Suppose that Al Gore had rejected the Supreme Court's ruling, called on Democrats to occupy the Washington Mall for six weeks, and had himself sworn in on January 1, 2001, pledging to run an alternative government and "at all costs" to stop George W. Bush from taking office on the appointed day, January 20.
The fact that none of this came to pass attests to the strength of American institutions and to the integrity of our political leadership. Change the names, dates, and places, however, and we have what's now happening in Mexico. Presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador lost an extremely close race in July, blamed the outcome on electoral chicanery, and staged massive, protracted sit-ins in the center of Mexico City to press for a full ballot recount. His claims refuted and his demands rejected, Lopez Obrador (also known by his very pronounceable initials, AMLO) refused to accept the electoral court's final ruling and, on November 20 -- eleven days before his opponent's official inauguration -- swore himself in as Mexico's "legitimate president."
For five months AMLO has nurtured a sense of grievance among his loyalists in the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), alleging irregularities in the voting process and in other election procedures that he says enabled his opponent, Felipe Calderon of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), to edge him out in the tightest presidential race in the country's history. He calls Mexico a "sham republic" and Calderon a "spurious" president, "imposed" on the Mexican people by corrupt officials.
AMLO and his followers have adopted an increasingly threatening tone toward Mexico's nascent democracy, which emerged only in the last decade after 60 years of virtual one-party rule by the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), now a third but still potent political force. "To accept the current regime's rules," said AMLO in his inaugural address at the Zocalo, the historic plaza in the center of Mexico City, "is to betray the Mexican people."
According to the Associated Press, some of Lopez Obrador's closest aides have suggested they will follow Bolivia's example and try to use protests to force Calderon from office. Like the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, AMLO pledges to build a "new republic" founded on government control of natural resources and intensified redistribution programs. Significantly, the PRD candidate, who choreographed his own inauguration ceremony, chose to have the audience serenaded by the Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez, darling of Havana's music collectives.
THE IRONY OF LOPEZ OBRADOR'S claims of fraud is that they are themselves fraudulent. Starting on the very night of the election, AMLO has issued a steady barrage of charges, each of which has been proven false or groundless, only to be replaced by further and more ludicrous allegations. Yet incessant repetition of such assertions about nonexistent shenanigans has kept his supporters in sustained angry mode, undermining confidence in the country's democratic institutions among broad swaths of Mexican society.
* Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) offered a "quick count" of randomly selected precincts (a sample approved by all the parties) for the benefit of results-hungry citizens. As it became clear on election night that the race was too close to call, the IFE announced a "statistical tie" and declined to name a winner. Nonetheless, Lopez Obrador took to the microphones to say exit polls gave him a 500,000 vote lead, then proclaimed himself the winner and demanded that "our results" be respected, otherwise "I will defend the people's interest."
The Mexico City polling firm Prospecta Consulting subsequently reviewed 14 exit polls conducted on election day. Calderon led in 11 of these; AMLO, in just two. Only three of the 14 surveys had results outside the margin of error, and of those only one showed the PRD candidate ahead. Thus AMLO's claim of victory based on exit polling was highly selective.
* As the official results came in, AMLO was ahead early in the count, only to be overtaken by Calderon shortly after 4 A.M. -- contributing to the perception that the results were somehow fixed. But it turned out that PRD pollwatchers and activists in states known to lean to the PAN had used delaying tactics (such as disrupting the vote count and even attempting to take over voting places) to slow down the reports coming in from those states. This stretched out the time AMLO remained nominally in the lead.
* Lopez Obrador later claimed that an "algorithm" in the vote counting program was rigged to give Calderon the edge. In fact the algorithm was the same one we find in pocket calculators, as the computer program merely added up the figures reported on the vote tally sheets delivered to all political parties.
* On July 10, Lopez Obrador called a press conference to show video footage of what he said was clear evidence of ballot-stuffing by a poll worker. A review of the tape by the IFE, however, shows that the worker simply transferred votes for the Mexican Congress that had mistakenly been put in the box for president. (In Mexico, voters are given separate ballots and ballot boxes for each election in play.) As revealed the following day by the PRD's pollwatcher at the precinct, the ballots were moved by the local elections chairman with the consent of pollwatchers and fully in their view. AMLO suggested she might have been bought off.
*Undeterred by these embarrassments, Lopez Obrador called a further press conference to accuse the IFE of illegally opening warehouses where electoral materials were being stored, allegedly to "make the figures work out" for Calderon. An IFE advisor explained that the warehouses were opened at the PRD's own request so they could investigate the party's claims of voting irregularities.
* Having failed to prove actual vote fraud, AMLO questioned the fairness of campaign advertising. He bitterly complained of his main rival's spending for TV spots. The electoral institute provided figures showing that Lopez Obrador's coalition actually spent more on TV spots, and aired more of them, than did Calderon. AMLO even claimed that a juice company commercial was meant to send voters "subliminal messages" favoring his opponent, because the ad's background matched the PAN's color scheme.
