At first, it seemed like a mariachi version of Bush v. Gore. On July 2, the Mexican presidential election ended in a teeth-chatteringly close final result: 35.89 percent of the vote for winner Felipe Calderon to 35.32 percent of the vote for loser Lopez Obrador.
As in the United States, the left-of-center loser had started with a big lead over the eventual right-of-center winner. As in the United States, the loser disputed the result and demanded a recount. As in the United States, the loser lost the recount, too. As in the United States, the loser then demanded a new kind of recount, one more favourable to himself. And as in the United States, the courts told him he could not have it.
But here's where the Mexican story begins ominously to diverge from the American.
Bush v. Gore went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. On Dec. 8, 2000, that court delivered a ruling that finished Gore's hopes. Gore privately reviled the decision. But nonetheless, within a very few minutes he stepped before the television cameras to deliver a gracious speech accepting the result. The United States lives by law, and no politician can hope to survive outside the law.
In Mexico, however, the rule of law is newer and weaker. Undaunted by his legal defeats, Lopez Obrador has launched a struggle for power in the streets of Mexico.
From the 1930s until the 1990s, Mexico was governed by a single political party, the Party of the Permanent Revolution (PRI). In the 1990s, a modernizing faction within the PRI led a transition to a more open economy and to multi-party democracy. Along the way, they reformed Mexico's once fraud-plagued electoral system. Today, Mexico can claim one of the most sophisticated and honest voting systems on earth, overseen by an independent election tribunal of unquestioned integrity.
Under these new rules, the PRI lost the presidential election of 2000 to Vicente Fox, the candidate of the right-of-centre National Action Party--and the PRI modernizers triumphantly surrendered power. Their defeat was their greatest achievement.
But not everyone within the PRI supported this move to modernity. Many still cherished the party's nationalist, populist, and authoritarian traditions. They split off to form a new party, the Party of Revolutionary Democracy, or PRD.
They found a leader in Lopez Obrador and elected him mayor of Mexico City.
As mayor, Obrador showed himself to be a classic Mexican caudillo, or local boss. He engaged in showy displays of solidarity with Mexico's poor--while doing nothing about the governmental incompetence and corruption that keeps Mexico in poverty.
Under Obrador, Mexico City has become one of the most dangerous and lawless metropolises on earth. Underpaid cops and corrupt officials look the other way as gangs rob, steal, and kidnap; as business is frightened away by shakedown rackets; and as municipal funds are wasted and stolen. Obrador himself defied courts and laws when they got in the way of his vision of social justice or limited his own power.
And now Obrador is bringing his caudillo methods to national politics. For weeks, he has been calling out his supporters in waves of increasingly menacing protest.
Last Sunday, he summoned a huge crowd to Mexico City's central square, the Zocalo, to urge a campaign of civil disobedience. The next day, his followers closed Mexico's grand boulevard, the Paseo del Reforma, to traffic. All week, they have launched rotating street protests. On Thursday, they blocked the entrance to Mexico's stock market. On Friday, they tried to close two of the most important international bridges that span the Rio Grande.
Obrador says that all he wants is one more recount, a national recount this time. But even without the benefit of the count, Obrador has begun to describe himself in television interviews as Mexico's elected president. He has produced videotape that purports to show ballot stuffing by his opponents. But when examined by outside experts, it was the tape itself that turned out to have been faked.
Mexico's institutions are probably strong enough to resist Obrador. A survey conducted in the third week of July by Ipsos-Bima found that 52 percent of Mexicans believe that Calderon won the July 2 vote.
But Calderon had campaigned on pledges to resume Vicente Fox's stalled campaign to open Mexico's over-regulated economy. Will Obrador's threats and protests now frighten Calderon away from the path of reform?
Mexico's economy has performed miserably over the past decade. Despite NAFTA, Mexico remains a protected, regulated, backward economy. The crowds Obrador has summoned into the streets are demanding more of all that impoverishes Mexico--and less of everything that could save it.
Those crowds may not succeed in imposing their bad leader upon Mexico. But they may well succeed in imposing his bad policies.
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