By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
MEXICO CITY — A SOUPY RAIN FELL on the people. Fireworks that sounded like revolutionary cannons kept exploding in the sky. And around midnight Sunday in this nation’s largest and most important public square, the Zocalo, the victory-party-that-never-was happened anyway. Leftist populist presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador took command of an enormous podium and announced, without any hesitation — never mind any official proof — that he was the new president-elect of Mexico.
“I come to tell you, in accordance with information that we have, we’ve triumphed, we’ve won the presidency of the Republic,” López Obrador told thousands of his supporters. They cheered in response, borrowing a line from California’s Chicanos, “Sí se pudo! Sí se pudo!” The symbolism was clear: North of the border, progressives have looked to López Obrador’s candidacy as an antidote to the reactionary right-wing power structure in the U.S. But like fallen leftist leaders in American history, López Obrador was facing defeat.
The candidate told his supporters that Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) should “respect” their Election Day triumph, and that they will prove it themselves, polling place by polling place, district by district. The López Obrador adherents then made their way through the soggy stone streets of the Centro Historico, honking car horns, waving yellow flags, chanting, and selling López Obrador mugs, dolls, buttons and cute little facemasks.
Trouble was, they hadn’t won.
A bit earlier, on live national television, IFE President Luis Carlos Ugalde announced in a calm speech, wearing his characteristically blank grin, that the “rapid count” returns from a sample of 130,488 polling booths from across the country were too narrow to declare a winner. Eerily on cue, current President Vicente Fox appeared on the nation’s television screens and told the people of Mexico that they should all trust in the IFE, that the election was a great “fiesta civica” and that the candidates should refrain from declaring victory.
“The citizens can have the plain certainty, the trust, that each of our votes shall be duly counted and respected,” Fox said, turning his head slightly between two camera angles, like a TV anchorman. “Society expects that the candidates and the parties that participated in the electoral process contribute to the climate of trust and tranquillity that should exist.”
As the president finished speaking, a patriotic musical soundtrack swelled in the background. And it was only going to get weirder.
In less than a day, conservative presidential candidate Felipe Calderón of the PAN party matched the machista political bravado of López Obrador and his PRD alliance by also declaring that he won, and that PAN would lead the nation for six more years. This was followed by PRD’s claims of inconsistencies in the “rapid count” process and in the basic arithmetic of the tallies. Then came the competing news conferences. Then the newspapers took sides. Small protests followed, along Paseo de la Reforma in the capital and outside IFE headquarters, with people pressing for “no fraud.”
One Mexico City blog, ALT1040, put it this way: “Mexico has three presidents.”
Mexico, welcome to the twilight zone. With no official winner in a contested and razor-thin election — with some 2.5 million ballots still uncounted — the country is basically in a holding pattern of uncharted territory. Yet chaos, as some predicted, has not ensued. The relative calm is a happy consequence of Mexico’s maturing democratic institutions. Another effect of this newfound maturity, of course, is that it’s starting to make Mexico look like the United States circa November 2000.
Which raises some of the most provocative questions of all: Was there electoral fraud in Mexico on July 2? Is fraud being concocted, or, as some news outlets are suggesting, being negotiated even as the recount is under way? Or did López Obrador and his social movement fail to connect?
The López Obrador campaign swears there was fraud, and points to most polls just before the election showing its candidate was ahead. The Calderón campaign says that the recount, which began Wednesday, will prove unequivocally that its man won. Meanwhile, the first “rapid count” results show the difference between López Obrador and Calderón is 0.6 of a percentage point, a statistical tie. And since Sunday, that margin has only been shrinking.
But if Mexico’s IFE is the new international darling of clean elections, why wasn’t there an immediate result on Sunday night? Everyone knew it would be close, after all, with a 60 percent turnout.
The “rapid count” system, known by its Spanish acronym, PREP, is based in large part on human calculations. Votes are tallied, written in large wax pencil on a chart, posted on a wall for all to see, and reported to the electoral institute in Mexico City. A sample of these numbers is taken to generate projections that were beamed to reporters at the IFE’s “macro newsroom,” state by state.
IN THE “MACRO NEWSROOM” that night, the atmosphere was tense. Hundreds of journalists, pollsters, analysts and election officials had their eyes fixed on huge screens that began showing the first returns at exactly 8 p.m. Since the first moment, these tallies showed an overall edge for Calderón, the blue column higher than all the others. Throughout the night, Calderón’s numbers remained above all other tickets, however slightly, in a strangely consistent manner. They’ve remained this way all week.