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Court Names Mexico's President-Elect

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Manuel Roig-Franzia
The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 6, 2006; 12:00 PM

Mexico's special election court ended a two-month electoral saga Tuesday by declaring Felipe Calderon president-elect of Mexico. The decision to recognize Calderon as the winner over former runner-up Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was met with continued protests by his ardent supporters, who have spent the last several weeks camped out in Mexico City and have pledged to prevent Calderon from being inaugurated in December.

Washington Post Staff Writer Manuel Roig-Franzia was online Wednesday, Sept. 6, at Noon ET , to answer your questions about Calderon's transition plans and what is expected to become of Lopez Obrador's protest movement.

The transcript follows.

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Manuel Roig-Franzia: Hi everyone. It rained all night here, which means it was a wet--not to mention disappointing--evening for all of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's supporters camping the Zocalo. Lots to talk about, so fire away.

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Mexico City: I may not be an unconditional supporter of Calderon's rival, Lopez Obrador, but after yesterday, I'll become one. Who or which court worldwide, could validate an election stating that the presidency and the corporate elite are not enough influential in promote Calderon vote? By the way this court miss in their remarks two other mayor but untouchable Lopez Obrador contenders: the media and the catholic church. Its a deep, deeeep shame. It's a dark day to my Nation.

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Hi Mexico City, you've brought up some interesting points, and are expressing some of the same frustrations I hear in the streets. Don't hold your breath for another world court to get involved. From everything I've heard from legal experts here, it appears the tribunal's decision cannot be appealed.

For some background about the touchy subject of the Catholic Church and politics, here's a piece I did a few days ago:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/08/27/AR2006082700689.html

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Seattle, Wash.: How is this electoral fraud any different from that in the stolen elections in the US in 2000? Given how our country has gone on the wrong path since then, wouldn't it be good advice to Mexico to suggest they continue fighting this no matter what?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Ah, 2000. It's a tempting comparison. If you want to carry the comparison further, I guess we could say yesterday's tribunal decision was the equivalent of the Supreme Court's famous Bush v. Gore ruling, at least in terms of impact on the race.

The tribunal's decision does give AMLO some ammunition. Several magistrates complained about some of the same things -- Fox's political statements, ex-Spanish Prime Minister Aznar's endorsement of Calderon -- that AMLO has been complaining about.

For some perspective from the ground, it's interesting to compare today's banner headlines in the Mexican press.

Reforma, which has leaned heavily in favor of Calderon throughout the race, has a somewhat jubilant tone: "It's Felipe; asks for dialogue."

El Universal, which has leaned a bit toward AMLO, says: "Calderon calls for dialogue."

But it's La Jornada, the plucky, unabashed AMLO boosting paper, that seems to sum up what a lot of people are feeling: "And know what?" its headline reads. Below that, the headline reads: "Tribunal: the election wasn't clean, but it counts."

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Austin, Tex.: Hmmm, a U.S. presidential election is too close to call, so a conservative court anoints a conservative president instead of ordering a complete ballot recount. Six years later, the exact same thing happens in Mexico. Personally, I was very disappointed that Al Gore didn't fight to the bitter end, and I hope the Lopez Obrador supporters make life miserable for Calderon. Enough with this election-stealing. My question to you is: Why are these courts so afraid to order a total recount - because they fear their candidates will lose when all the ballots are counted in the light of day? Or because they want to flaunt their power by making the decision themselves?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: I've been hearing from a lot of Gore supporters who wish he had a little bit more of the AMLO mojo in him.

As for the recount issue, it was a legal fight here. Calderon's attorneys claimed that the court could only order a recount of suspicious ballot packets. AMLO called for a full recount, but interestingly, it looks like his attorneys made a big mistake: they only challenged the results in a little more than a half of the polling places. The court said that move automatically disqualified the other polling places -- the ones he didn't challenge -- from being recounted. After the fact, AMLO's people have said they thought the limited number of challenges they made could be applied to all the polling places. But, obviously, that argument didn't fly.

