Mexico's Two Presidents
by Laura Carlsen
Foreign Poliy in Focus
www.zmag.org, September 27, 2006
On September 16, over one million people
raised their hands in a vote to recognize center-left leader Andres
Manuel Lopez Obrador as the "legitimate president" of
Mexico. Gathered in Mexico City's historic center, the delegates
to the National Democratic Convention (NDC) agreed to inaugurate
their president on November 20-ten days before the inauguration
of the officially recognized candidate, Felipe Calderon. This
act of civil resistance ushered in a new stage in an electoral
conflict that has developed into an all-out battle for the country's
The NDC constituted an unprecedented event
in Mexico's tumultuous sequence of starts and stalls toward democracy.
No matter what the outcome, the convention will go down in history
as a defining moment in the nation's political development. What
it will define, however, is still anybody's guess.
The conservative camp that supports the
presidency of Felipe Calderon, who has been officially certified
by electoral institutions and backed by mainstream media conglomerates,
big business, and much of the U.S. press, has portrayed the convention
as the last-gasp attempt of a losing candidate to attain power.
But try telling that to any of the delegates
straining to hear the proceedings over the rain and crowd noise
on Mexico's Independence Day. For them, "their" president
not only deserves office by right of having won elections stolen
through fraud, but also because he represents their interests.
Running on a pro-poor platform, Lopez Obrador has gained the confidence
of millions of Mexicans. The poor form the backbone of a movement
that has rapidly evolved into a widespread rejection of the status
After months of protesting fraud, the
convention represented a change in direction. Amid the morass
of unexplained discrepancies and manipulated results that have
characterized Mexico's presidential elections, the distinction
between the demand for a fair vote count and the need to redress
deeply felt social wrongs has been subsumed into a general movement
for fundamental reforms. >From Fighting Fraud to Fundamental
It would be a mistake to write off Mexico's
post-electoral conflict as a battle between legality and sore
losers. Mexico's current political crisis developed out of the
lack of public confidence in an exceedingly tight and contested
presidential election. The Electoral Tribunal's declaration of
Felipe Calderon as the official winner on September 5 failed to
restore credibility in representative government for three fundamental
reasons: a bad count, a lack of transparency, and the belief of
poor Mexicans that the new government will not represent their
The problem with the count is straightforward-no
one can say with certainty who won the Mexican presidential elections.
The official system of preliminary results showed such obvious
flaws in functioning-including the original exclusion of 3 million
votes-that the matter passed to a full review of tally sheets
amid growing suspicions of foul play. Later, the judicial electoral
tribunal rejected the demand for a full recount of ballots despite
ample indications of irregularities.
In this context, the tribunal's decision
to legally proclaim Felipe Calderon the victor by a half-percent
margin over Lopez Obrador was more a matter of expediency than
a measure of justice. The tribunal acknowledged arithmetic errors
and electoral law violations but concluded, somewhat speciously,
that they did not change the outcome.
In the absence of a full count, the tribunal's
decision reflected wishful thinking rather than a clarification
of what really happened on July 2. Evidence that included numerical
differences between tally sheets and actual ballots, additional
and missing ballots, and adulterated official results cast a pall
over the first elections held under the rightwing National Action
The political will of the majority of
Mexicans on July 2 may never be known. Electoral officials have
unaccountably refused any public review of ballots. The Federal
Electoral Institute has rejected several freedom-of-information
petitions to allow public access to ballots and tally sheets.
Likewise, the information released to date by the Electoral Tribunal
has inexplicable and unjustifiable gaps. By admitting a recount
of only 9% of the precincts and nullifying certain polling place
results without releasing clear, specific data on where and why,
it raised more questions than it answered.
An election is not a technical exercise
but a civic ritual that serves to renovate and legitimate powers.
When it does precisely the opposite, as it has in Mexico today,
it fails to serve its purpose. A democratic election cannot be
declared by fiat, whether legally sanctioned or not. It has been
done-in Mexico 1988, in Florida 2000-but that doesn't make it
right. Transparency is a prerequisite for elections in a democratic
society, not only so the electorate can be sure the votes were
counted, but also to ensure public confidence in the outcome.
The vast majority of the poor-the core
of the over 15 million who voted for Lopez Obrador-do not believe
that Calderon will hear them, much less represent their interests.
Part of the problem is Mexico's major
obstacle to democratic transition-the power of the presidency.
