Mexican Electoral Wrap-up: The Country Begins Its Precarious Political Future

  • The nation counts up the cost of a strife-ridden election
  • López Obrador licks his wounds while a victorious Calderón prepares to sign on to the Bush Agenda

On September 15, Mexico celebrated the 196 anniversary of its independence. Yet this year’s ceremonies were marked by conflict and tension as two competing events revealed the sharp division now deeply etched into Mexican society. Fierce battles are currently being waged for the country’s soul. With a social conflict bubbling in Oaxaca, crime-related violence at an all-time high, and immigration and economic issues evermore pressing, Mexican politicians must now carefully navigate a terrain that has been dramatically reshaped by the 2006 presidential balloting.

On September 5, Mexico’s disputed presidential election reached a long awaited resolution when the Supreme Electoral Court (TEPJF or Trife) ruled that the event had not been marred by massive fraud and certified that the governing PAN party candidate Felipe Calderón had won a legitimate victory. The unanimous verdict seemed a fait accompli after the TEPJF’s earlier decision to order a recount of only 9.7 percent of the disputed ballot boxes. This controversial decision was met by protests lead by PRD candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador and marked the official end of the presidential election and the symbolic conclusion of one of the most tumultuous phases in the country’s political history. Yet closing the book on the 2006 election did not restore the country to a state of normalcy, and the new era in Mexico’s political life will be profoundly colored by all that has happened both before and after the ballots were cast on July 2.

Scorching the Earth
As the intensity of the post-election conflict mounted and it seemed that Mexico might be on the brink of a major political and social conflagration, observers were quick to note that the fire had been lit well before the national elections had been held. The campaigns of both Calderón and López Obrador actively sought to exploit the country’s scored social divisions, and even fanned them at times. (The third major candidate, Roberto Madrazo of the PRI, attempted to disingenuously play – with disastrous results – to a “middle ground”).

Calderón’s campaign tactics were particularly harsh, featuring advertisements proclaiming that the PRD candidate was “a danger to Mexico.” These ads, undeniably fear mongering if not vicious, were backed up by President Fox’s oft-repeated and oblique references to the threat López Obrador posed to the country’s stability and progress. While both the ads and Fox’s actions were eventually censured by the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) – hardly an anti-PAN body – the strategy nonetheless had the desired effect of planting doubts within the electorate and raising Calderón’s silhouette.

The PAN tactics also succeeded in personally provoking López Obrador, leading to an intensification of his rhetoric and a rawness of temper. Never a man of nuance, and under siege by a heavily financed and savage PAN media blitz, the perredista had new feedstock for his increasingly ominous discourse about a Manichean battle between the rich and poor. The apparent mobilization of panista government resources against López Obrador had many in Mexico speaking of an “election by the state,” reminiscent of the era when Mexican presidents were chosen by the party rather than the people.

With both sides latching onto conflictive rhetoric, the country’s polarization became starker, and partisans of each candidate hardened their positions. Fervent Calderón supporters derided López Obrador and his followers as “naco” (a derogatory Mexican term generally applied to lower class and uncultured individuals). Perredistas, on the other hand, fumed about the elite establishment which was scheming to again deny them a voice in the country’s future. As the acrimony grew, a post-election brouhaha seemed all but inevitable.

Removing Rose-colored Glasses
Savagely defamatory ads attacking López Obrador were produced by both the officially run Calderón campaign and the CCE (the Mexican Business Coordination Council or Consejo Coordinador Empresarial), a conservative organization which includes executives of prominent corporate entities such as Jumex and Sabritas. That Mexican big business was strongly in the corner of a conservative, open market candidate was not unexpected. That those forces were able to leverage their influence and financial clout while skirting electoral regulations – including running the ads in the pre-election period when candidates supposedly were barred from any campaigning over the airwaves – was alarming.

While the CCE’s ads were eventually pulled, they were but one of many examples which political and non-political actors attempted to influence votes through fear and coercion. Rumors abounded that workers were being told not to support a certain candidate (usually López Obrador), and emails carrying similar messages circulated throughout the country.

Neither were political parties themselves above such meddling. In many rural regions, politicians resorted to the tricks of old, including, for example, the timely arrival of building materials in hurricane-affected areas – supplies invariably accompanied by a local party representative and their campaign pitches. Instances of more direct attempts at persuasion and bribery were also reported. Although the authorities ran a large-scale media effort to remind the electorate that their vote was secret and secure, it was impossible to always monitor the activities of party officials across the country to prevent their malfeasance. In the heated electoral atmosphere, the return of deplorable past practices was unavoidable.

