Mexican Standoff

Will Mexico have a new president any time soon?

A López Obrador supporter holds a sign declaring him president 

MEXICO CITY—Felipe Calderón and his supporters may have been partying up a storm Thursday and Friday to celebrate the conservative’s win in the July 2 presidential election, but that doesn’t mean Hortensia Vázquez is going to accept him as her new president.

The middle-aged administrator was one of the 250,000 supporters of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftist candidate who narrowly lost the election, who swarmed Mexico City’s central square, the Zócalo, late Saturday afternoon to demonstrate their support in the face of his stunning loss.

“We’ve come to protest this election because we believe it was manipulated by PAN, the president, and IFE,” said Vázquez, referring to Calderón’s party, President Vicente Fox, and the Federal Electoral Institute, respectively. “We will wait until the tribunal rules, but I believe there is plenty of evidence of fraud.”

Eight days after Mexicans went to the polls, many breathed a sigh of relief that their candidate, Calderón, triumphed over the charismatic but divisive López Obrador, who castigated the excesses of the government and the elite and championed the poor. But most of the faithful followers of “El Peje,” as López Obrador is known, the fond nickname inspired by the feisty pejelagarto fish native to his home state of Tabasco, are unhappy about the result and the process that rendered their candidate the loser.

Students from a local university hold a sign that reads “IFE: Accomplice in Electoral Fraud”

According to the official results confirmed Thursday by IFE, López Obrador lost the presidential election by a hair—a margin of just 0.58 percent. He and his Democratic Revolutionary Party (known by its Spanish acronym, PRD) believe that with a recount of the votes cast in 50,000 out of 130,000 polling places, they can make up the 240,000 vote difference.

The party presented this request Sunday to a local court that will turn it over to the Federal Electoral Tribunal, a judicial body charged with handling federal election disputes. Among the PRD’s complaints are that President Fox unfairly aided Calderón’s campaign and that election officials miscounted votes. The second claim is based on last week’s recount of results from about 2,600 polling sites, in which López Obrador gained thousands of votes. The tribunal must rule on López Obrador’s charges and confirm the legitimacy of the next president by Sept. 6.

Hard evidence of fraud seems to be scarce, but some legal experts think López Obrador could pull it off.

“There are a host of procedural questions that will make the PRD’s brief hard to defend before the judges, but I assume that a savvy lawyer can find the right strategies for legal moves and arguments, as [López Obrador’s] chief lawyer did in the famous desafuero episode,” said Federico Estévez, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technical Institute of Mexico.

Indeed, much of the current brouhaha over the election results is reminiscent of the desafuero, an affair that lasted though much of the spring of 2005 and showcased the deep rivalry between López Obrador and PAN. During the spat, PAN went all out to strip López Obrador, then mayor of Mexico City, of his legal immunity and disqualify him from the presidential race. The plan was to charge him with contempt in a dispute over expropriation of land. The charges were murky and evidence of López Obrador’s direct involvement in the incident was scant; after Mexican intellectuals and foreign observers denounced the plot as undemocratic, Fox and PAN backed down and dropped the case.

As many as 250,000 supporters of Andrés Manuel López Obrador gathered in Mexico City’s central square July 8

Just as his supporters turned out in the hundreds of thousands last April, they came out on Saturday and passionately showed their support, shouting a barrage of slogans from “You’re not alone” to “Vote by vote, polling site by polling site.” Many waved bright yellow flags, the signature color of the PRD, some carried banners bearing incendiary references to Calderón and IFE.

For his part, López Obrador once again played the pugilist and excoriated Fox and PAN for their efforts to bring him down. “Vicente Fox … dedicated himself to attacking us and has finished by being a traitor to democracy,” he said.

It was a reminder that for López Obrador, being knocked down is like landing on a springboard. And just as his supporters fervently decried the desafuero and organized themselves on his behalf, he hopes the springboard will bounce him back to victory this summer.

But even as López Obrador has been able to sustain his following through a rocky week of bad news, his underdog strategies don’t appeal to everyone.

“López Obrador is a radical. I liked his ideas, but I never liked his methods,” said Ricardo Aranda Girard, a 21-year-old college student who voted for Calderón. “And now that he has lost, he should respect the institutions that determined that.”

Most PAN supporters, or panistas, seem to feel that López Obrador is acting like a sore loser and that the country needs to move on. And many, like Aranda Girard, are particularly angered by López Obrador’s harsh words about IFE, the Mexican institution second only to the church in capturing the public’s trust.

The close election is one of IFE’s first major tests on a national scale. It was formed in 1990, and in 2000 Fox won by a landslide, so there was little debate about the results.

International observers and elections experts have hailed the independent body as a model for fairness and accountability. As Robert Pastor, the director of American University’s Center for Democracy and Election Management, wrote in the Los Angeles Times Saturday, “The United States and the world could learn much from Mexico about how to conduct and judge a free and fair election.”

But kudos from academics abroad do not necessarily translate into widespread trust at home. For many Mexicans, and longtime PRD supporters like Jesús Elias Mártinez, a retiree who also attended the rally, memories of robbed elections—a fixture of the many decades when the Institutional Revolutionary Party was in power—can kick-start suspicions.

“López Obrador was ahead, and then his numbers suddenly went down,” said Martinez. “How did that happen?”

Even as his supporters remain dubious about the results, the question is: Will López Obrador be able to sustain the struggle?

“I’m not sure how long he can keep up these demonstrations,” said Raymundo Carmona, a taxi driver who voted for Calderón. “They affect a lot of people … and after a while, I doubt people will still want to go. A lot of people will want to move on pretty soon.”

The immediate future of the politician now rests in the hands of the courts. His party threatened an “insurrection” Sunday as it submitted its challenge to the tribunal, but if Saturday’s peaceful march was any indication, El Peje’s followers just want to see him triumph again and overcome the “elitist forces” that tried to thwart him last year. And even if he doesn’t succeed this time around, his fighting spirit seems unlikely to die in the next six years.