Sunday, July 09, 2006

Political turmoil in Mexico

The apparent loser of last week's hotly-contested presidential election in Mexico, Manuel Lopez Obrador, is going to court to present what he says is evidence of voter fraud and other ballot irregularities which he believes cost him the election. According to official returns, Lopez Obrador's opponent, Felipe Calderon, won the election by 244,000 votes out of 41 million cast: a margin of victory of just 0.6%. Lopez Obrador disputes this outcome and hopes to force Mexico's election authorities to conduct a manual recount of the July 2 ballot.

(Hmmm.... A disputed presidential election? Courts? Manual recounts? Gee, sounds a lot like something that happened here in the United States not too long ago...)

Given the razor-thin margin of defeat and the fact that Mexico doesn't exactly have a squeaky-clean electoral history, you can't blame Lopez Obrador, who represents the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), for contesting his loss to Calderon, who represents the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) of current president Vicente Fox. Although international observers have called the election fair, any alleged irregularities in the vote should be examined. In fact, Mexico's electoral system is designed so that Calderon can’t even be declared president-elect until allegations of fraud or other irregularities are evaluated, and that process can last until September.

However, if the investigations and manual recounts that Lopez Obrador desires indicate that Calderon's victory was indeed legitimate, will he accept the results and concede defeat? So far, things don't look promising.

Supporters of Lopez Obrador organized a protest rally Saturday in Mexico City which attracted upwards of 100,000 people. He has called for more protests starting Wednesday and another rally in Mexico City next weekend. He's also accused Mexico's independent Federal Electoral Institute of conspiring with outgoing president Fox and the PAN to rig the elections. One Mexican political analyst says that Lopez Obrador will never concede defeat. "Once the election results are certified, he will open a permanent campaign of criticizing the government."

If Calderon's victory is upheld and Lopez Obrador and his supporters decide to continue to protest instead of accepting defeat with grace, it will be an unfortunate blow to a young democracy; even more so if those protests become violent or disruptive.

Incidences of so-called "direct democracy" have become increasingly common in Latin America, wherein people take to the streets to demand that a given government resign. Don't like the president? There's no reason to wait until his term of office is up or even accept his election as legitimate! Just try to force him out of office with massive, disruptive protests! Ecuador (where no president has been allowed to finish a four-year term of office since Sixto Duran Ballen's presidency ended in 1996) and Bolivia provide good recent examples of this phenomenon. The problem is, these events are really not an affirmation of democracy but are rather nothing more than "mobocracy" events that undermine the democratic process and foment political instability. It is readily conceivable that such an event could take place in Mexico in the near future, should Lopez Obrador and his supporters refuse to accept the legitimacy of the Calderon government. And that would be especially sad, given the historical and political context of Mexico.

For almost all of its history, Mexico has never been a legitimate, stable, fundamental democracy. From the time of the county's independence from Spain in 1821 until the French intervention in Mexico of the 1860s, Mexico's presidency was amazingly unstable, with revolts and coups occuring with regularity; rarely did any one president remain in office for more than a couple of years at a time and oftentimes presidencies only lasted a few months. In many cases, a person would claim the president's office on multiple occasions; Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna - who is remembered on this side of the Rio Grande for his victory at The Alamo as well as his defeat at San Jacinto - was Mexico's president no less than seven times during this period.

Shortly after Mexican nationalists under the leadership of Benito Juarez expelled the French occupiers and executed their puppet, Emperor Ferdinand Maximilian, Mexico fell under the virtual dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz which lasted thirty years. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 was a reaction to the Diaz presidency. From the anarchy of the Mexican Revolution rose the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), which ruled Mexico as a one-party state for 71 years. During this period, presidental elections in Mexico were nominally multi-party but in reality were little more than meaningless rituals designed to create the appearance of democracy; the PRI, in actuality, held on to power through a vast political machine that perpetuated fraud, voter intimidation and violence.

The PRI's hold on power ended in 2000, when the PAN's Vicente Fox was victorious in an election that truly marked the beginning of actual democracy in Mexico. The fact that the PRI's candidate in the 2006 election finished well behind both Lopez Obrador and Calderon is a testament to this sea change in Mexico's political reality. Now, Mexico has the opportunity to peacefully hand off power from one legitimately-elected president to another. In so doing, it, as the second-largest nation in Latin America (behind Brazil), has the opportunity to provide an example to other Latin American nations who continually struggle with the concept of a stable democratic process.

But will Mexico take up its mantle as a role model of Latin American democracy, or will it fall into the same pattern of electoral disputes and street protests that have become commonplace in many other Latin American countries? While the results of last week's election will need to undergo further scrutiny, that question could well be one that Manuel Lopez Obrador and his supporters ultimately answer.

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