Felipe Calderon entered Mexico’s presidential election Sunday trailing his opponent, populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, in the public-opinion polls and emerged with a slim margin in the actual polling. The count is still under review by the nonpartisan Federal Electoral Institute. The preliminary results give Mr. Calderon a 1 percent lead; Mr. Lopez Obrador claims that nearly 3 million of some 41 million votes cast were not counted properly, and he has demanded a recount. If the recount determines that the Calderon victory is valid, Mr. Lopez Obrador might go beyond his acerbic rhetoric to clog the streets with protesters, as he did after losing the race for governor in his home state of Tabasco.
Mr. Lopez Obrador can challenge the results before a court issues a binding decision. Unfortunately, challenging the result in the streets better suits his style. Mr. Lopez Obrador often ascribes defeat to vague and nefarious forces which he says conspire against him. Should he do so this time, democracy in Mexico will be the real loser, debased in what is only the second truly democratic presidential election.
The likelihood that Mr. Lopez Obrador would be able to rally effective discontent is hard to gauge. In polling conducted before the election by Ipsos-Bimsa, 44 percent of Lopez Obrador supporters said they would accept the results of the election even if their candidate lost (35 percent would have doubts; only 13 percent replied that they would reject the results), and Lopez Obrador supporters in this poll were no more inclined to participate in a post-electoral strike than disappointed Calderon voters.
The theme of the election has been the Mexican economy, which is of particular interest to the United States because an ailing Mexican economy bears on the number of immigrants Mexico exports to the United States. The Mexican economy is still defined by poverty, even though foreign investments and exports have increased while inflation has decreased in recent years. Mr. Calderon campaigned on free-trade and business-friendly policies that would target unemployment in Mexico and keep the economy steered toward the right path. Mr. Lopez Obrador, on the other hand, as the mayor of Mexico City relied on government handouts and large public-works projects to boost his popularity among the poor.
Either candidate, like President Vicente Fox, would have difficulty working with a divided legislature. But the first hurdle will be crossed only when both candidates agree to accept the result of the election. Weeks may be required to determine that result.