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Arlington: If the election was truly above-board, what's the harm of a full vote recount? The Mexican government should have learned from the American experience: stopping the vote count in a disputed, very close election will produce lingering questions about the legitimacy of the "winner," bitterness, division and ultimately undermine the "winner's" authority.

Manuel Roig-Franzia: You've condensed the AMLO argument into a nutshell. Any Calderon folks out there?

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Gabriel from Dallas: Why do people keep repeating the line that President Fox is some sort of inept politician, especially viz-a-viz Lopez Obrador, when his approval ratings are twice what AMLO's vote was? I hate to fall into the Republican talking point of a so-called "liberal media", since I myself am a progressive and think that is B.S., but the overly positive coverage AMLO gets in the American media is very biased towards him. Other than La Jornada (which is a joke of a newspaper, more like the old Pravda), most coverage in of AMLO in Mexico is much more even handed than American media's coverage of him is...

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Your critic of the American media is one we hear a lot... but I can tell we hear about an equal number of complaints about the coverage being biased in favor of Calderon. I'll let you draw your own conclusions about what that means.

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Arlington, Va.: My recent reading of the book about the death (assassination?) of human rights activist Digna Ochoa was a sobering account for me of how far Mexico still has to come in terms of human rights and the government's involvement in shady matters. How strong is the case for voter fraud here?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: I'm posting this in case anyone out there is interested in the book.

On to voter fraud. Before the election, two independent studies concluded vote-buying is pervasive in Mexico. It goes like this: local politician who controls enrollment in state aid programs goes to voter, suggests that said voter might have a better chance of getting good benefits if he/she votes for a particular candidate. There's also still the good old-fashioned: Here's a small wad of cash, thank you for voting for so-and-so.

What was interesting about the studies is the researchers all concluded that ALL the parties do it.

As for post-election evidence of fraud, AMLO made a lot of allegations that didn't seem to stick, such as claiming that the electoral commission's computers were rigged to assure a Calderon vote. But a close reading of the court decisions shows that there were a lot of "irregularities" and I think a lot of experts here believe there is a trove of information that needs to be further digested.

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Austin, Tex.: How is this going to play out if AMLO makes good on his threats to do something like set up a parallel government? Is Fox going to have to do something ugly? I don't want to sound alarmist, but I wonder. The markets, the economy (except for those directly affected by the closure of Reforma and the Centro Historico), and the peso have all held up well so far. But how long much longer can that be the case?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Fox has played it very cautiously so far, and there's a historical precedent. Remember, the echoes of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre are still felt around here.

For those of you haven't heard about this incident, it's worth doing some reading about. Elena Poniatowski, a pioneering journalist here, wrote a book that has been translated into English called "Massacre in Mexico."

Essentially what Poniatowski uncovered was a government plot to have Mexican soldiers fire on other Mexican soldiers, thus giving the guys who got shot at the excuse to accuse a big group of student protestors of being the shooters and to turn the Army's rifles on the protestors.

Mindful of that incident, Mexican leaders are very cautious about using the military and, indeed, Fox has said he won't use the Army to oust AMLO's demonstrators. But there still could be a flashpoint. Every September 16th, the Army gathers in the Zocalo in a big show of force to be reviewed by the president. This year, the Zocalo is kind of crowded, as in every inch is taken up by AMLO protestors. Be interesting how that one gets resolved.

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Mexico City: I wonder what does American people think about this last election in Mexico?, Do you believe this was transparent at all?, or was a trick of the government. thanks for your answers in advanced.

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Hey Mexico City, good question. I'll throw it out there in case anyone wants to bite.

I can tell you that the Mexican media seems very interested in what the U.S. thinks about all this. I've been interviewed on several Mexico City radio programs about that very topic.

