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Overtime in Mexico

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.

Then came the claims and images of inconsistent tallies at polling places, ballots thrown into the trash (as seen on the front page of the respected leftist daily La Jornada on Wednesday) and the weird phenomenon in certain sectors of the country of more votes being tallied for Senate races than for the all-important presidential race. Suddenly, on Tuesday, IFE officials acknowledged that a whopping 2.5 million votes had not been counted, prompting a new flurry of partisan press conferences and punditry that danced around the word “fraud” but didn’t avoid flatly implying that somehow, somewhere, this election was tainted.

The austere newsmagazine Proceso, which has had run-ins with the Fox administration, published in this week’s edition a cover photograph of IFE President Ugalde below the headline “REFEREE ACCOMPLICE.” Inside the magazine, a headline accompanying a blockbuster story suggesting IFE bias toward Fox’s PAN candidate read, “AN OPERATION OF THE STATE.”

The IFE has taken to emphasizing that the preliminary “rapid count” results are not official. The electronic count, the IFE said on Sunday, could net a final result on Wednesday. Then the institute changed the projection to this coming Sunday. News agencies reported the stalemate could last months if lawsuits are filed, as expected. The never-ending election has gone into overtime.

This was supposed to have been a glorious moment for the spirit of democratic elections. Mexico’s modern electoral infrastructure was internationally recognized and celebrated, and seen as especially noteworthy coming from Mexico, a baby democracy still haunted by seven decades of one-party rule. All the love for the IFE got positively uptown when the grand old New York Times on Sunday evening gushed that the 2006 presidential election in Mexico was so clean that even the United States could learn a few things from it.

Hours later, the same paper declared that the election had turned into a “crisis.”

Progressive media in the U.S. and U.K. only wish it were so. In dispatches from both Mexico City and the comfort of their offices in the First World, writers including Tom Hayden, Greg Palast and The Nation’s John Ross appeared eager to fan the flames of social unrest, using buzz phrases like “braces for violence.” This is inaccurate, and arguably irresponsible.

In reality, Mexico is a deeply divided country; like the U.S., Mexico now has its version of red states vs. blue states, only here they are blue states (for the conservative PAN) and yellow states (for the leftist PRD alliance). The divide is a sharp north-south dynamic, with the north going to PAN and the center and south going to PRD.

Even in the streets of this seething mega-city, where PRD is highly popular and was re-elected once more to head the capital government, there is a wide measure of support for the PAN ticket. And not just among the filthy rich, an easy target for skewed caricature in the foreign press.

Mexico’s counterparts to the United States’ “soccer moms” are the people who inhabit the country’s comfortable and growing middle class, which has benefited from some of Fox’s neoliberal reforms. In many of Mexico’s industrial centers and socially conservative colonial cities, López Obrador is seen as the truer threat to social stability. A campaign slogan like “For the good of everyone, first the poor” could have that kind of effect for voters in the commercial centers of Tijuana and Monterrey, and others in the north, for example. These regions emerged very PAN-leaning on Sunday.

Yet in the south, where poverty is rampant and rural farmers have suffered the consequences of the free-market North American Free Trade Agreement, support for PRD runs high. López Obrador is seen as the champion of the working class, of Mexico’s still-marginalized Indian populations, a savior. For leftists on the other end of the social scale, López Obrador is the equivalent of a political superstar to Mexico’s upper-class students and progressive writers, thinkers, journalists and artists.

Meanwhile, the old-guard PRI was practically decimated on Election Day, not winning a single state for presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo, and none of Mexico City’s 16 borough governments. (Fourteen of those went to PRD.)

Ana Maria Salazar, a radio host and columnist based in the capital, said the fall of the PRI was perhaps the most significant development in Mexico’s political makeup to come out of Sunday. And the new blue-yellow divide, she said, is characteristic of a maturing society, for better or worse.

“The north of the country, the blue part, is the part of the country that not only has better economic health and less poverty, but it’s also that part of the country that understands the U.S. better,” Salazar said. “They don’t fear the U.S. as much [as in the south] . . . While in the south, there is a culture, a perception, that the government must play a more active role in the fight against poverty.”

Early on Election Day, across the street from the Zocalo, at a “special polling place” for voters who found themselves away from their area of registration, a queue that went around the whole city block was crammed with people who waited hours to get their hands on a ballot. Among them were three girlfriends from the northern states who were on vacation in Mexico City and said emphatically that they were willing to wait four hours, or as long as they’d have to, just to have an opportunity to vote against López Obrador.

“That’s why we’re here in line since 8 a.m. We’re completely, 100 percent against him,” said Norma Carolina Castro, a 27-year-old worker at a pharmaceutical company in Tamaulipas state. “Something that I don’t like at all about this Obrador is the proposal of giving 1,000 pesos to people who don’t work, and raising taxes. Where is he going to get that money? From those of us who work . . . If PAN stays, I think things will remain stable.”

Across the city, it was more of the same: a wide diversity of political opinions and motivations, not the surging leftist revolution some observers in the United States wish to see.

IF ANYTHING, MEXICO WAS BACK to normal on Tuesday, waiting, working.

Near a section of Paseo de la Reforma where many of Mexico’s largest newspapers are headquartered, workers unloaded fresh bundles of papers with shouting headlines. “UNTIL SUNDAY,” one read. At taco and fruit-juice stalls, newsstands and shoeshine chairs, people watched intently on small televisions as Italy and Germany battled in the World Cup semifinals. Lively chatter about the election could be overheard as businessmen in European suits and students and office workers strolled the boulevards during the lunch hour.

Miguel Trejo, a 50-year-old jeweler reading front pages at a newsstand on Callo Cinco de Mayo, said he was convinced that the IFE was not as impartial in Mexico’s political hierarchy as the institute claims.

“They’re just giving an image, the president of IFE. Like everyone there, they’re PAN people,” Trejo said. “There is something behind all this, surely, surely.”

In 2000, when Fox’s win ended 71 years of rule by the PRI, Trejo said he voted for the conservative PAN party. Change was needed, he said. But today, he is a passionate supporter of López Obrador.

“They’re just buying time. They’re buying time to make the fraud, and that’s how I see it, and I am almost certain that is what has happened.”