Late Thursday afternoon, after a lengthy re-tallying process, Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute officially declared the ruling PAN party candidate, Felipe Calderón as the winner of the country’s presidential elections. In the words of Luis Carlos Ugalde, head of the electoral institution, “the golden rule of democracy establishes that the winning candidate is the one who obtains the most votes.” Yet with a razor-thin margin of 243,934 votes separating Calderón from his left-leaning opponent, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the PRD, it is far from the certain that Ugalde’s criteria have been met. Indeed, López Obrador has promised to legally challenge the results, and, if need be, seek a vote-by-vote recount. He has every reason to do so, for Mexico has no reliable history of fair elections.
Given the youthfulness of Mexican democracy and its history of electoral malfeasance, such a proposal is not automatically a matter of sour grapes or poor sportsmanship. Rather, it is a logical and responsible step. The PRD is well within its right to pursue the legal route to a recount, because, despite the boasts of Mexican leaders about their country’s democracy, it is still painfully rough around the edges. López Obrador’s unwillingness to back down after an election that, however tranquil, has not escaped from the shadow of fraud allegations, could conceivably help strengthen Mexican political culture and institutions. After all, Mexico cannot stand another 1988, when almost without question, Carlos Salinas walked away with a stolen presidency. That election, which saw eventual PRD founder Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas disgracefully robbed of a victory, perhaps began the process of transition that culminated in the PRI’s downfall 12 years later.
Moreover, for the good of the country, a recount is absolutely necessary. This election revealed sharp polarizations in Mexican society and seeded a profound bitterness between the two parties. This acrimony will not disappear with the proclamation of the name of the president-elect. The election has been tainted, and the post-ballot period already has been marred by tension, highlighted by the verbal wars between the PAN and PRD representatives at the electoral council assembly, meaning a suitable resolution will not be easily attained. A recount, assuming its genesis is a legitimate and constitutional legal ruling, will advance electoral transparency.
Calderón, who now sees himself as the official winner, ought to be deeply concerned over any challenge to national unity, and a victory in a recount would cement his own legitimacy. If he is to have a successful presidency, Calderón’s democratic bona fides must be unimpeachable, and at this juncture, the only way that his status as president can be vouchsafed and the Mexican population convinced of electoral solidity is for a vote-by-vote recount. After a long, dirty campaign that did great damage to the fabric of Mexican political culture, the eventual president will need all the legitimacy the system can still salvage. After all, it was Calderon’s insistently repeated allegations that López Obrador was a “danger to Mexico” that gave the panista his tenuous margin of victory, despite the fact that insinuations of Chávez-López Obrador links held not a shred of truth.
More importantly, if Calderón is serious about constructing a government of reconciliation which is uncertain after so much cynicism and hate there is no better way to lay the foundation for such an inclusive program than to support the PRD’s request for a recount. Such a gesture of good faith would go a long way towards creating the climate of confidence and compromise that will perhaps help steer Mexico away from the ominous danger that it faces.
Tomorrow, López Obrador will once again fill the Zócalo with a huge crowd to declare his intention to demand a recount. Despite continuing tensions, the long-feared post-election crisis that many had anticipated has so far been avoided. This is the process of democratic consolidation in action, as political actors work to guarantee that the “golden rule” of democracy is indeed alive in Mexico. Recounting the votes should not be an affront to anyone. Rather, such a step is necessary to ensure that the country makes no irreversible move towards crisis and ungovernability.
MICHAEL LETTIERI is a research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.