MEXICO CITY — Felipe Calderón was holding his latest I-am-the-president-no-matter-what-anyone-says press conference. Standing before a backdrop that brazenly proclaimed “Felipe Calderón, President of Mexico, 2006–2012,” he told the media gathered at the headquarters of his conservative National Action Party (known as PAN) that he planned to tour the nation to thank the people of Mexico for electing him. He said he had received congratulatory calls from various foreign heads of government — George W. Bush, the prime minister of Spain, the prime minister of Canada, leaders of Guatemala and Honduras, even Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
“National Action has always sided with legality and institutionality,” Calderón said Tuesday. “We won the election in the polls; that’s why I ask my followers to maintain calm.” Then, taking a swipe at his opponent, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the social-democrat-style Democratic Revolution Party (known as PRD), he added: “Elections are won with votes, not with mobilizations.”
The whole thing felt like it was taken right out of the Republican Party media playbook. You know, the chapter that instructs politicians to repeat something enough times until it becomes true, facts be damned.
Calderón is not the winner of the never-ending Mexican presidential election of July 2, the most contested in Mexican history. He’s not even the president-elect. Not yet, at least. This country’s electoral tribunal has until September 6 to name a successor to outgoing PAN President Vicente Fox, the tribunal’s first real test of its mission to defend the integrity of Mexico’s still-maturing electoral process.
Until then, no successor, no president-elect. Calderón should never rise to that office, and he never will — if you believe the media onslaught of López Obrador, who says he’s the real new president of Mexico.
In the meantime, the populist kept playing populist, calling an “information assembly” at Mexico City’s vast Zócalo square on Saturday that was really just another postelection campaign rally. There, before making any decisions on what to do next, López Obrador asked the masses before him, “Do you agree?” “Si!” came each roaring reply. Marches are planned from 300 electoral districts across Mexico for another huge rally — uh, information assembly — at the Zócalo this Sunday.
The purpose of it all? Show the country and the world, with massive mobilizations, that popular support is behind López Obrador, who is convinced, as are millions of his supporters, that this election was rigged by a small cadre of political elites who want to keep power from the man who represents Mexico’s oppressed masses.
After all, these elites have tried to keep him down before. And don’t forget, López Obrador said Saturday, Fox became a “traitor to democracy” when he injected himself into the race and subtly drummed up support for Calderón, ignoring a fiercely held tradition in Mexican politics of sitting presidents not participating in campaigns.
Wait a minute. Wasn’t this election supposed to have been Mexico’s shining moment of democracy? Before July 2, Mexico was convinced it would be so. Today, there’s no end in sight to a new round of legal battles and López Obrador’s officially peaceful grass-roots movement to have the election recounted, “voto por voto.”
The López Obrador campaign this week filed hundreds of claims with Mexico’s electoral tribunal, detailing the campaign’s charges of widespread fraud. López Obrador himself presented to reporters a video that he said showed a man stuffing a congressional ballot box in Guanajuato, presumably in favor of Calderón’s PAN. The hope is that enough evidence is presented so that the tribunal, known by its Spanish acronym TEPJF, will annul or seek a recount of votes in certain electoral districts. If enough results change, Calderón’s microscopic final-tally advantage of 0.58 percentage point over López Obrador — just 244,000 votes out of 41 million cast — could be overcome. On election night, López Obrador told his supporters that, according to PRD data, he had won by 500,000 votes.
When asked on Tuesday about the possibility of a change in the outcome, Calderón avoided the question. And when asked if it might seem disrespectful to Mexico’s fragile democratic institutions to keep puffing about as if he were already the winner, he ignored the question and asked for another, eliciting hisses from Mexico’s pesky, partisan press corps.
Calderón repeated his desire to invite López Obrador into his future cabinet. But, a reporter astutely asked, didn’t Calderón brand López Obrador a “danger to Mexico” during the race? Why be friendly to “dangerous elements”? Calderón would not answer. (Calderón later told the Washington Post that he would accept a partial recount in some areas.)
This has been the PAN campaign’s precarious political strategy in a precarious situation. What else could they do? Everyone knows Andrés Manuel López Obrador isn’t going anywhere. The man is on a mission.
Meeting with foreign media last week, López Obrador declined to answer whether he would give up his efforts to claim the presidency if TEPJF, and even Mexico’s Supreme Court, ruled against him. He was pressed on the subject several times. With López Obrador, you get the sense that TEPJF, the Supreme Court, the PAN, Fox and anyone else who stands in his way are all part of the same lot.
“We are aware that we are up against a group of economic and political powers that is accustomed to win at all costs, without moral scruples of any nature,” López Obrador bellowed on Saturday before a sea of people dressed in corn-shaded yellow, the color of the PRD. “They don’t really care about the country, and much less about the suffering of the majority of the pueblo of Mexico. Their only intent is to maintain and increase their privileges.”
The crowd went wild. Although rain sprinkled slightly and the weather was cool that day, the air was hot inside the Zocalo. Graffiti on a wall in front of the sinking Metropolitan Cathedral read: “If there is no solution, there will be revolution.” Some signs called for an invocation of Article 39 of the Mexican Constitution, which states “the people” have the right to “alter or modify their form of government.”
THE PEOPLE WERE PISSED ON SATURDAY. You could feel it. And López Obrador was channeling their anger.
Reputable news outlets have indeed detailed instances of bizarre irregularities in the vote tallies, most of which favored the PAN or the old-guard PRI ticket. But López Obrador’s rhetoric has sought to cast his struggle as one that rises above scattered cases of potential fraud. His language that day, as throughout his campaign, came from the vantage point of a true believer in the evils of class strata.
And Mexico has endured century upon century of that. While the capital and the industrialized northern cities of Mexico are modern, bustling centers of activity, nearly half of the population lives on less than $4 a day. In what Mexico City natives refer to quaintly as “the provinces,” the rural areas, poor mestizos and Indians live in a space of suspended time, often without the most basic amenities of industrialized society. In some areas, NAFTA has ravaged the lives of small farmers, and is set to do more harm in 2008 when the few remaining tariffs against U.S. products will be lifted.
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These are the Mexicans López Obrador claims to speak for. And these are the Mexicans the PAN and its supporters — those who inhabit Mexico’s middle and upper classes — are usually the least worried about. This is the division that the bruising 2006 presidential election and its aftermath, just short of a worst-case scenario, have laid painfully bare.
When PRD leaders Manuel Camacho Solis and Gerardo Fernández Noroña arrived on Sunday to personally deliver a claim against an electoral-district site in a PAN stronghold in Mexico City, the quiet and leafy Colonia la del Valle neighborhood, a stout woman wearing a PAN blue button-up shirt approached the commotion curiously and with a disgusted look on her face.
“You should interview one of us. We want peace,” she said to no one in particular. “Que viva el PAN!” she hollered in a huff as she walked away.
Inside the gauntlet of press photographers, PRD supporters chanted in response: “Voto por voto! Casilla por casilla!” (“Vote by vote! Poll by poll!”)