War on Drugs

Turning Right or Running in Place?

Mexico's historic, disappointing election


When asked whom she voted for in the Mexican presidential election, Marcela Armenta, a marketing assistant in Guadalajara, answered "The least worst option." That was an opinion voiced by many last Sunday.

Six years after Vicente Fox, running on an agenda of change, ousted the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Mexicans returned to the polls to face a stark choice: gamble on a left-leaning populist, pitching outdated economic proposals and a revival of the PRI corporatist system, or stick with the unremarkable governance and macroeconomic stability ushered in by Fox's conservative National Action Party (PAN).

Mexican voters have apparently opted for the latter, choosing the PAN's Felipe Calderon, a drab, Harvard-educated lawyer with a thin resume. (Fox was barred from seeking reelection).

"The PRI is a bunch of rats… the (Democratic Revolution Party) PRD is leftwing and is going to cause economic instability similar to Venezuela," she said.

After more than six months of nasty campaigning, which saw the PAN liken PRD candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and skeletons tumble out of the supposedly clean PAN candidate's closet, the election ended with the two main contenders less than one percentage point apart. After a recount of the polling station results on Wednesday and Thursday, Calderon bested Lopez Obrador by a scant 0.6-percentage-point margin.

Lopez Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City, screamed foul, alleging manipulation. He promised to appeal to an election tribunal and also beckoned his supporters to Mexico City's main square for a rally on Saturday night.

A man with a persecution complex, who frequently speaks of conspiracies against him, Lopez Obrador has had his run-ins with voter fraud. His PRD predecessor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas lost the 1988 election after a mysterious computer crash wiped out the early results. Lopez Obrador later lost a scandal-plagued governor's race in Tabasco state in which his PRI opponent allegedly spent more than 40 times the legal limit.

But this time around the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) oversaw the election. It's well funded, professional and transparent. Even Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, with every reason to be bitter, called the IFE "trustworthy."

Lopez Obrador's combative behavior failed to surprise many observers, including George Grayson, a government professor at the College of William and Mary, who penned a book on the PRD candidate titled, Mesias Mexicano (Mexican Messiah).

Grayson writes in an email, "As a man with messianic tendencies, Lopez Obrador believes that he incarnates the will of the people. Thus he could not have lost; there had to be fraud."

Although Lopez Obrador was widely viewed as the left's best hope to capture power since 1988, his ascension unsettled several small but significant players—most notably pipe-smoking bandit Subcomandante Marcos and Alternativa candidate Patricia Mercado, who presented her minor party as a responsible alternative to the PRD.

Mercado accused the PRD of engaging in the old PRI practice of establishing clientelas, constituencies dependent on favors, highlighting Lopez Obrador's system of giving stipends to seniors in Mexico City as an example.

Many PRI operatives and PRI-affiliated unions drifted over to the PRD as the PRI campaign stumbled. The PRI failed to win a majority in any state, even in the backwards southern enclaves, where its fabled party machine was rumored to have all its gears grinding.

Lopez Obrador drew on the PRI's inglorious past for many of his economic proposals, which included lowering the prices of gasoline and electricity, keeping foreigners out of the energy sector, withdrawing from parts of NAFTA and boosting household incomes. But as Grupo Reforma columnist Sergio Sarmiento, a skeptic of Lopez Obrador's plan to boost incomes of families earning less than 9,000 pesos per month by 20 percent, observed, "The last time we had something like this was in 1982, when [former president] Jose Lopez Portillo ordered a 30 percent increase in salaries, which produced a subsequent economic collapse."

Felipe Calderon, a former energy secretary, eventually stooped to similar demagoguery, promising lower electricity and gasoline prices too. Mostly though, he spoke of modernizing Mexico and railed against Lopez Obrador.

Despite President Vicente Fox's inability to enact necessary tax, energy or labor reforms, Mexico's economy improved on several fronts. Inflation dropped below three percent, interest rates also fell Mexicans can now get fixed-rate loans—the stock market soared and the peso remained stable. Calderon polled well among the middle classes, who tired of recurring economic crises.

Fox, a lousy politician, fell short of his goals thanks in part to intransigent legislators, who refused to go along with his reforms. Calderon, assuming he takes office, will have to deal with a divided Congress and Senate, where no party holds a majority.

Recognizing his slim victory and lack of a strong mandate (he only captured 35.9 percent of the vote, the lowest winning number in modern Mexican history) Calderon promised to form a coalition government. With any luck it might pull Mexico out of legislative gridlock and end its seemingly endless mediocrity.