The Impending Political Crisis in Mexico

The electoral crisis in Mexico has not been resolved.  In fact, judging by yesterday’s events, it is metastasizing into a serious political crisis.

But before I comment on the recent events, I want to step back a little and look at the big picture.

For the most part, and regardless of noises made by Calderón and others, the Right in Mexico has no grip on reality.  They truly believe their catechism of Horatio Alger’s individualism.  They view social turmoil in Mexico, the insurgency in Chiapas, discontent among miners all over the country and teachers in Oaxaca, the eruption in San Salvador Atenco, the type of crime that affects the rich and the upper “middle class,” etc., all of them, as manifestations of “irresponsible,” wicked individuals like Marcos or López Obrador or the Mochaorejas who manipulate pliable people or go criminal driven by evil design.  It’s the kind of rationalization that they need to feel good about themselves, about their roles in political and economic life.

But, no.  Crime and widespread social unrest are only the surface of Mexico’s social and political life.  Underlying it, there’s an ugly geology: the horrendous disparity in the distribution of wealth and, therefore, power.  From the start, the political process, the elections in particular, specifically those that can make a difference, are vitiated, emptied of basic fairness, by this fundamental social asymmetry.  Political and economic forms (like democracy and markets) are mechanisms by which people negotiate their interests.  When people enter the democratic (or the market) game, if the distribution of power between the parties is extremely unequal from the outset, not only will the outcome be unequal, but the mechanism itself will be a sham disguising the abuse of the weak by the powerful.  Inequality wrecks Mexico’s political life.  Thus markets, trade agreements, political processes, etc. — everything in Mexico’s social life —  are devices that operate on the principle of, as techies call them, GIGO: Garbage In, Garbage Out.

In the face of this reality, some will seek — justified or not — individual “solutions” (e.g. leave the country, break the law for individual gain, etc.).  Others will seek broader, societal changes.  And, in this context, the temptation to turn the tables altogether and seek redress by force is huge.  And, ethically, it’s very hard to reproach people with their hearts in the right place for choosing this path.  Yes, I’m talking, for example, of the Zapatistas rising in Chiapas or the people in San Salvador Atenco brandishing machetes, distrustful of a government that — not long ago — tried to expropriate their land to build an airport a la crony capitalism and then responded with obscene brutality to their protests.

If those who are the de facto owners of Mexico had a bit of foresight, they would be thanking López Obrador for his determination to stick to the constitutional process, for his plan to reduce inequality and confront poverty (which, official statistics show, afflict almost fifty percent of all Mexicans) through rather gradual and gentle adjustments that, for the rich class as a whole, as opposed to a few cronies and parasites, would not be all that painful.  Instead, by commission or omission, they are adding insult to injury.  The PAN, which was thought to have inaugurated a new epoch in Mexico’s political life when political power would be transferred peacefully in accordance with the will of the people, is playing little tricks to cling to power.  That is, it’s playing with fire.

Let me talk about the latest events now.

It is absolutely clear that on July 2-3, the night after the election, Carlos Ugalde’s IFE was trying to pull a fast one.  In the PREP (Preliminary Electoral Results Program), Calderón was ahead all the time, at first with 7% and at the end by 1.1%.  The IFE couldn’t get to proclaim Calderón’s victory on that basis, but in conjunction with the media, it clearly tried to create an impression that those results were rock solid.  When López Obrador denounced that about 3 million votes were missing by the IFE’s own accounts, with some delay, Ugalde came up with a story.  Oh, he said, there is a “file of inconsistencies” in which polling-place tallies that were deemed “inconsistent” were stored temporarily, pending further revision.  Why didn’t he say that early on?  Everybody knew that file existed, said the PAN.  But the press never reported anything about it prior to election day or even by July 3.  And why were they mostly votes that favored López Obrador and, to a lesser extent, Roberto Madrazo (PRI)?  If those “inconsistencies” had been random, the distribution of those votes would have roughly matched the distribution of the rest.

