Mexico's Moment of Truth

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

IN THE 6 1/2 weeks since he narrowly lost Mexico's presidential election, Andrés Manuel López Obrador has turned the nation's politics into a public spectacle. A fiery populist with a messianic streak, Mr. López Obrador has led thousands of his supporters to pitch tent cities in downtown Mexico City, occupying the Zocalo, its main square, and a two-mile stretch of the Paseo De La Reforma, one of its major boulevards. He has denounced the election as a fraud and the product of a vast conspiracy, without furnishing even remotely convincing proof. Now, after a partial recount has apparently failed to yield any significant shift in his favor, he threatens to paralyze Mexico with a campaign of civil disobedience "for years, if that is what circumstances warrant."

His goal, Mr. López Obrador nobly insists, is to "save" Mexico's fragile democracy. In fact, by daily demonstrating his disdain for the country's electoral institutions while showing no actual failure on their part, Mr. López Obrador threatens to subvert the democracy he claims to champion.

As Mr. López Obrador recklessly toys with the stability of a nation that emerged from one-party rule just this decade, it is worth examining the election he has been so busy maligning. Although he trailed Felipe Calderón, a center-right candidate, by 244,000 votes in the presidential tally -- barely 0.59 percent of the 41 million votes cast -- the vote yielded big gains for Mr. López Obrador's left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution; it picked up seats in the nation's Congress. When some members of Mr. López Obrador's own party disputed his allegations of fraud, he publicly accused them of having been bought. Although there was no evidence of widespread irregularities, let alone fraud, on Aug. 5, Mexico's independent Federal Electoral Tribunal, a seven-judge panel, ordered a recount at 11,839 polling stations, about 9 percent of the total.

That recount is complete. According to Mexican press reports, it has yielded no major change in the presidential results -- certainly nothing sufficient to justify Mr. López Obrador's wild allegations. The Federal Electoral Tribunal now has until Sept. 6 to either annul the election or certify the results and declare a winner.

Mexico, for years a party-led dictatorship, is at a turning point. Will its relatively new and untested democratic institutions be able to resolve a contested election, or will it descend into chaos and weak central authority as a result of a failed candidate's cult of personality? One hopeful sign is that lately Mr. López Obrador's crowds have dwindled in the streets of Mexico City. That may mean that even his partisans have begun to recognize that Mexico's continuing progress toward democracy is more important than one man's unbridled ambition.

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