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Washington, D.C.: Why does Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador want to create an opposition force to government rather than compete for the Presidency in six years? Is he riding a wave of enthusiasm because he was a popular mayor of Mexico City? How will Calderon take the wind out of AMLO's sails in order to govern the entire country? Calderon is already borrowing some of AMLO's pre-election program ideas for creating opportunities for the underserved. In all, everyday since the election, Mexicans, Americans, and the world realize more why AMLO didn't deserve to govern a democratic country with a market economy.

Manuel Roig-Franzia: I can't say exactly what AMLO's motives for the parallel government thing are. If you listen to his speeches, it's obvious that he thinks he got robbed and that he believes this is just another example of the Mexican elite snatching power from the poor.

Of course, Calderon's people say hogwash to that.

And it's really unclear how this parallel government will work and if he can really pull it off. Stay tuned.

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Washington, D.C.: According to Washington Post Mary Jordan's multimedia presentation on the Fox presidency, Mexico didn't have a revolution many Mexicans wanted in 2000. If it wasn't the PRI stalling reforms, it is now the PRD's political blockade. Fox campaigned on an immigration pact with the United States, yet the United States was not ready to discuss a work visa agreement despite inviting the entire Mexican cabinet to the White House days before Sept. 11th. Why is it important for Mexico and the United States to have an immigration pact between the two countries?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: If anyone out there hasn't seen Mary Jordan's multi-media presentation on Fox, I'd highly recommend. Mary and her husband, Kevin Sullivan, were my predecessors here. They really know Mexico, and they've got the Pulitzer to prove it. Maybe the moderator can post a link.

As for the immigration pact, I can tell you that it is something that gets talked about a lot here. All three major candidates - Calderon, AMLO and the PRI's Roberto Madrazo -- called for a pact during the campaign. But none made it a big focus.

The main argument for a pact here seems to be the belief that Mexicans who travel to the U.S. to work would get better wages if there was some kind of an agreement with the U.S., and that they'd be less likely to be taken advantage of by employers who pay them below-market wages -- or stiff them after a day's work -- because they're illegal and have little recourse.

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think the chances are for violence in the Zocalo or on Avenida Reforma around Independence Day celebrations? Is SEDENA savvy enough to figure out a way to work with the PRD to find space for the protestors while the military conducts its ceremonies? What is the long-term solution to re-opening Reforma?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Very impressive use of acronyms. For those of you not so hip to Mexican government lingo, SEDENA is the Mexican military.

Everyone asks me about violence. It is not only a preoccupation abroad, but also a preoccupation here. At this point, I've seen little that points towards AMLO's followers torching the city. Pretty tranquil lot.

The roughest incidents have actually involved federal lawmakers from the Democratic Revolutionary Party and the other parties that support AMLO. There was some pushing and shoving, some tear gas, and some bumps and bruises a while back when the legislators scuffled with troops and police guarding the legislative building.

But, there are deep, deep, deep worries here -- even among AMLO's top lieutenants -- that more radical elements of the Mexican left could seize control of the movement. The example everyone points to is the ongoing teacher strike in Oaxaca. While teachers have certainly been involved in some of the more intense incidents -- torching buses, for instance -- a series of other groups have joined their cause and seem to be closer to the center of the violent acts.

And I'm glad you brought up "Mexican Independence" day, which more precisely, is known as "The Grito"--the shout, or cry--and is an annual commemoration of the Mexican revolution. Traditionally, it's one of the best, best, best parties of the year down here. Million people in the Zocalo. Tequila flowing. President addressing the masses from a balcony. But, as with the military review on the 16th, this year's festivities are complicated by the presence of all those AMLO followers in the Zocalo.

