The business of being a bad loser in Mexico
The (ill-gotten) power of defeated candidates in Mexico
“This country does not move forward with elections, it moves forward with social mobilization.”
-Andrés Manuel López Obrador
Election nights mark the end of a political cycle and the beginning of a new one for competing candidates. For the winner, it is the de facto start of his administration. The loser, however, has two options. One is to concede defeat and go home to lick the wounds and enjoy retirement living. Francisco Labastida Ochoa, presidential candidate in the 2000 Mexican elections, was famously asked once, “What did defeat taste like to you? Pain, sadness?” “No,” he responded, “it tasted like tequila.” The other option for the losing candidate is to disavow the results and refuse to concede. “To hell with institutions!” exclaimed in 2006 the current president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), when the electoral tribunal ruled that his demand to invalidate the elections of that year was unfounded. This article deals with the second option.
The topic of being a bad loser is timely, given the fears that U.S. President Donald Trump might refuse to concede if he loses the November presidential race. Today, many wonder what would happen in this unprecedented scenario. And well, we Mexicans have a bit of experience with bad losers. Just consider the fact that our president holds an embarrassing record: he has never conceded defeat in his almost 45 years in party politics. Indeed, AMLO has either won every election and referendum he has been in, or cried foul.
To begin with, it is necessary to understand that the objective of refusing defeat is to win at a bargaining table what was not won at the ballot box. The consequences for the polity, however, depend to a large extent on the type of political regime in which the candidates compete.
In a pure authoritarian regime, a bad loser could bring international discredit to the country and even precipitate a social movement. In most cases, however, none of this happens. There is the example of Don Luis H. Álvarez of the National Action Party (PAN), presidential candidate in the 1958 Mexican elections during the heyday of the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Don Luis was a quixotic candidate with zero chances of winning, but who nonetheless was persecuted and threatened on the campaign trail. On election night he refused to concede, calling out the elections for what they were: a gross fraud. None of this mattered and the PRI remained in power for another 42 years.
Things in a regime in transition are, unsurprisingly, very different. The Mexican case is particularly illustrative. As mentioned above, for most of the twentieth century, Mexico was an authoritarian regime of the hegemonic party type. The PRI permitted opposition parties to exist but did not allow them to compete on equal terms. The democratic transition began in 1977 at the behest of the PRI, which sought to provide itself with a minimal patina of democracy. In essence, the transition was a discontinuous process of negotiations between the PRI governments and the opposition parties regarding the autonomy of the electoral authorities.
In the transition period (1977-1996), the Mexican opposition led by the rightist PAN and the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) rejected the electoral results continuously. They did it for two reasons. First, because the elections were organized by the government and therefore the results were not to be trusted. Second, because it gave them political leverage in post-electoral negotiations with the PRI.
Note what I am arguing here: the Mexican opposition rejected the electoral results not because they thought they were the winners, but strictly for political reasoning. There were many elections that the PRI legitimately won by mobilizing their vote —although perhaps with a wider margin than what they really deserved. Winning by a landslide was a deliberate strategy of the PRI: it gave them an air of invincibility, prevented internal splits, and increased their bargaining power against the opposition.
The PAN and Fox, who eventually became president of Mexico (2000-2006), got their way, showing how profitable it was during the transition to refuse defeat.
These post-electoral negotiations between the opposition and the PRI gave rise to an original political term: “concertacesión,” a neologism that brings together the words “concertation” and “concession.” Concertation is used in the Mexican political milieu as an euphemism for negotiating. A concertacesión thus implied a gentlemen’s agreement cut in a smoke-filled room by which public offices were conceded to the opposition to resolve post-electoral conflicts.
Porfirio Muñoz Ledo is credited with having coined the term in 1991 when a conflict of this kind broke out in the state of Guanajuato. On that occasion, Muñoz Ledo ran for governor for the PRD, Ramón Aguirre for the PRI, and Vicente Fox Quesada for the PAN. Fox came in second behind Aguirre but did not concede defeat; instead, he organized a protest movement that threw the state into disarray.
In the midst of a very tense environment both in Guanajuato and in Mexico City, the government of then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) wanted to readily diffuse the conflict and entered into negotiations with the PAN leadership. Salinas wanted to show himself as a reformist president in the face of the negotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). And so, he proposed to the PAN the first concertacesión of several that took place in his government. The PAN accepted. The terms were the following: it was agreed that Aguirre would be declared governor-elect but he would not take office. Instead he would take a plane and leave the country to Europe as ambassador. The local congress would take notice of this situation and, in the absence of a constitutional governor, it would appoint a provisional one. This individual would be any member of the PAN except Fox. It was a total mockery of law and democracy. The PAN and Fox, who eventually became president of Mexico (2000-2006), got their way, showing how profitable it was during the transition to refuse defeat.
