Mexico: The Electoral Crisis Goes On

  • Mexico’s court-ordered recount of 9.07 percent of the ballots cast in the July 2 presidential election concluded on Sunday
  • The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TEPJF) has not yet released the results of the recount, but initial reports suggest that a full recount will be merited
  • As the country waits for the final tally, impatience and frustrations among PRD candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s supporters have resulted in a sudden escalation of violence in Mexico City. The police have responded with a heavy hand
  • The non-official winner of the initial vote, ruling PAN party candidate Felipe Calderón, needs to obtain a credible and legitimate victory, something he will only achieve through meaningful reconciliation with his opponents’ demands for increased transparency
  • López Obrador, on the other hand, needs to maneuver delicately between generating an appropriate level of political pressure for a full recount of the ballots, while not alienating the majority of Mexicans who are quickly growing weary of the protracted post-electoral conflict

Mexico’s post-electoral quagmire is still far from being resolved, even though the TEPJF’s 9.07 percent partial recount of presidential ballots concluded on Sunday. Indeed, despite López Obrador’s petition, the TEPJF only acknowledged the existence of wrongdoings, including some arithmetic mistakes and fraud, at nearly 12,000 polling stations in 26 states. The TEPJF has not yet released results from the recount and the country is anxiously waiting for any sign of which way the outcome will break. As that tense vigil continues, it seems increasingly likely that the pre-election fears of societal conflict may be realized. On Monday, at a demonstration outside the Chamber of Deputies, federal police violently dispersed tear gas and brandished batons. As many as 30 protestors, including a reported 15 PRD elected officials, were injured in the ensuing melee. This clash, the first real incident of violent confrontation in the post-election period, potentially marks the beginning of a dangerous trend toward heightened political polarization.

Since July’s unofficial declaration of Calderón’s presidential victory, López Obrador has voiced concerns of fraud and malfeasance. More recently, in response to TERJF’s limited recount, an increasingly agitated group of perredistas, who have considered the process itself as an example of ballot manipulation, have taken to the streets. Even before the recount had concluded, López Obrador had announced that civil resistance would continue for at least another month, and perhaps for years to come. Paralleling that announcement was the announcement that the PRD would seek the annulment of votes from 7,542 of the recounted polling places where party representatives claimed irregularities existed.

The Need for Caution
López Obrador, who has repeatedly sought a full recount of the ballots – either through the TEPJF or a negotiated agreement with the PAN – was clearly upset by the court’s decision to order such a small revision. According to López Obrador, “this [was] simply insufficient for a national election.” While the PRD participated in the recount process, many of its adherents were far from satisfied. The fact that the recount was undertaken amidst new allegations of irregularities by the PRD – from illegally opened ballot packets to missing ballots – has done little to lend credibility to Calderón’s supposed incontestable triumph.

The only certain way for Calderón to obtain indubitable legitimacy would be to have his victory ratified by a recount of all the ballots, something the PAN has adamantly resisted to this point. In the weeks since the election, Calderón has walked a fine line between prematurely posturing as president-elect and respecting the reality of the country’s tenuous electoral situation. However, neither has he earnestly assuaged the acrimony which was created by a polarizing and bitter campaign, characterized by vicious ad hominem attacks on his opponents. In the wake of Monday’s violence, Calderón’s comments suggesting restraint on López Obrador’s part and encouraging dialogue rang hollow.

In a recent press conference, Calderón, who initially adopted a low profile, confidently claimed that the results from the partial recount would confirm his victory, and argued that the tallies in 90 percent of the recounted polling places revealed no changes. Irregularities in 7,452 ballot boxes, however, were detected in the recent recount, perhaps supporting López Obrador’s claims that there was foul play in the July 2 presidential election. Despite national clamoring for an immediate release of the recount results, the TEPJF has yet to publish its findings.

The fact remains that a full recount has not yet been ordered – though the possibility exists that the TEPJF may still rule in favor of the process – leaving López Obrador in a difficult situation. A recount only benefits him if it is obtained through legal, legitimate channels such as the TEPJF. Any extra-constitutional action would resolve nothing, as it would not bring with it the authority to guarantee a binding outcome. This means that López Obrador needs to continue pressuring the TEPJF for a full recount, though he must be cautious in doing so.

The large scale demonstrations and blockades, sometimes arranged by the candidate but often spontaneous initiatives by his supporters, have drawn the ire of Mexicans inconvenienced by the protests. A poll by the conservative Mexico City daily, El Universal, suggested that 65 percent of Mexico City residents were opposed to the ongoing protests. Of particular interest regarding this figure is the fact, that prior to his run for the presidency, López Obrador was an immensely popular mayor of Mexico City. Perhaps even worse, it is possible to see inconsistencies in the PRD’s behavior. For instance, at a July 9 rally, López Obrador declared that “this is not about shutting down highways,” yet in recent days several toll roads were seized by perredistas. However, none of the PRD’s actions to date have escalated to the point of provoking such violence as was seen on Monday, and a repressive government response could well turn public opinion back towards López Obrador’s cause.

López Obrador needs to be a Judicious Statesman and Advocate
If López Obrador is to maintain public backing for his struggle, he will have to present an image of gravitas and moderation. His oft-repeated commitment to abide by the TEPJF’s ruling may come into question if he pushes too hard. The 9.07 percent recount ruling rejected the PRD’s claims that the electoral playing field had been unfairly tilted by a biased mass media and President Fox’s interjections. These allegations, while perhaps legitimate, were legally unconvincing to a body that is widely respected as one of the country’s few morally rigorous institutions. As such, if López Obrador hopes to assure the continuity of his support base, he must win his battles in court. If he becomes too strident, or advocates extra-legal outcomes, he may cost the PRD its newfound national prestige that it gained from lawfully participating in the election. His further unruliness will only confirm the old prejudices of many Mexican moderates regarding the party’s alleged rogue tendencies.

The Tipping Point
At the same time, however, democracy came to Mexico through protests such as those now being witnessed. Whether it was student demonstrators in 1968 or panista blockades in the 1980s, the country’s political system has been pried open by the actions of a few committed dissidents. While the political regime in 2006 is far more open than the one which reigned in 1986, it is also a distortion to suggest that Mexico is currently a full-fledged and mature democracy. Monday’s brutality confirmed that. With these facts in hand, López Obrador’s unwillingness to concede may encourage a consolidation, rather than a limitation, of Mexico’s democracy and its political processes.