Mexico: Allow More Time for Democracy

When a hotly contested electoral race comes to a close, almost everyone prefers to wake up the next morning knowing who the winner is. But sometimes, such as in the July 2 presidential election in Mexico , the race proves so tight that certifying the outcome requires careful, transparent, and, yes, often slow deliberation. In such cases, taking time can be the best option for democracy.

It may come as a surprise to many Americans to hear that there is no winner yet in the Mexican presidential election. Although most news sources in the United States rushed to declare conservative Felipe Calderón the victor last week, when the completed vote count showed him with a 0.6-percent advantage, the race has not officially been called. With the work of Mexico ‘s vote-counting body now done, the country’s Federal Elections Court is responsible for verifying the count, resolving any outstanding disputes, and announcing an official winner.

Part of Calderón’s campaign strategy has been to behave as if the election is a done deal and he is already president. We shouldn’t play into this game by misunderstanding Mexico ‘s electoral process or prematurely insisting on a victor.

Unlike the United States, Mexico has an extended lame-duck period after its elections. The next president will not take office until December. Moreover, Mexican law gives the Federal Elections Court until the first week of September to reach its decision. The court has the power to open ballot boxes, to mandate a vote-by-vote recount, and even to order a new election. A full recount is now one of the central demands of progressive candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s campaign, with significant support in the wider electorate.

By taking advantage of the time afforded it and creating as much transparency as possible in its review, the Federal Elections Court can work to restore public confidence in the country’s democratic institutions–something diminished by perceptions of irregularities in last week’s vote-counting.

On Monday, López Obrador filed a challenge with the court alleging numerous problems with the elections. While U.S. observers might feel inclined to see López Obrador’s challenge as a case of sour grapes, most Mexicans recognize it as a legitimate part of the process. Given a long history of electoral fraud in the country, the candidate would be foolish not to question irregularities.

Among other respected institutions, the Catholic Church in Mexico has defended López Obrador’s right to contest the vote count before the Federal Elections Court and even to call for public protests–such as the one that drew hundreds of thousands of supporters to Mexico City’s central square last Saturday. Far from being mutually exclusive with strong democratic institutions, peaceful protests are indicative of an engaged citizenry unwilling to accept the type of chicanery that long dominated the country’s political system.

Of course, protests should not merely decry an unwanted result. They must be based on evidence of wrongdoing. International observers have widely confirmed that Election Day at a majority of polling places looked very different from days in decades past, when vote buying and ballot-box manipulation were the norm. Still, irregularities in the vote-counting process merit attention.

López Obrador’s campaign has suggested that there may have been problems in the tallies at up to a third of the approximately 130,000 polling stations. The campaign played a pivotal role in drawing attention to more than 2.5 million ballots that had initially been left out of the preliminary count–ballots that served to significantly reduce Calderón’s lead. Finally, López Obrador has produced evidence pointing to the possibility of unseemly collusion between Calderón’s camp and the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Supporters of López Obrador contend the incidents cited in his petition to the court will prove significant enough to alter the election’s outcome; meanwhile, Calderón’s team is confident that the charges won’t amount to anything. Regardless of who might be vindicated, the demand for a full recount seems perfectly legitimate.

The United States can play a constructive role by holding back and allowing time for this to happen. President George W. Bush added to the confusion last week by being one of the first international leaders to call Calderón to congratulate him on his win. The White House later defended the call but also said that it would welcome López Obrador in the same manner if Mexican authorities alter the final result of the election.

Steering clear of the rest of the electoral dispute altogether would be the most diplomatically sound path for the Bush administration–and the most helpful for strengthening Mexico’s democracy.

This op-ed ran in Newsday on July 14, 2006.

This op-ed ran in Newsday on July 14, 2006.Mark Engler, an analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus, covered the elections from Mexico City. He can be reached via the web site http://www.democracyuprising.com.