TCS Daily

It's Getting Ugly in Mexico

By Mario Villarreal, PhD, MA - July 21, 2006 12:00 AM

Can legitimacy emerge from breaking the law? Apparently Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador believes it can.

After the closest election in Mexico's history, López Obrador is still questioning the overall validity of the electoral process. At a recent rally of about 200,000 supporters in Mexico City, he argued that the election was marked by fraud and demanded a recount of all votes.

López Obrador's demand for a "vote by vote count" is nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to mislead the Mexican people. The votes cast on July 2 have already been counted, one by one, by Mexican citizens performing their duties as voting precinct officials. The count was supervised by the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), party representatives, and national and international electoral observers. By accusing the IFE of "manipulating" votes, López Obrador is not only questioning the credibility of one of the nation's most trusted organizations, but also of the millions of citizens who worked on Election Day.

Defrauding the vote count in the filling of the official precinct tally forms would have required the coordinated mischievous actions of the 900,000 citizens working at the precincts, the 24,000 national and 693 international electoral observers, and almost a million party representatives, including 235,000 representing the party coalition supporting López Obrador.

Nevertheless, López Obrador is contending that even his supporters are part of the conspiracy. This week, he presented videos that supposedly demonstrated the widespread fraud committed on Election Day. The tape shows a man stuffing several ballots in the ballot box, illegally inflating the vote count; but the next day the media reported that this was not voter fraud, but rather a precinct official (a local teacher) fixing a mistake. López Obrador's own coalition representative for that precinct has stated that it was "unfair to accuse the professor of doing something illegal" and that "López Obrador should learn to lose." The next day, López Obrador suggested that some of his representatives were bribed to overlook anomalies during the elections.

Unfortunately, the "crying fraud" strategy has successfully rallied not only supporters in Mexico, but also some well-intentioned international media representatives. The Financial Times suggested that a full recount, "if properly and fairly conducted," could be a potential source for legitimacy. The New York Times made similar claims, although it recognized the IFE as "one of Mexico's best-functioning institutions." But the question remains: why should the good work of millions of citizens who took time out of their own activities on Election Day be considered illegitimate?

Undoubtedly, there is potential for mistakes to be made during the counting process and the tally filling. But Mexican electoral law provides appropriate venues to handle concerns of voting fraud and inconsistencies, which López Obrador and his team have already taken advantage of. They have presented evidence to the Federal Electoral Court (TRIFE), the nation's highest electoral authority, to try and prove voting irregularities in 53,000 precincts. The TRIFE has until August 31 to settle the case and until September 6 to declare a winner of the election and its decision cannot be appealed.

Although he has declared that he will challenge the results "within the law and without violence," López Obrador's actions suggest otherwise. With continuous public pronouncements for citizens to march to "defend democracy" and by organizing "informative rallies" in Mexico City's Zocalo, López Obrador is de facto taking the debate to the streets. If the TRIFE ruling does not favor López Obrador's victory, he will almost certainly question the court's independence and legitimacy, just as he would if a full recount doesn't grant him the victory.

To concede to his demands would send the wrong signal: that the law can and should be overlooked to satisfy anyone desires. López Obrador's calls for the recount are self-serving, and contradict the process outlined in electoral law, and may lead to the election being declared invalid. Perhaps this is what López Obrador really wants.

"If there is not democracy," Andrés Manuel López Obrador said during a recent press conference, "there will be instability". In other words, break the law and surrender to my will, or chaos will reign. By sending such an irresponsible message, López Obrador is doing little to strengthen Mexico's fledgling democracy. Mexico's stability cannot depend on breaking the law and doing so cannot be the source of a legitimate presidency.

Mexico's challenges are enormous: widespread income inequality and poverty, a fragile fiscal structure, a tentative-but-developing competitive environment, and an energy sector in desperate need of modernization -- just to name a just a few. In addition, a fundamental disdain for the rule of law is hindering the country's growth and impeding its economic and social progress. It is naive to believe that any real economic or social advances will be achieved by taking the country backward into an era where the rule of law is served à la carte, just like López Obrador is demanding. To give in to his tantrums would be a grave mistake.

Mario Villarreal is a Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.

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