When history comes to terms with Donald Trump’s dangerous provocations, few will stand out quite like his unparalleled refusal, during Wednesday’s debate, to accept the presidential election’s results if he loses. Other candidates have fought tooth and nail over perceived (and, in some cases, arguably justified) electoral injustices, but nothing could have prepared the country for that most un-American of figures: the institutional saboteur.
Alas, we Mexicans know better.
For a decade and a half, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a charismatic and popular politician, has refused to accept adverse results in consecutive presidential elections. The decision sank Mexico into political paralysis for over six years, called into question the viability of some of the country’s young democratic institutions and darkened public discourse. If Trump were capable of seeing Mexico as an ally and neighbor, rather than as an enemy that Americans and their jobs need protection from, maybe he’d learn from our recent history and recognize the danger in the approach he laid out this week.
In early 2006, López Obrador was the overwhelming favorite to win the Mexican election that year. As mayor of Mexico City, he not only drove the agenda; he was the agenda. A persuasive firebrand, López Obrador outmaneuvered not only Mexico’s struggling left but also the country’s conservative president, Vicente Fox, who had unsuccessfully tried to remove López Obrador from office over an awkward legal case about some disputed land in western Mexico City. Fox’s improper interference only strengthened López Obrador — five months before the election, he held a comfortable 10-point lead over the National Action Party’s (PAN) Felipe Calderón, Fox’s successor. It also made him increasingly paranoid.
López Obrador began to fume about an alleged conspiracy to derail his candidacy. He spoke of electoral fraud and the possibility of a rigged election. In March, during a rally in the southern state of Oaxaca, he went after Fox: “¡Cállate, chachalaca!” (Shut up, you parrot!), he said, dramatically stressing every word. The unprecedented display of animosity against a sitting president would wind up appearing in effective attack ads paid for by a number of Mexican private companies that López Obrador derided as part of a “dirty war,” a “conspiracy” against his “movement.” In April, he declined to take part in the campaign’s first presidential debate. “They were going to use polls and the media to say I lost,” he later explained. By late spring, when the race tightened, López Obrador argued polling firms were in on the scheme, too. Stop me when this starts to sound familiar.
On July 2, 2006, Mexico’s electoral authority declared the election too close to call. Three days later, the PAN’s Calderón was named the winner by just over 244,000 votes, 0.58 percent of the total.
López Obrador exercised his legal right to challenge the results, demanded a recount and began a nationwide campaign of “peaceful civic resistance.” “This is old-school voter fraud,” he said a week after the election. On July 30, he called for a “permanent assembly”: a massive sit-in along historic Reforma Avenue and the Zocalo, Mexico City’s enormous main square. “Our democracy is in danger,” he said. “We know the Electoral Court is under pressure from the usual powerful people.”
Still, he acknowledged, he would “respect” the authority’s final verdict on the recount. He did not. After a review of 9 percent of the ballots — the number with alleged inconsistencies — didn’t alter the election’s result, López Obrador demanded a wider recount. Mexico’s Electoral Court, whose decisions cannot be appealed, found no further legal grounds, and Calderón became president-elect.
After having exhausted all legal options, López Obrador faced a momentous choice: He could concede the election, or he could defy Mexico’s young, perfectible democracy. He chose the latter, in spectacular fashion. On Sept. 5, just a few feet from the National Palace, López Obrador once again spoke of a vast conspiracy, called for a “revolution of conscience” and sent the country’s institutions “to hell.” In the following weeks, he would name himself Mexico’s “legitimate president,” complete with a mock swearing-in and parallel cabinet. For six years, López Obrador denied Calderón’s authority and organized a legislative boycott with fellow leftist politicians that effectively froze the new president’s capacity to maneuver in Congress.
In 2012, he ran for the presidency again. His tone was different. He spoke of reconciliation, and promised a “loving republic” if elected. López Obrador quickly struck a nerve, especially among young people. As the election approached, the gap between him and Enrique Peña Nieto, the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) candidate, significantly narrowed. Still, on election day, López Obrador again came up short, this time by over 3 million votes, and again he refused to admit defeat. He blamed a shadowy “mafia”: Mexican media, polling firms, Calderón, former presidents Fox and Carlos Salinas de Gortari and accused the PRI of buying millions of votes. Even with Mexico’s restrictive voting laws (which require a mandatory official ID to vote) and although more than 1 million Mexican citizens were chosen at random to administer the election in thousands of polling places all over the country, López Obrador again challenged the result and asked for a recount. This time, electoral authorities agreed to go over more than half the votes in the election, an unprecedented decision. The result still favored Peña Nieto. López Obrador then called for the election’s annulment, refused to recognize the new president’s legitimacy and began a movement that would eventually lead to a new political party from which he now plans to launch his third bid for the presidency in 2018.
Has López Obrador’s crusade weakened Mexico’s democratic institutions? After the 2006 uproar, the country hastily passed a set of electoral reforms that, among other things, censored negative campaigning, a direct response to the alleged “dirty war” against López Obrador. His conspiracy theories also undermined public faith in democracy, which had finally grown after flawless electoral processes in 1997 and 2000. In Latinobarómetro’s poll, a yearly survey of public opinion in Latin America, confidence in democracy in Mexico has steadily decreased. In 2005, 59 percent of Mexicans trusted democracy; by 2013, only a year into the Peña Nieto presidency, the number had fallen to 37 percent. Barely 50 percent of Mexicans believe democracy can solve the country’s problems. (Only Chile — ruled by a military dictatorship for 25 years until 1998 — ranks lower, with 47 percent.)
2018 will be López Obrador’s best chance yet to win the presidency. The corruption and conflict of interest scandals inside the PRI and the Peña Nieto administration have given new weight to his message of economic and social justice. Paradoxically, though, his previous electoral antics might be his undoing. In 2011, López Obrador admitted that the massive sit-in after the 2006 had proven “costly.” In 2012, at least, his opponents used the aftermath of the 2006 election to their advantage. What would have happened if López Obrador had taken the high road 10 years ago? Perhaps he might have already gotten a chance to reform those institutions he so brazenly dismissed.
Trump will most likely face the same choice Nov. 8. If he’s learned the lessons from López Obrador, though, there should be no calls for sit-ins along Pennsylvania Avenue or for disruption or resistance nationwide. Trump should not crown himself alternative president or manipulate his supporters into mistaking democratic disagreements for systematic sabotage. There are causes bigger than personal ambition. The health of a country’s democratic institutions is certainly one of them. Should Trump refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a Hillary Clinton presidency throughout her term in office — as he already did with President Obama, whom Trump accused of being ineligible to serve — and should this action find an echo among Trump supporters in Congress and elsewhere in the country, the United States could follow the Mexican path.
On Thursday, López Obrador tweeted that he’s not like Trump. Trump should make sure he returns the compliment on Nov. 9.