Mexico's democratic lifeline

About the author
Sergio Aguayo Quezada is professor at Mexico's Colegio de Mexico. Among his books is 1968: Los archivos de la violencia (Grijalbo/ Reforma, 1998).

All over the world, condemnation of the Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador proliferates over his refusal to concede defeat after the official results of the country's election on 2 July 2006 were declared five days later; equally, praise is increasingly accorded to those institutions which organised the controversial election and the process that followed the counting. Such reductionism muddles the understanding of Mexico's tempestuous times.

The Mexican conflict has its origins in a multiplicity of factors impossible to capture in one, single variable. That López Obrador made strategic and tactical errors and committed rhetorical excesses is unquestionable; nonetheless, the Tribunal Electoral del Poder Judicial de la Federación (Trife, Mexico's electoral tribunal) recognised that (among other irregularities) the actions of President Vicente Fox compromised the election and that the belligerent television spots of Mexico's business leaders were in breach of the law. The collective efforts produced a shared result: the muddiest election in our history, with the result that about one third of Mexicans remains dissatisfied with the integrity of the election.

Mexico is fractured, and the name-calling in the media is a pale reflection of the hernias that rupture the social tissue. There are offspring who forbid the grandmother to visit the grandchild as long as he or she supports the leftist candidate; couples who respond to the dispute by refrigerating the bedroom; and racism and classism are evident everywhere. There are, needless to say, many motivations and variations in the positions adopted by different individuals.

Sergio Aguayo Quezada is professor at Mexico's Colegio de Mexico

Also by Sergio Aguayo Quezada in openDemocracy:

"Mexican democracy in peril" (April 2005)

"America's protean left: José Miguel Insulza and the OAS" (July 2005)

"Washington vs Latin American democracy" (November 2005)

"The Americas' new independence"
(March 2006)

"Mexico: a banana republic?"
(19 April 2006)

"Mexico's turbulent election ride"
(May 2006)

" Fraud in Mexico?"
(July 2006)

I have always voted left, but in 2000, convinced of the urgency of change, I voted for the conservative Vicente Fox. I did so thinking that he was a true democrat willing to recognise plurality, and for that reason I accepted to serve, ad honorem, in citizen councils of federal ministries during his government. In the ministry of internal affairs I participated in the council dedicated to prevent further murders of women in Ciudad Juárez, and in the ministry of social development I headed a committee on transparency that naively tried to avoid the electoral usage of social programmes. I was initially baffled and then offended by Vicente Fox's blatant activism in favour of his own and against López Obrador.

I understand that in other countries political campaigning carried out by the head of government is normal. Mexico is different. Such behaviour is illegal and immediately triggers the memory of the imperial, omnipotent presidents of the past who held the power to decide who will be their successor. Hence, the inappropriate attitude of Vicente Fox, the first president since the alternation of power in Mexico who ended up behaving - in some aspects - like the predecessors he once denounced.

The elected president, conservative Felipe Calderón, is seeking reconciliation, but his appeals will be empty rhetoric unless he fleshes them out with concrete facts and proposals; he and his supporters, inside and outside Mexico, must understand that under current conditions it is hard for millions of Mexican citizens to accept the miserable quality of our democracy.

The case for recount

In July 2006, those disturbed by the quality of the election joined López Obrador's supporters in requesting a vote recount. Calderón consistently responded that he would respect whatever the electoral tribunal decided upon. This was legally impeccable but politically insufficient. In the end, the tribunal that ratified his victory on 5 September also refused a vote recount; for many, this was a confirmation of the irregularities tainting the election. As the confirmed elected president, Calderón now faces a decision that will allow him both to build bridges towards those who remain dissatisfied and demonstrate his commitment to transparency and democracy.

The name of this opportunity is citizen recount. After the election, some 800 individuals, businesses and organisations requested the Instituto Federal Electoral (IFE, Mexico's electoral institute) access to the voting ballots in order to perform a vote recount. Amongst the petitioners are the magazine Proceso and the newspaper El Universal, and even though the exercise lacks any legal value, it has enormous symbolic value. If it confirms the official results, Calderón's legitimacy will increase. It is of course possible that the reverse will occur, but such are the risks worth taking to strengthen the principles that make democracy work.

The IFE had two options: either obey electoral legislation and destroy the ballots or respect the transparency law and deliver them to the petitioners. The same day that the tribunal ratified Calderon's victory, the IFE rejected the transparency petition and announced that it would proceed with the incineration of the ballots. The intention immediately triggers memories of the burdensome past in which the Partido Revolucionario Institucionario (Institutional Revolutionary Party / PRI) ruled Mexico continuously for seventy-one years, and if it is consummated the bonfire would further consume both democratic legitimacy and the hope of social harmony in Mexico.

Also on Mexico's turbulent election in openDemocracy:

Yadira Hidalgo, "Atenco's agony: Mexico's other campaign"
(13 June 2006)

Bernardine Coverley, "Meeting Marcos at Huixquilucan "
(13 June 2006)

In 1988 Carlos Salinas won thanks to a monumental electoral fraud, and months after its consummation, the then governing PRI and the Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party / PAN) approved in congress the burning of the ballots that destroyed fundamental evidence about a key incident in Mexico's history.

We are now in 2006, and I am among those who reject the decision of the IFE, one of the institutions sanctified by the conservatives. In my case, the main motivation has to do with the right to know, an essential pillar of democracy. In the legal battle still to be contested between the petitioners and the IFE, Felipe Calderón could support the citizen recount and buttress his democratic credentials. Simultaneously, his party could encourage the participation of conservative civil organisations in order to gain certainty over the recount, which would go some way towards cleaning the mud that stains this election.

The citizen recount has a dynamic independent of the actions pursued by Andrés Manuel López Obrador. If the international community recognises this and other nuances, the complexity of a conflict that affects Mexico in numerous ways could be better understood. Attributing Mexican turbulences to a single person is a poor simplification of reality. The dispute over the Mexican presidency puts a veil over a confrontation between the left and the right that is putting the quality of a young democracy at risk.

This article was translated by Alfonsina Peñaloza