Mexico's Moment of Truth

By Kent Paterson

Drawing millions of supporters into the streets, presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has raised the stakes in his legal challenge to the July 2 election results that gave opponent Felipe Calderon a victory margin of less than 1% of the vote. Convening his third mass rally in the capital city since the election, Lopez Obrador announced July 30 the establishment of 47 protest camps in Mexico City. In his now-polished style of reaching into Mexico's past to craft its future, Lopez Obrador evoked the names of Mexican heroes Madero, Zapata and Villa to inject a dose of historical mission into the post-election movement.

Labeling President Vicente Fox a "traitor to democracy," the 52-year-old standard-bearer of the center-left For the Good of All Coalition defined the present moment as a critical one for Mexico. Nothing less than "the right of citizens to democratically and freely elect their governing officials" is on the table, Lopez Obrador said.

Weeks after Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) declared Felipe Calderon of President Fox's National Action Party (PAN) the winner, uncertainty reigns over Mexico's political transition as a panel of election judges mulls over the merits of Lopez Obrador's legal challenge. Meeting with the members of the Federal Electoral Tribunal, Calderon urged the judges to respect what he contends is the popular will as expressed on July 2. "I won the election cleanly," Calderon said, harkening back to his campaign slogan as "The Man with the Clean Hands."

Tapping into old talents acquired as a protest leader in the 1990s, Lopez Obrador has emerged as one of the most charismatic political leaders to emerge in Mexico. Evoking nationalist sentiments in a country battered by decades of free trade, corruption and escalating narco-violence, Lopez Obrador inspires legions of passionate followers.

"We are authentic Mexicans who want a decent country. We want to live and die in a decent country," said Aguascalientes resident Laura Gonzales. "We are being trampled on by businessmen, because [PAN] is a party of businessmen, people with money. They don't want a free and just country. They don't want kids to grow up decently. They want their kids to grow up nicely, with the latest cars, and hand over to them the businesses and fortunes they steal from us. This is what exists in Mexico. There is no democracy."

Conversely, Lopez Obrador's movement is triggering the ire of the Mexican right, openly reasserting itself after decades in the shadows of the PRI and PAN political parties. For the first time since the 1970s, a major left-right political polarization is surfacing. "I think the election was fair," said Mexico City resident Lazaro Galindo. "I think the irregularities begin when I start demanding my rights and affecting others. Right now, I can't cross the street freely with my family because the protesters are directly affecting me."

Overhanging the conflict is the burning question of whether the election was clean. Prior to the voting, President Vicente Fox assured Mexicans and the international community that the July 2006 election would be Mexico's "cleanest" election in its history. Fox's proclamation was almost immediately cast in doubt the evening of July 2 when IFE President Luis Carlos Ugalde failed to announce the preliminary results as expected. Suspicion mounted after conflicting election results, both unofficial and official, showed Calderon ahead and then Lopez Obrador and then finally Calderon.

Leonel Cota, the president of Lopez Obrador's center-left PRD party, soon denounced the election as a "fraud," and Lopez Obrador filed a legal challenge to the results reported in 227 of the country's 300 electoral districts. Evidence of other irregularities quickly surfaced, some novel and some old-hat.

Illegal vote-buying for the PAN and the PRI parties was reported, with payments ranging from about $10 dollars to $50 per vote. In the central city of Aguascalientes, pro-Calderon operatives allegedly gave cell phones to willing voters who entered the voting booths, marked their ballots and then snapped photos of the vote in return for a payment. Lopez Obrador supporters also say they received telephone calls from unidentified solicitors who promised their children paid schooling in the United States in return for a Calderon vote.

Nearly 700 foreign observers monitored the election, issuing mixed assessments. A preliminary report from the European Union generally echoed the IFE's contention that the election was transparent. "I don't think this was anything like an impeccable election," said Ted Lewis, the human rights coordinator for the California-based Global Exchange. Having a long history of observing Mexican elections, Global Exchange sent observers to monitor the voting in San Luis Potosi, Mexico and Oaxaca states.

While cautioning that their observations do not necessarily reflect the experience of the whole country, Global Exchange observers ran across evidence of vote-buying, illegal campaigning and purges of voters' lists.

Ultimately, Lopez Obrador's best chance for a vote recount rests with his ability to convince the Federal Electoral Tribunal that irregularities and ballot box mayhem contaminated the results in at least 20% of the country's nearly 130,000 precincts. The judges have until Sept. 6 to rule on Lopez Obrador's challenge and officially declare a new president. If Calderon's victory is upheld, Lopez Obrador's supporters are not likely to take the decision lightly. Signs abound that the vote recount movement is already moving beyond the immediate issue of the election. Complaints about low salaries, high utility charges and out-of-reach education costs quickly rise to the surface at rallies.

Ailing but still able to muster enough strength to attend some of the protests, 71-year-old Ramon Baez concurs with Lopez Obrador that Mexico is at a crossroads. A prominent, former railroad workers' union leader and leftist activist, Baez predicts that if change doesn't happen soon the specter of "Mexico bronco" will haunt the country. "The situation is going to get worse if the government imposes Calderon as president of the Republic," Baez says.

Editor's Note: On Aug. 5, the Federal Election Tribunal ordered a recount of 9% of the nation's 130,000 voting places. If irregularities are found, the election could be thrown out but the ruling was widely interpreted as a rebuke of Lopez Obrador, whose supporters have threatened an escalation of protests if a full recount is not conducted.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who divides his time between Mexico and the US Southwest.

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2006

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