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Fraud in Mexico?

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).

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)

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. López Obrador’s strategic and tactical errors and rhetorical excesses are unquestionable, but the Tribunal Electoral del Poder Judicial de la Federación (Trife, Mexico’s electoral tribunal) recognised that (among other irregularities) President Vicente Fox endangered the election and that the business leaders broke the law with their belligerent television spots. The collective effort produced the muddiest election in our history and, as a result, about one third of Mexicans remain 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)

A new era

As a result, the political atmosphere was filled with a bitterness that, we hoped, would end on election-day. Instead, that long day's journey into night condensed the best and the worst of the Mexican past and present. During polling-hours, it was a jamboree of democratic civility; the drama began after the voting ended, when neither the media nor the IFE divulged the exit-poll results: the difference between first and second place – they said – was so close that they preferred to wait for the fast tally ordered by the electoral authority. At 11pm, that too was cancelled for the same ostensible reason.

At this point, all eyes were on the section of the IFE's website that granted access to the "preliminary results programme" (Prep), which consistently granted the lead to the Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party's / PAN) conservative candidate, Felipe Calderón. By the night of Monday 3 July, with 98.45% of the ballot-boxes counted, Calderón led by one point over López Obrador, of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution / PRD).

Calderón hastened to turn this mathematical triumph into a political one, by declaring victory and calling for reconciliation. The PAN asked the electoral authority to recognise the victory, and the capital's dense air was filled with praises of the IFE's unmatched professionalism. Only the left and its candidate refused to recognise their defeat and insisted that – given the closeness of the results – each and every vote would have to be counted and all irregularities clarified.

On Tuesday 4 July history played a practical joke and confirmed that Mexico is a country where anything is possible. López Obrador accused the electoral authority of concealing 3 million votes and, hours later, the IFE had to acknowledge the mistake. The results published on the Prep's website, regarded at that stage as valid by Mexico and the world, were erroneous; 13,921 ballot-boxes, representing more than 3 million votes, had indeed been excluded from the count. The election was still open, and we would have to wait until Wednesday when a recount based on the new ballot-box paperwork would occur.

The IFE's error arrived at the worst possible time. The hitherto respected electoral authority found itself the target of mistrust by a left that considered the 3-million-sized "oversight" part of an establishment plot to cheat it of the victory it had earned. And in politics, as we know, perception becomes reality. The ghost of the 1988 fraud reappeared, and weapons began to be polished for the battle – legal, media, and political – that will last through the hot summer, and persist until the new president's inauguration on 1 December 2006.

The scale of the issue now transcends the presidential election itself. It signifies, in fact, the end of an era. During the 20th century, the then dominant Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party / PRI) buried ideological diversity in slippery concepts of "Mexican revolution ideology" and "national unity". In 2006, the polarisation between left and right re-emerged from the tomb, and each side now observes the other with a hatred and rancour exacerbated by the longest, most expensive and murkiest election in our history.

Where now? A constructive approach that can overcome this bitter antagonism requires a restoration of the foundation-stone of democracy: tolerance. Its essential requirement is to remove the doubts concerning the legitimacy of the election. A good portion of this responsibility will fall upon the election's judicial tribunal (Trife for its acronym in Spanish), the institution in charge of deciding the fairness of complaints, applying sanctions and determining the winner. Trife must decide whether it accepts the left's demands to implement a vote-by-vote recount. This is desirable in order to free the election from irregularities and moderate a conflict that might reach the streets.

Some years ago, Mario Vargas Llosa described the Mexican political system as the "perfect dictatorship". The 2006 election proved that that era has been overcome. Mexico is now an "imperfect democracy". Fortunately, we are not alone in the world.


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