Photo Finish in Mexico

Tuesday, July 4, 2006

MEXICO'S cliffhanger presidential election is both an achievement and a severe test for its emerging democracy. More than 40 million people, or 60 percent of the electorate, cast ballots, and the independent Federal Election Institute responsibly refrained from declaring a winner after its quick count Sunday suggested a close finish between conservative Felipe Calderón and leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador. In a sign of how much Mexico's political system has changed, the candidate of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, which routinely rigged Mexican elections into the 1980s, placed a distant third.

The danger lies in the fact that neither of the leading candidates demonstrated the restraint of the election institute. Both claimed victory Sunday night and continued to do so yesterday despite the lack of clarity in the official results. Mr. Calderón had more justification, since he was ahead by some 400,000 votes, or about one percentage point, with 98 percent of the ballots counted. Yet both he and Mr. López Obrador suggested that the tallies of the vote by their own parties mattered as much or more than those of the election institute. Mr. López Obrador said he would accept defeat "if in the count we conduct, it turns out that the final result does not favor us."

In fact, barring concrete evidence of errors or misconduct by the electoral institute, both candidates should accept its findings. A legal process exists for bringing any challenges before the Federal Judicial Electoral Tribunal, which is charged with ratifying the final results. Regardless of who wins the election, Mexico needs political leaders who will continue to strengthen its weak political institutions -- not just the electoral authority but the courts, prosecutors and central bank, which long suffered from domination by the ruling party. Mr. López Obrador's record is cause for concern: He has demonstrated a willingness in the past to disregard laws that got in the way of his political initiatives.

Mr. Calderón's National Action Party and outgoing President Vicente Fox were tempted last year to bend the political system in order to force Mr. López Obrador out of the race. To their credit, they backed down, with the result that a leftist populist was able to fairly campaign for the presidency. If his victory is confirmed, Mr. Calderón will need to reach out to the mostly poorer Mexicans Mr. López Obrador rallied behind him and press for the greater economic liberalization, including labor market reforms, that will create more jobs.

Meanwhile, it will be crucial for Mexico's democracy that Mr. López Obrador not seek to challenge the result through street demonstrations or other disruptions. More than any would-be political savior, Mexico needs the consolidation of an institutionalized rule of law.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company