Casting About
On the morning of the July 2 election, many, both within Mexico and abroad, believed that the country would successfully weather what was being seen as a test of the strength of its newfound democracy. This illusion did not actually tumble down, but rather it was slowly worn away by a mounting series of events beginning late on a Sunday night.

The actual casting of the ballots had gone as smoothly as could have been hoped for , considering it was the country’s first vote held since the fall of the quasi-authoritarian PRI regime in 2000. Some of the institutions overseeing the election had been in place for nearly a decade – the 1997 mid-term elections marked the beginning of an open political system. In much of the country, those procedures seemed to work efficiently and securely: there were few initial reports of irregularities from either international observers or party representatives monitoring the polling stations. Indeed, no solid evidence of widespread or organized fraud was ever produced, and given the scrutiny the election received, it is unlikely that malfeasance on a massive scale occurred.

This is not to say, however, that the election was perfect. Small scale oddities – whether resulting from malice or mistake – did occur, though many were not evident until several days after the election (some of these glitches led to the Supreme Electoral Court calling for a limited recount). Examples included missing electoral material, vote tally discrepancies, and in one case, ballots found in a trash heap.

But little of that was clouding the picture when, at 11 pm on election Sunday, Luis Carlos Ugalde, the head of the IFE (the body charged with administering the election), announced that the vote was too close to call and that a recount would be necessary. However, this prudent decision did not avert a crisis. Instead, the interregnum raised doubts about the system’s integrity. By July 6, when the results giving Calderón a 243,934 vote margin of victory (0.6 percent) were announced, not only were the reports of inconsistencies staining the perceived accuracy of the vote, but the IFE’s own competency and impartiality had come into question.

While few doubts remained about its managing capabilities, the highly partisan nature of the IFE’s composition – despite its mandate for impartiality – led to gnawing questions about its ability to deal with a sharply contested election. Since the IFE’s general counselors are nominated and ratified by the chamber of deputies, questions about some aspects of their allegiances were unavoidable. In the case of the make-up of the general council of this IFE (appointed in 2003), PAN and PRI deputies joined forces to block PRD nominees. In the days after the election, the IFE proved that it could not – or was unwilling to – address the concerns raised by the PRD campaign, even if the gravity of some of the latter’s complaints may have been exaggerated. This haughty attitude hardly calmed the situation.

López Obrador’s Later Strategy
Wrangling over the IFE was only one component of the post-vote conflict that boiled over in Mexico after the results of the retabulation were announced. Concerned about possible fraud, López Obrador’s campaign insisted that a total recount of all ballots be staged. This movement was supported by numerous unaligned observers, many of whom argued that such a step would ensure that the vote would not be forever clouded by suspicions. Moreover, if Calderón was in fact the winner, a victory-affirming recount would reaffirm his government’s legitimacy.

Yet the PAN refused to back such a recount, and in the end it was not a decision that could have been settled through a political bargain. By then the outcome of the election rested with the TEPJF, the only body empowered to certify the election and declare a winner. While the struggle was now a legal one, it was equally a battle for public opinion. As López Obrador fought to maintain the momentum and support he had attracted before the election, it became increasingly apparent that the legal tide was not in his favor and that the public mood was now shifting. But at first, the conflict did not abate in the face of such inauspicious trends, with loyal López Obrador supporters adopting more strident positions that echoed the increasingly shrill rhetoric of their leader. The situation became dangerously tense, when perredistas mounted large-scale occupations and blockades in downtown Mexico City.

The vehemence with which the protests were carried out was understandable. Fraud had likely denied López Obrador victory before – in the 1994 gubernatorial elections in the State of Tabasco. Moreover, during both his time as Mexico City mayor and a presidential candidate, he fell victim to the PAN’s repeated dirty tricks, principally the 2005 impeachment attempt. But the emotional rationale behind this determination to stand his ground did not necessarily endear López Obrador’s movement to a Mexican public that was fast growing weary of the interminable election bickering and street turmoil.

Behind the controversy over the recount, an even more elevated cause had to be engaged: Mexican democracy is not yet fully representative, and meaningful institutional reforms remain necessary. The 2006 elections could have been an opportunity for reflective dialogue about the country’s showing process of democratization. Sadly, in the weeks after July 2, this message never truly came to the fore. Indeed, López Obrador’s principal failure was his inability to overcome Mexican society’s growing political fatigue and transform his message into a more profound one which would truly resonate with the electorate. Largely because he did not moderate his message nor present an inclusive vision of change, he could not capture the support of a broadening swath of disaffected Mexicans. As a result he appeared more of a sore loser than a committed democrat or high-minded and principled statesman who, in a dignified manner, was challenging a system which still was in need of repair.