As the allegations mounted, AMLO called on his supporters to engage in "civil resistance," occupying the Zocalo and blocking highways and city streets to press for a full recount as the only way to remove all doubt as to the outcome. "Vote by vote, precinct by precinct!" they chanted for 47 days.
The demand was disingenuous. Mexican law allows the unsealing of electoral materials only where there is evidence of tampering or other irregularities in a particular precinct, not on a wholesale basis. As pointed out by numerous observers, unsealing ballots and records in precincts where there was no specific complaint would have invalidated the results from those precincts (a provision intended precisely to prevent tampering with election materials), leading to annulment of the whole election and requiring that a new one be held.
The Federal Electoral Tribunal (TRIFE), the country's supreme elections authority, avoided falling for this trick but decided to carry out a partial recount including the disputed precincts. The recount eventually trimmed Calderon's lead by about 4000 votes to some 239,000. On August 28, the TRIFE ruled unanimously to reject the PRD's appeals on the grounds that irregularities were too few and insignificant to affect the outcome of the election. A week later the tribunal officially certified the PAN candidate's victory.
THE COURT'S DECISION RADICALIZED elements of the Mexican left. AMLO turned up the rhetorical heat, opposing what he termed a "coup d'etat" and calling for a "democratic national convention" in September to set up a "resistance government." By a simple show of hands, the self-selected convention delegates proclaimed the former Mexico City mayor as Mexico's "legitimate president" on September 16.
"To hell with their institutions," thundered the PRD standardbearer. "We have no respect for their institutions, because they are not the people's institutions, and we will create our own, the people's institutions." Party spokesman Gerardo Fernandez publicly speculated whether Calderon "would be able to start his term, and I really don't see how he'll be able to finish it out peacefully and legally." On September 1, PRD lawmakers stormed the podium at the legislative palace to prevent outgoing president Vicente Fox from giving his annual address to the Mexican Congress.
PRD strategist Manuel Camacho told London's Financial Times that unless the election were annulled, "We would lead a movement that does not recognize the country's institutions and inevitably that would mean escalating the political confrontation." Old resentments bubbled back up to the surface. "We lived through 500 years of repression," said one protester in reference to the European conquest of indigenous Mexicans, "and now we represent the new face of Mexico."
Fortunately for Mexico, not all leftwing leaders endorse Lopez Obrador's challenge. At least three PRD state governors, forty PRD legislators, some smaller parties in AMLO's coalition, and party founder Cuauhtemoc Cardenas accept the election results, denouncing the former nominee's tactics as harmful to the Left and the man himself as an authoritarian threat to the country. Even the iconic Evo Morales and Spain's Socialist government have recognized Calderon's election.
But others welcome the chance to stir things up. The Workers Party pledged to form "people's defense committees" in Mexico City in support of the alternative government. Both sides have dug in their heels for the December 1 inauguration: On November 11, the PRD national committee voted to block Calderon from taking office "at all costs," whereas PAN legislators predicted that the installation would take place "even if public force were to become necessary."
The likeliest outcome in the short run is that Calderon will be sworn in somewhere, while Lopez Obrador and his diehards will forge ahead with their alternative government, moving from "civil resistance" to civil disobedience including the withholding of tax payments. What might happen next is anybody's guess.
TO BE SURE, ELECTIONS IN MEXICO have not always been exactly clean. Lopez Obrador himself is generally acknowledged to have been cheated out of the Tabasco state governor's seat by the PRI in 1994 -- a scandalous episode which lends a superficial credence to his current claims, but which also helped to bring about the creation of today's independent, nonpartisan election authorities. Mexicans now can boast of one of the cleanest electoral systems in the world; indeed European Union observers praised this year's election for its transparency.
Nearly one million Mexicans received intensive training to serve as election workers, guided by detailed requirements for handling both marked and unmarked ballots. Precinct vote counts were conducted in the presence of party pollwatchers; under the law, tally sheets could not be certified and election materials could not be sealed unless the various party representatives signed off on them. As campaign diarist Carlos Ramirez noted, "There simply could not have been any fraud."
"Calumniez, calumniez; il en reste toujours quelque chose," wrote Pierre de Beaumarchais in The Barber of Seville (1772). We may translate the French dramatist's proverb loosely as, "Keep throwing mud, something's got to stick!" Yet Lopez Obrador's slander campaign against his country's democratic system has failed to stick with the two-thirds of Mexicans who voted against him; in fact support for the "legitimate president" has eroded even within his own camp. Polls suggest that the "spurious" victor, Calderon, would win by as much as 16 points if the election were held today.
But ideas do have consequences. The carefully maintained illusion of official chicanery has radicalized a hard core of AMLO true believers, pulling Mexico closer to the edge of the abyss.