Cliffhanger: Mexican Elections and Their Aftermath

Julia E. Sweig
Special to's Think Tank Town
Thursday, July 20, 2006; 12:00 AM

Cliffhanger. That's the best way to describe Mexico's still unresolved July 2 presidential elections. Conjuring memories in the United States of butterfly ballots and hanging chads, it may be as long as the end of August before Mexicans and the rest of the world know who will govern their country for the next six years.

The initial vote tally in the days immediately following the election showed that Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (PAN) won by a slim margin of 35.89 percent over the 35.31 percent votes cast for Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known by his initials, AMLO, of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Of 41 million votes cast, the margin of difference is under a quarter million, exposing Mexico's deep divides, between north and south, rich and poor.

Although only Mexico's federal electoral tribunal -- the Tribunal Electoral del Poder Judicial de la Federación (TRIFE) -- is legally empowered to pronounce who will be the next president, Calderón has declared himself the president-elect and is assembling his team, traveling around the country thanking his supporters. President Fox has offered his congratulations, as have several other heads of state, though not, as yet, President Bush.

That's because AMLO and the PRD have presented evidence of fraud and other irregularities to the TRIFE, challenging the results and asking for a vote-by-vote or partial recount. Ever since 1988 when the PRD's candidate won the election but was denied the presidency by the regime then in power, the Mexican left, the PRD and AMLO have harbored suspicions that playing by the rules set by Mexico's electoral institutions might never deliver the presidency. Calderón has been acting presidential and the media, and business elite have called for strict adherence by the TRIFE to the law, which does not affirmatively allow for a total recount. But AMLO and the PRD have staged mass mobilizations throughout Mexico as a form of counter-pressure to encourage the TRIFE to accept demands for a recount. Whatever the outcome, observers expect AMLO to respect the court's decision. The risk of not conducting some form of recount is that Mexico's electoral institutions will lose their legitimacy and, as a result, significantly weaken Mexico's hard-won democracy.

Both candidates recognize Mexico's profound poverty and social divide as a core challenge. AMLO's campaign platform focused on helping Mexico's poor and ending privileges for the wealthiest Mexicans in order to close the income gap. He promised to increase social spending while keeping a close watch on inflation and maintaining fiscal discipline. Calderón campaigned on a promise to continue President Fox's largely successful macroeconomic policies in order to stimulate growth and employment, promising more private investment and education spending.

Whether or not a recount is ordered, and whoever is declared the winner, the shallow mandate of this election and its legacy of political polarization and distrust will weaken the next president's capacity to build a coalition in the legislature and to carry out the numerous reforms left incomplete by the Fox government. According to Pamela Starr, author of a newly released Council on Foreign Relations Special Report, Challenges for a Postelection Mexico: Issues for U.S. Policy, the next Mexican president will have to contend with Mexico's domestic policy issues, including "fiscal dependence on volatile petroleum revenues, enormous pension liabilities that expand with Mexico's aging population, insufficient investment capital in the energy sector, declining global competitiveness, weak job creation and growth, corruption, inadequate rule of law, and increasing crime." Entrenched business and labor interests and vastly inadequate revenue from taxes will further erode the weakened mandate of either of the two candidates.

What does this all mean for the United States? According to Starr, with a 2,000-mile shared border, the United States needs a politically and economically stable Mexico to find a mutually viable solution to the migration question, to coordinate efforts to control drug trafficking, and to enhance the competitiveness for the U.S. economy. Whoever is the next president, the United States can expect him to govern with a more nationalistic tone and to shun the openly warm embrace Fox extended to the United States for much of his presidency. Starr's report concludes that, "the United States should take the lead in changing the tone of the relationship by reaching out to Mexico's new president as a valued policy partner, and Mexico should reciprocate by thinking realistically about migration and attacking its pending domestic economic and security agenda." The report recommends that the United States enhance technical and financial assistance to improve the training, pay, and effectiveness of Mexico's federal and state police forces. Mexico for its part "needs to overcome its historic sensitivity to joint operations with U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies."

Because of the unpredictable outcome of these elections and their overall polarizing effect on Mexico's democracy, no one in Washington should have any illusion that a bilateral agenda with the new president will be any easier to carry out than it was with Fox, who came in with a much stronger mandate. Moreover, Mexico policy in the United States may well fall victim to our own domestic political calendar, at least until after the midterm elections. Fortunately, because Mexicans won't inaugurate their new president until December 2006, there may well be some breathing space before the U.S. presidential election season gears up for both countries to map out future directions for the bilateral relationship.

Julia E. Sweig is the Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow for Latin America studies and director for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is author of Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century.

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