding, however, there are real concerns over the fairness of the playing field and the representative qualities of the parties, and the cynicism, if not nastiness, of the campaigns. Furthermore, the possibilities for mass demonstrations and conflict cannot be ruled out if one or the other parties concludes that the election is being stolen from them or that massive chicanery must be punished.

The rate of abstention – around 40 percent – suggests that while the Mexican electorate did display some confidence in the vote as a means of expressing its will, it still did not feel fully represented by either candidate. Neither the PRD nor the PAN succeeded in convincing a majority of voters to align with their man based on the clarity of his proposals. Rather, the election became one driven by fear, contrivances and uncertainty. A significant portion of the country did not endorse the “continuity” option of Calderón, but neither was there the sort of massive support for López Obrador’s anti-poverty vision that had been anticipated.

Receiving a still harsher rejection was the PRI, whose presidential candidate, Roberto Madrazo Pintado, obtained an embarrassingly low percentage of the vote. The party furthermore witnessed a precipitous fall in both the number of seats in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate, as the PRD emerged as perhaps the nation’s second party behind the PAN, perhaps indicating the move towards a solid two party system. Simultaneously, the two smaller parties contesting the election received surprising support, suggesting that Mexican voters are searching for alternatives in the face of options that fail to appeal to all sectors.

With the country now torn between two candidates who are convinced that they have triumphed, and thus possess protective status, and the granting of grace, a crisis could loom. This is not inevitable, however. Mexico can still emerge as a stronger, more consolidated democracy if the plurality of voices displayed on Sunday is able to ultimately feel that the process was transparent, legitimate and representative, and that participation in the election was not a meaningless fraud. That the country is not politically unified does not in itself represent an insurmountable hurdle: only if all possibility of reconciliation and cooperation breaks down will this be the case, as such an outcome would inevitably paralyze the country’s already halting progress towards equality and justice. The eventual winner of the election must recognize that his mandate is not for rule by decree but for rule by dialogue, and that either man will need to govern by consensus and compromise. All is not lost, yet the days ahead are perilous ones indeed. But if they both can approach the greatness that they imply is their destiny, then perhaps a political eruption, with its potential for great destructiveness, could be avoided.