Once elected, Vicente Fox, like his predecessors in the Institutional
Revolutionary Party (PRI), used presidential powers to force unpopular
measures through the back door in the form of executive decrees.
Instead of limiting this power, Fox used it to consolidate neoliberal
Another problem is that Mexico's political
system has few mechanisms of accountability to constituents.
Under this system, one has to have power
to leverage power. Most of the millions who voted a second time
for Lopez Obrador on September 16 have, for the most part, only
the two feet they stand on for leveraging power. They believe
that Calderon's PAN is the party of the rich and powerful. The
government-in-resistance is their bid for a voice in a political
system that has systematically excluded them.
Democracy reduced to electoral representation
has always been a frail form of "rule by the people,"
since the people often wind up far removed from their representatives.
But when its ability to represent its citizens is in doubt, the
system moves from frail to farcical. Mexico's system has now clearly
fallen into this category.
Institutional reform has been a plank
of Lopez Obrador's campaign since his original proposal for a
new social pact. The civil resistance plan approved at the convention
calls for protests at every public appearance of the "spurious"
president, but also incorporates campaigns against the privatization
of petroleum and electricity, as well as in defense of public
education. The program adopted for the parallel government includes
battling poverty and inequality, defense of natural resources,
the right to information, an end to the privileges of the few,
and profound reforms in national institutions.
Mexico's constitution sanctions the right
of the people to exercise sovereignty beyond the institutions
of the government. Article 39 of the constitution suggests that
altering the form of government is not only an inalienable right
but also an obligation when the institutions no longer operate
in the public interest. The government-in-resistance claims that
the nation's institutions have been manipulated through pseudo-legal
and illegal ways to benefit a very small minority of the population.
The poor have been left out. And now they want back in. Mexico's
Political Crisis in the World
For the United States, Mexico's political
crisis hits close to home, literally. Not only is the nation located
on the U.S. southern border, the conflict affects U.S. interests
in the fundamental areas of trade relations, immigration, and
Mexico was the laboratory for the U.S.
strategy of free trade agreements based on open access to markets,
favorable terms for international investment, and intellectual
property protection. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)
negotiated in the early 90s forced Mexico to compete with the
world's wealthiest and most powerful nation and led to millions
of jobs lost in national industry and small-scale agriculture.
Instead of examining the negative impact
of NAFTA, the U.S. government has insisted on more of the same.
It refused to renegotiate the agricultural chapter of NAFTA that
calls for complete liberalization of corn and beans in 2008. Calderon
supports the liberalization, despite studies that predict a profound
negative impact on approximately three million small-scale farmers.
Lopez Obrador has made the derogation
of the NAFTA agricultural clause a constant, and much applauded,
point in his recent speeches. While he supports NAFTA and open
markets, he has also drawn up economic policies that reclaim the
direct role of the state in generating employment, protecting
strategic domestic markets, redistributing income by eliminating
tax breaks for the wealthy, and guaranteeing a basic standard
of living for those at risk-the elderly, single mothers, persons
with disabilities, and small farmers.
The plan is far from radical, but it has
drawn the fire of powerful business interests at home and abroad.
The Bush administration would rather not have another defection
from the ranks of economic orthodoxy at a time when much of Latin
America shows signs of leaving the fold.
Following the official pronouncement of
Calderon as president-elect, conservative analysts eagerly placed
Mexico in the ranks of nations loyal to U.S.-style economic integration.
With Mexico again assured as an unconditional economic and political
ally, the "Pacific Axis" of Mexico, Central America,
Colombia, Peru, and Chile seemed secured at its northern end.
But with the current divisions, the Mexican
elections can hardly be hailed as a major ratification of neoliberal
policies in the hemisphere. The political crisis also complicates
the Bush agenda in areas of counter-terrorism, immigration, and
drug trafficking, although the basic terms of cooperation will
Even if Calderon were miraculously able
to consolidate power over the coming months-a scenario that looks
increasingly unlikely-a broad movement calling for major institutional
reforms will be on the political scene for a long time to come.
Whether as a parallel government, a grassroots social movement,
a partisan opposition, or some combination, the movement will
weaken the new presidency and strengthen hopes for a real and
inclusive democratic transition.
Laura Carlsen is director of the IRC Americas
Program in Mexico City, where she has worked as a writer and political
analyst for the past two decades. The Americas Program is online