In the end, only the diehards remained by López Obrador’s side. When the encampments in Mexico City finally came down, the movement was already starting to fade. Calderón’s triumph had been excruciatingly narrow at the polls, and markedly lukewarm in the streets, but it nonetheless had to be accepted as a victory.

Counting on Change
While the individual presidential candidates perforce had captured much of the attention, the 2006 elections themselves represented a change in Mexico’s political landscape. Freed from the forced unity of decades of PRI rule, the country is now being scored by significant divisions, which could become the defining characteristic of its political cuture. A striking trend already appears on the political maps: northern Mexico is staunchly panista, while southern Mexico is firmly perredista. Underlying this geographic trend are the socioeconomic differences between the regions. Poverty and underdevelopment are overwhelmingly concentrated in the south – typified by the state of Chiapas. Northern states, on the other hand, have disproportionately benefited from the open-market policies pursued since the signing of NAFTA in 1994, and while grave social inequalities still exist there, the situation does not touch the extremes found in the south.

Moreover, the north which has long been considered PAN country, witnessed the 2006 elections as an occasion that solidified that party’s rise to political preeminence. Not only did the party consolidate the gains of the past six years, but it also reaped the harvest of the PRI’s disintegration, winning 206 seats in the 500-seat Chamber of Deputies (57 more than it held previously) and 52 seats in the 128-seat Senate (an increase of 6). Perhaps more notably, the PAN won the governorships of Jalisco, Guanajuato and Morelos.

PRD Sees Growth
The PRD also experienced significant growth, becoming a major national legislative force nearly capable of offsetting the PAN. In the Chamber of Deputies, the PRD picked up 30 seats for a total of 127 and jumped from 15 to 29 Senators. This success can be attributed largely to López Obrador’s long coattails. However, it was also aided by the ongoing process of the party’s institutionalization throughout the nation, as the PRD continues to build towards a coherent leftist political movement – a process which never fully took root during the years of PRI repression and cooptation.

Notably, two smaller parties also picked up a few seats, perhaps suggesting that at least some of the electorate was looking for options outside of a somewhat stagnating establishment. Alternativa, a party based around social democratic principles, picked up five seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Meanwhile, the Nueva Alianza party, formed by dissident priistas headed by Elba Ester Gordillo, acquired nine seats in the lower house and one senate position.

As for the creaking bones of the PRI, the 2006 election may represent the party’s death knell. Internal divisions wracked it during the primary elections, and the bitter splits – principally between Robert Madrazo and other party leaders, Gordillo chief among them – profoundly hurt both the PRI’s image and its effectiveness. When all was said and done, the party fell from 224 to 106 deputies and 60 to 33 senators, leaving the few remaining priista militants to search for a viable political future amidst the rubble. In the immediate future, however, the PRI will continue to suffer from a lack of a clear central vision and a powerful panache of corrupt irrelevance, which makes it unpalatable to much of Mexican society. It appears likely that the various ideological strains in the party will cause members to generate alliances independent of official party leadership. These factions could become bargaining chips on the political table, with the group still loyal to Gordillo possibly providing Calderón an important source of legislative support.

Some indication of how the new legislature may behave was provided by the recent bitter struggles over key committee chairmanships in the Chamber of Deputies. The PAN, while proportionally entitled to 18 committees, was forced to cede two to the PRI and one to the PRD – leaving it with 15 – but retained two of the most fought-over fiscal posts, Budget and Economy. The PRI meanwhile successfully negotiated leadership of the Finance committee, leaving the PRD, which had sought control of one of the major committees, with only lesser consolation prizes – namely Vigilance and Tourism. Such horse-trading was the modus operandi of the legislature under Fox, and will likely continue despite the PRD’s increased strength, as the PRI has shown little hesitation when it comes to aligning itself with the PAN in a politically convenient manner.

Towards 2012
While Calderón will be able to call on far greater support in the legislature than his predecessor, the new president’s time in office will likely be far more difficult than that of Fox. His sexenio will never escape the shadow of a somewhat tainted 2006 campaign. While his government will not have the degree of illegitimacy that López Obrador would like to suggest it has, he nevertheless will assume the presidency having won a painfully meager plurality – 35.8 percent – and besting his opponent by only 233,831 votes. Given the stark differences between the two platforms and ideologies of the two front-runners, this is hardly a mandate.

