It Couldn't Happen Here

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, July 7, 2006

Mexico is in a mess because voters in its presidential election were so closely divided between Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the candidate of the center-left, and Felipe Calderón, the center-right candidate who was declared the narrow winner yesterday.

As a result, there are charges of theft and miscounts, of "grave inconsistencies." López Obrador has insisted that the authorities "help clear up any doubts" and "not allow the will of the citizens to be violated."

Let's be clear: There's nothing wrong with Mexico's voters. Close elections happen. The test of a democracy is how a bitter dispute of this sort is resolved. Can it be settled in a way that enhances confidence in the electoral process and the legitimacy of the ultimate winner?

Mexicans have one thing going for them: There is no question under Mexican law that the winner of the popular vote will be the winner of the election.

Imagine the global outcry if Mexico chose its president indirectly through some sort of electoral college that gave advantage to smaller states over bigger ones and permitted the loser of the popular vote to become president. The world would be merciless in deriding Mexico as a backward place living under undemocratic laws written in the early 19th century. Mexicans can be proud that this won't happen.

But there are potential problems. López Obrador has had questions about the results in the state of Tabasco. Mr. Calderón and Mr. López Obrador, please, please make sure that you don't have some close relative in charge of things down there.

How would it look if the governor of the state was your own brother? What would people think if the top official in charge of elections was your sibling's partisan ally who made every key decision in your favor?

The American media would go nuts. On Fox, Bill O'Reilly would condemn the sleaze and nepotism while declaring, confidently, "Thank God such a thing could never happen in the United States of America!" CNN's Lou Dobbs would add a "Broken Ballot Boxes" segment to his long-running series on "Broken Borders." Mexico, don't go down that road.

Another thing: Whichever one of you is ahead at any given point, please don't ask that the counting be stopped abruptly just because you happen to hold the lead. Don't have some high-class lawyer with a name like Jaime A. Panadero III come out and say things like, "I don't believe that the people of Mexico want this national election turned over to lawyers and court contests" -- and then have the very same lawyer direct other lawyers to go to court to stop any further counts.

If either of you did such a thing, wouldn't it look hypocritical? Would it not seem as if all you cared about was obtaining power -- and that you didn't care how you got it? It would spoil the legitimacy of your election.

But, yes, there is an excellent chance that the Mexican election will end up in the courts. So it will be very important that the court rulings have credibility with the Mexican people, especially with those who end up on the losing side. The judges should exercise their power, well, judiciously. They need to make sure that they're not seen as making a partisan call.

Above all, this means not stopping recounts just before a deadline -- and then claiming, after the court-imposed delay, that there was no way to remedy the very problems in the counting that the court itself might have noted because the deadline had passed.

It means that the judges should arrive at whatever decision they reach in a way that's consistent with their past views. They should not invent wholly new doctrines, utterly at odds with their previous positions, that happen to favor the candidate closer to their own ideological inclinations.

And, please, let there be no court decision so unprincipled that the judges themselves have to say that their ruling has no application to any future cases, that it "is limited to the present circumstances," because of the "many complexities" involved. That would make the whole court process look fixed, wouldn't it?

My Mexican friends could well object that it is insulting and ludicrous to presume that their country is capable of coming up with such a nightmarish scenario. They would argue that no well-functioning democracy would ever settle a contested election in the ways I have just described. I agree wholeheartedly. So here's hoping that Mexicans manage to resolve this voting dispute in a way that does credit to their nation, and offers a model for those democracies that could use a little help.

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