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Lorain, Ohio: Too bad there are no PANistas to counter the same tired left-wing rhetoric here. There was no recount since Mexican electoral law precludes such a thing. There has to be cause to recount any casilla and there was only evidence to do this in 9% of the cases. Second, Mexican electoral law has learned some lessons from other electoral systems and that is what not to do. IFE runs the elections but doesn't settle the disputes, that is for the Tribunal. Note that though it was a close election margin of 244,000 votes, the decision of the Tribunal was not split but unanimous. Mexico can truly be proud of its independent electoral system that is above board. As you note in one of your accounts Manuel, there were hundreds of international observers and surely someone would have related fraud if there was any. Where was Jimmy Carter? As for Gore V. Bush. Gore was torturing the law and the law was being made up along the way. There was no stopping any recount, merely, the recount could only take place in 3 counties and the margin was still in Bush's favor. At no point was Gore ever ahead, same for Calderon. What we are seeing is a world-wide left that challenges the very democratic systems of free elections when the outcome goes against them. Mexico would not allow for this. I'm proud of Mexico and it's outcome. Viva Calderon

Manuel Roig-Franzia: I knew a Calderon supporter would surface eventually.

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Washington, D.C.: Have any of your interviews been printed in the Mexican media? Do you have any links? Keep up the good work.

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Thanks. You're in D.C., so I know you're not my mom.

I've been fascinated by the Mexican media's fascination with the U.S. media. They don't run our stories, they run stories about our stories.

I did the first interview with Calderon after the first round of counting. He said something pretty explosive: that he would accept a partial recount. A bit surprised, I followed up by asking whether he would accept a really big recount, say something in the neighborhood of 50,000 polling places. He said yes, as long as it was legal.

The story about that story was on El Universal's front page. But that's nothing compared to the coverage of U.S. editorials. A controversial editorial in the Post that suggested an AMLO victory would triple illegal immigration created a firestorm, giant headlines, radio and TV coverage. It was wild. Similar play has been given to editorials in the New York Times, especially the Times's call for a recount.

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San Francisco, Calif.: I read some reports that say there were irregularities and some that say there were none. What is the truth? Did the partial recounts change the votes in any way? Why the resistance in any case to a full recount? Wouldn't that be the best way to allow all of Mexico to unite after a divisive election?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Mexico's electoral institutions have sort of drip-drabbed out the numbers. But I can tell you the final total gave Calderon a 233,831-vote. Previously, after various counts and reviews, the advantage had been about 244,000, so you can see, that the final outcome didn't budge much.

As for fraud, the court has acknowledged that some irregularities took place, but the general tenor of the ruling seemed to suggest that they do not believe there were enough irregularities to change the outcome or to suggest that the election wasn't fair. Some people are going to disagree with the court's assessment, of course.

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Queretaro, Queretaro, Mexico: Lopez Obrador has been applying the traditional "revolucion" template to his post election position: destruction of the old regime, calling for a new constitution, with a new president (himself). How likely is it that today's political and social conflict will become a state crisis? How likely is it that AMLO could spark a revolution?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Now, there's the big question. No one can say for sure. This is surely a test of Mexico's democratic institutions. And remember, these are young institutions. The tribunal that decided it all yesterday is only 10 years old.

Certainly, Mexico has an evolving "true" democracy, after seven-decades of one-party rule. We're going to see how that evolution proceeds in the next few months, and the next few years.

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Washington, D.C.: What does president-elect Felipe Calderon offer Mexico? How will Calderon unify the country? What role will an immigration pact with the United States benefit Mexico?

Manuel Roig-Franzia: Calderon certainly didn't promise to shake things up. His basic message was job creation, free trade and continuing the work of his predecessor, Vicente Fox.

Already, though, there are signs he's having to adjust his game plan. There's more talk about a greater emphasis on social programs, as a way to reach out to AMLO's backers, especially in the poor, rural areas of southern Mexico.

The immigration past is more ticklish. Fox pushed hard for one, really bet the early part of his presidency on getting one. Sept. 11 and the subsequent border security concerns dashed those plans, and Fox suffered politically because he wasn't able to deliver. Most smart political people here don't expect Calderon--who appears to be a methodical, cautious political figure--to make such a big fuss about a pact. Only time will tell.

So, it looks like our time is up. Thanks for all the thoughtful questions.

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washingtonpost.com: Photo Gallery: Vicente Fox's "Revolution": http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/gallery/2006/06/13/GA2006061300736_index_frames.htm?startat=undefined

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