Worse, after a vicious campaign, Calderón has limited capital remaining for negotiation, and his offers of reconciliation ring more than a little hollow. Furthermore, the PRD will no longer be a political afterthought, and it is unlikely to be cheerfully willing to deal with a president whose positions are almost antithetical to the party’s core values, and whose commitment to the earnest incorporation of a plurality of new ideas is very questionable. In this standoff situation, the social divisions could deepen further.

López Obrador, after being named “legitimate president” by a rump national convention on September 16 is likely to enter a new phase of his political life, perhaps consisting of attempts to organize social mobilizations to oppose certain government initiatives, while promoting an ongoing alternative agenda.

Whether such street politics will combine with effective opposition institutional strategies is far from certain. Already divisions within the PRD are emerging, as tensions between López Obrador loyalists and less militant party members become more apparent. A hardly concealed split between López Obrador and Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, was capped by the latter’s September 18 comment to the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia that the candidate’s actions “hurt the entire Mexican left.” He asserted that, “All that is left, democratic and progressive, [has] been affected by the blockades.” This comment captures the sentiments of those perredistas who feel their party needs to grow beyond the charismatic – but far too controversial – former presidential candidate.

Yet there is no clear heir apparent capable of unifying the party and ensuring its continued growth, making the months before the 2009 midterm elections a crucial period for the PRD’s future. Increasingly, an internal party struggle appears likely, and fragmentation is not entirely impossible. The broader Mexican left is already divided. The two parties that had allied with the PRD for the elections having definitively broken with López Obrador and committed themselves to working with Calderón.

A Bubbling Pot
Peripheral to the national elections, but central to any discussion of Mexico’s current political challenges, is the explosive situation in Oaxaca, where a teachers’ strike has morphed into a larger movement that is careening towards violence and confrontation. The strike initially carried simply the objective of improved pay and working conditions. However, it eventually acquired a political dimension, as protesters began to demand the ouster of PRI governor Ulises Ruiz. The standoff already has claimed several lives, but the prospect of a much bloodier confrontation now looms as ultimatums are being lobbed and both average citizens as well as some leading politicians tire of the long-running blockades. Navigating the crisis will require the utmost tact, but achieving a peaceful resolution is crucial.

What it all Means
As the 2006 presidential election fades into history, and Calderón prepares to take office on December 1, Mexico will have to adjust to a substantively different nation. The ballot unearthed sharp divisions within the country. The differences founded on geographic and socioeconomic grounds now make conceptual talk of “two Mexicos” an empirical fact of life. Furthermore, the closeness of the vote has revealed that neither side can claim the backing of a majority of public opinion. Calderón’s government will need to be aware of the burning issues of unequal distribution of wealth and retarded development: i.e., what benefits Guanajuato or Nuevo Leon does not necessarily bring success to Chiapas and Guerrero. What is beyond dispute is that to forge ahead without a consensus will be to risk the country’s fundamental coherence.

Calderón must also deal with the rampant crime and violence which have made parts of Mexico nearly ungovernable. Confronting the drug rings now operating with near impunity will require addressing structural issues plaguing an ineffective judicial and penal system, as well as working to root out corruption among veteran political actors. Equally important, Calderón must demand state reform, including revamping a tax system which offers the wealthy and corporations mammoth loopholes and has created a perpetual fiscal administrative nightmare for the authorities.

Regarding Mexico’s foreign relations, Calderón’s agenda will likely go hand-in-glove with Washington policy makers, ready to sign on to any anti-Chávez and anti-Cuba campaign. Calderón appears to hold a genuine ideological connection with the Bush White House. Chávez, for his part, has refused up to now to recognize Calderón as the legitimate president of Mexico. Calderón has pointedly left Venezuela and Bolivia off the agenda of an upcoming trip throughout much of Latin America. Such a position, moreover, seems to contain a grain of political expediency. Fox’s great failing, in the eyes of many Mexicans, has been his inability to secure a favorable immigration accord with the United States. Calderón knows he must do better, no matter the price in lost sovereignty or national humility.

The 2006 election will likely be remembered as a key event in Mexico’s political history. Its true importance, however, will not be found in the final vote tallies, but rather in the path Calderón chooses to take in the six years to come. Whether he can overcome doubts about his commitment to compromise and oversee the growth of an inclusive democratic culture, which Fox notoriously failed to do, will determine if Mexico narrowly escaped the shadow of a contested election only to inexorably move towards another conflicted vote in 2012.