A Victor in Mexico

Saturday, July 8, 2006

BY SCARCELY 240,000 votes out of 41 million ballots cast in Mexico's presidential election last Sunday, Felipe Calderón, a conservative, U.S.-trained technocrat, edged out Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a fiery populist and former mayor of Mexico City. Given Mr. López Obrador's extravagant (and fanciful) promises to reshape Mexican society, the ascent of leftist politicians in parts of South America, and the traditional appeal of charismatic champions of the poor in Latin America, one might have handicapped Mr. López Obrador as the easy victor. That Mr. Calderón was declared the winner, albeit by a hair, suggests that many Mexicans are at least open to the idea that free trade, open markets and sound fiscal management will eventually pay dividends -- even if the benefits of such policies to date have been spread unevenly.

Mexico now enters a perilous political moment. Mr. López Obrador, who as mayor was never shy about summoning his partisans to the streets, has called a mass demonstration today in Mexico City to protest what he calls the fraudulent election results. He has refused to concede defeat, suggesting that the results were cooked by entrenched insiders and institutions hostile to his candidacy -- and to his underprivileged constituents. And while his aides have issued assurances that he intends to act responsibly, his own unproven allegations of "manipulation" in the vote's tallying are worrying. While the results in some of the country's 130,000 ballot boxes seem to have been miscalculated -- as is the case in almost any election -- there is no sign so far of systematic attempts to falsify the outcome.

Mr. López Obrador is entitled to appeal the election results to the Federal Judicial Electoral Tribunal, an independent panel empowered to adjudicate such disputes that has ordered some state elections done over in recent years. He ought not use the power of his oratory, or the adulation of his followers, to nudge the country toward class warfare while he pursues a legal challenge that could last up to two months. To do so would hurt Mexico's international reputation and its allure to investors; it also could darken the 52-year-old Mr. López Obrador's political future.

Mr. Calderón should tread carefully, too. Although his party improved its position somewhat in Mexico's fractured parliament, he would assume the presidency -- assuming he survives his rival's appeal for a recount -- on the strength of scarcely one-third of the votes cast (a third candidate won 22.27 percent of the vote). What's more, he apparently won few votes from Mexico's legions of desperately poor people. If Mr. Calderón is to succeed as the leader of Mexico and its 106 million people, he will need to convince the have-nots -- not just the haves who already believe it -- that they stand to gain from his policies.

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