López Obrador said that, besides the manipulation of the PREP, there was evidence of a wide range of irregularities that compromised the results at the polling-place level.  The grassroots have been producing all that evidence.  He demanded a recount, polling place by polling place if necessary, particularly in cases where at least one of the parties had reasonable doubts.  Calderón replied that he was willing to go vote by vote.  But then the PAN changed course.  By mid morning, during the session of the permanent congressional commission, they were adamantly opposed to opening any of the packages containing the physical ballots cast at all polling places.  Moreover, helped by the press, they made a caricature of López Obrador’s position, saying that his demand was disproportionate to start with, demanding a full recount, vote by vote, opening all the packages, etc.  PRD leaders tried to clarify: No, the recount didn’t require opening all the packages, but only those in cases where the polling-place tallies were too out of whack for at least one of the parties involved.

In a country with Mexico’s recent and remote electoral history, this was an entirely reasonable demand. The PAN demanded absolute confidence in the PREP and the IFE.  But why should people give them the benefit of doubt?  Shouldn’t a country with nascent democratic institutions, with a recent history of chronic electoral fraud, be wary of “just trust me” statements?  Shouldn’t the political institutions act to fully dissipate the doubts of such a large number of people, as those who voted for López Obrador?  Confidence is not granted in advance.  It has to be earned with deeds.

The PAN argued that opening the packages wasn’t allowed by law.  But a reputable constitutional scholar weighed in saying that there was no problem there (indeed, the law that governs elections says that the packages should only be opened in specific cases, argued in particular, but that law is subordinated to the Constitution).  If one of the candidates or parties involved wanted the packages open on the basis of a reasonably argued case, they could be opened.  That is a basic right of a candidate or party in the elections.  And time is not a concern, because the deadline for the electoral tribunal’s resolution doesn’t come till September.  But the PAN held to the position that the packages should not be opened.

It turns out, according to Proceso, that some — a few — packages were opened yesterday, in districts where the disputes were rather mild.  And, as López Obrador and others suspected, there were large discrepancies between the information in the “actas” (spreadsheets tallying the results of a given polling place) and the actual ballots.  In all cases, more votes for Calderón and fewer votes for López Obrador than people had actually cast.  Just in those few cases, López Obrador recovered hundreds of votes, which explains part of the reduction of Calderón’s lead by the PREP.

If this happened in electoral districts where there was little dispute, what can we expect from those districts in Guanajuato, Jalisco, Nuevo León, San Luis Potosí, Querétaro, and Aguascalientes, where the PAN has refused to allow the opening of the packages?  I don’t know it for a fact, but — based on what I know about the PAN and Mexico’s political practices — I’d bet 100 to 1 that they exaggerated Calderón’s votes and stole votes from López Obrador.  And I’d also bet that, if those “errors” are corrected, López Obrador wins.

López Obrador held a press conference this morning.  He is formally contesting the results supplied by the IFE, and his lawyers will argue before the electoral tribunal to demand a recount.  He is also calling people to concentrate in the Zócalo on Saturday.  Good.  Calderón has most of the press on his side — and very deep pockets (Google “Hildebrando Zavala” to know more).  On the other hand, López Obrador can only turn to his popular base for support.  If he doesn’t, the base of support may — as it happened already — mobilize anyway.  It’s better if the mobilization happens in an orderly, organized fashion, under a leadership that won’t play adventures on them, nor will betray their hopes.

Now the PAN and their friends in the press are going to repeat what they’ve said all along, that López Obrador is a radical and irresponsible mass manipulator with no regard for Mexico’s democratic political institutions.  How dare he call people to mobilize and exercise political pressure on that paradigm of political asepsis, the IFE?   But there is no contradiction between robust democratic institutions and political mobilization.  In fact, history shows the former only function well when the people are vigilant and actively involved in the political process.  Not only is López Obrador, as a candidate, entitled to demand a recount.  The people who voted for him have an even more fundamental right to defend their vote.  It’s better if they exercise that right while closing ranks and tightening their unity.  They will need it for the struggle ahead.

Julio Huato is an economist.  He works for the Howard Samuels Center at the City University of New York.  He was born in Mexico and currently lives in Brooklyn.  Read Huato’s blog: El Machete 2006: The Presidential Election in Mexico 2006.