And the case of Guanajuato is one of many others.
Something similar happened in the state of Tabasco in 1994 with AMLO as the main protagonist. That year he competed for the governorship under the PRD label, losing against Roberto Madrazo Pintado of the PRI. And like Fox, AMLO rejected the results and organized a protest march to the Zócalo of Mexico City. His intention was to arrive on December 1st and thus interrupt the inauguration of the incoming President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000). To avoid this embarrassment, and taking a page out of Salinas’ book, Zedillo offered AMLO a concertacesión: the head of Madrazo in exchange of appeasing his clientele. In the end, the plan failed as the local leaders of the PRI in Tabasco challenged the will of a president that was perceived as weak and that lacked support among the rank and file of the party.
But AMLO did not return to Tabasco empty-handed.
Although he did not achieve his goal of getting a promise of new elections in the state, he achieved something more valuable for himself: he exposed Zedillo to ridicule and positioned himself in Mexico City as an astute politician. Those were two of the reasons for which he obtained the blessing of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the moral leader of the PRD, to assume the presidency of the party in 1996. This propelled his political career to the national stage, where he remained ever since, first as mayor of Mexico City (2000-2005) and then as presidential candidate in 2006, 2012, and finally running successfully in 2018.
The reluctance of the PAN and PRD to concede defeat during the transition had two positive consequences for the country's democratic prospects. On the one hand, it increased the representation of the opposition in local congresses and governments, and on the other, it accelerated the transition by forcing the PRI to sit down and negotiate the autonomy of the electoral authorities.
What happened after the transition ended in 1996? Did the opposition parties stop being bad losers once the electoral authorities became fully autonomous? It may come as a surprise for some, but the answer is no. The parties and candidates in Mexico continue to this day rejecting the electoral results with the same objective as always: to increase their bargaining power in informal second rounds. But contrary to what happened in the transition period, the reluctance of today's Mexican politicians to concede their defeats is weakening the democratic institutions. I am referring to the National Electoral Institute (INE) and the Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judiciary (TEPJF).
His stubbornness has allowed him to earn an aura of victimhood that he does not hesitate to use when his party is reprimanded by the electoral authorities.
The most obvious example is AMLO, who to this day rejects his defeats in the 2006 and 2012 presidential elections. His stubbornness has allowed him to earn an aura of victimhood that he does not hesitate to use when his party is reprimanded by the electoral authorities. It happened in 2018, shortly after his electoral victory that same year, when the INE detected an irregular financing scheme in his campaign. According to INE investigations, millions of pesos of unknown origin were diverted to operators of his party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), presumably in exchange for votes. In response, AMLO declared himself the victim of a “vile revenge” by the INE for winning the presidential election.
This is like in football (soccer): why do managers always complain about the referees? Answer: because they know they can influence their decisions. Managers, as well as politicians, are powerful people, some of them are even rich and famous, and can intimidate referees —even when these make the right calls. Pep Guardiola, for example, famously complained once of referee Undiano Mallenco’s “perfect” refereeing and the “privileged sight” of his linesman who disallowed a goal by Pedro on a tight offside. Think about it, dear reader: the call that Guardiola complained about was the correct one: it was offside!
Similarly, in today's democratic Mexico, it is still profitable to criticize and challenge all the decisions made by the electoral authorities. As in the transition period, refusing defeat is a way to gain political leverage for subsequent negotiations and electoral processes. Unfortunately for our democracy, it is still a good business to be a bad loser.
How can we change this? What incentives can be put in place to push candidates to concede when they lose? Well, the only ones that work when you deal with cheaters: firm and clear rules and expectations. Candidates that receive public money to compete electorally must refrain from calling the electoral authorities a gang of thieves. Otherwise, they will face economic penalties and even expulsion from the democratic game. This was done in Spain with the political arm of ETA, Herri Batasuna, which had entrenched itself in the very democratic institutions that it wanted to destroy. The Law of Political Parties approved in 2002 outlawed them, preventing in this way that “a political party repeatedly and seriously put at risk [the] democratic regime.”
I don't see any other way out. If not, elections in Mexico will continue to be distorted ceremonies: not an end point to a political cycle, but the starting point for negotiations where the objective is to win at a bargaining table what was not won fair and square at the ballot box. We can all agree that this kind of political maneuvering is not fair for Mexican citizens who cast their votes at the ballot box, believing that their vote counts for something.
In memory of my mom, Consuelo Magos Hernández 1948-2020 .
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