We have won the presidency," leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced in Mexico City at 11 p.m. on election night, July 2. "Triumph is irreversible."
This "triumph" probably is, because conservative candidate Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (PAN) outpolled him in the first count of votes and, as of July 6, the recount. Calderón took 36 percent of the 41 million votes cast. López Obrador of the upstart Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) tallied 35 percent. Roberto Madrazo from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which held Mexico's presidency for seven decades until 2000, finished a distant third with just 22 percent of the vote.
Displaying shades of Al Gore circa 2000, López Obrador initially asserted that at least 3.5 million votes were not counted. He said he would challenge the outcome before the Federal Electoral Tribunal, which has until Sept. 6 to certify the president-elect. He also called for street demonstrations.
Liberal U.S. reporters tended to give credence to López Obrador's concerns. But conservative journalists such as Mary O'Grady praised Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) for "carrying out a spectacularly clean, transparent and well-organized election."
Although many in media portrayed the liberal/conservative race as a simple saga of class conflict, political expert Jorge Chabat of CIDE (a Mexico City research institute), said, "I wouldn't be so schematic in these things. In general terms, perhaps López Obrador drew the poor and Calderón drew the middle and upper class. But we don't have such a big middle and upper class to get 36 percent of the vote, so Calderón did reach poor voters."
That reach to poor voters may have kept Mexico from joining the ranks of Latin American nations governed by leftist leaders including Hugo Chavéz in Venezuela, Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva in Brazil, Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay, and Evo Morales in Bolivia. Colombia, Peru, and most of Central America have stood against the leftist sweep.
A straight left-right division is too simple, though. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Jorge Castañeda, former Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the center-right Fox, argued that at least two separate leftist movements have emerged in Latin America in the past decade. "One is modern, open-minded, reformist, and internationalist," Castañeda wrote, describing social democrat style governments of Chile and the Workers' Party led by Lula in Brazil. "The other, born of the great tradition of Latin American populism, is nationalist, strident, and close-minded. The first is well aware of its past mistakes (as well as those of its erstwhile role models in Cuba and the Soviet Union) and has changed accordingly. The second, unfortunately, has not."
Peter Ward, a Mexico expert at the University of Texas, pegged López Obrador somewhere between the European style socialism of Lula in Brazil and the anti-American populism of Chavéz in Venezuela. "He's not as much from the union and workers background as Lula was, but he casts himself as an advocate of the poor," said Ward.
It appears that a crucial number of voters feared that López Obrador would drift closer towards populists like Chavéz and Morales who bend the knee to Cuba's Fidel Castro. Alarm over López Obrador's ties with the more strident wing of Latin America's left may have caused many to fall in behind Calderón and halt, for now, the spread of left-leaning regimes in Latin America.
Many Mexican businesses are treating that as good news. Stocks on the Mexican exchange rallied the day after the election when Calderón's victory seemed clear. Calderón, the 43-year-old Harvard educated former Secretary of Energy, promises a continuation of Fox's free-market reforms that touched off a period of economic growth, especially in northern Mexico.
But first, Calderón must survive the post-election competition. While López Obrador was claiming victory on election night despite trailing in the ballot, some of his supporters were chanting, Reprobio papalete; fraude electoral, in essence, failed ballot, fraudulent election. "That's what [left-wingers] chanted in 1988 when there were not only many irregularities, but frauds," said Chabat, referring to a tightly fought 1988 election where the PRI defeated a leftist foe amidst claims of fraud.
"But now, there is really no basis for that," Chabat said. "The system for counting votes in Mexico is very transparent and very simple. The acts of the voting stations are signed by all the parties. There is almost no room for fraud." Nevertheless, mistrust of the government in Mexico is a way of life.
Americans may be familiar with election maps showing the United States divided by red and blue on election night-usually with two blue coasts surrounding a sea of red heartland states. Mexico has a similar divide. The 2006 presidential election in Mexico revealed a deep schism between northern Mexico (mainly blue for Calderón) and southern Mexico (orange for López Obrador).
One reason for the split is economic: average income in the northern states is sometimes twice that of southern states. Another reason is attitude toward reforms enacted during current President Vicente Fox's six-year term: CIDE's Chabat notes that better-educated Mexican citizens in northern states benefited much more from reforms than did the more-poorly educated, largely indigenous people of southern Mexico. Many residents of northern Mexico apparently fear that a move to the left would strain relations with the mega-economy to the north.