July 3, 2006 [LINK]

Election in Mexico: too close to call

Mexico flag In economic terms, Mexico is undergoing rapid (if uneven) modernization, but when it comes to politics, it is still in an early transition stage toward full-fledged democracy. That was evident from watching the broadcasts on various Spanish-language channels after the polls closed last night. Unlike the United States, there were no incremental tabulations as the returns from various states trickled in, so the talking head experts from Mexico rattled on about nothing in particular. Finally, the time came for the big announcement at midnight -- 11:00 in Mexico City. And the winner is ... we're not sure yet. What a letdown! The head of Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), Luis Carlos Ugalde, said there would be a district-by-district count, the results of which would be divulged on Wednesday. He took pains to affirm the independent, objective, scientific nature of his agency, warning citizens not to trust in election results from non-governmental sources. Felipe Calderon apparently has a slight lead over Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, but there are no truly officials figures to go by. See Washington Post.

Even though he is running behind Calderon in most exit polls, Lopez Obrador claimed that "According to our information, we have won the presidency." (See El Universal, in English.) The possibility of a disputed, razor-close election such as the United States experienced in 2000 raises various humorous possibilities (will Al Gore intervene?), but in a country where democratic norms are not so strong, things could get ugly. If AMLO ends up losing, such words will convince many of his sympathizers that the election is not legitimate. Early indications are that PAN will get the largest share of congressional seats, but less than a majority, meaning that Mexico will remain bogged down in a "divided government" situation. That reminds me, I have heard commentators refer to PAN as the "oficialista" party, based on the fact that they control the executive branch right now, but they are hardly in control of the government overall. PAN lost a large number of seats in the 2003 midterm congressional elections, so this seems to represent a significant rebound in conservative fortunes south of the border.

I am somewhat less worried about the possibility that AMLO might win and take Mexico in a radical direction, following the lead of Hugo Chavez. Mexico's very size and semi-developed status creates a strong built-in stabilizing force, much like in Brazil, where fears that "Lula" da Silva would wreak chaos were proven wrong. As one of the countries with the most potential in the 21st Century, Mexico cannot afford to indulge in some romantic quest for glory. AMLO might raise hell for a while, and investors might well liquidate substantial holdings, but any financial crisis would probably not last for long. But much depends on how the United States responds as events unfold. An overly solicitous attitude might undermine the pressure on Mexican leaders to act responsibly, while an unfriendly attitude could easily reinforce the zeal of radicals to push an anti-American agenda, however irrational it might be.

One of the interesting aspects of this election was the Mexicans residing outside the country were allowed to vote for the first time. That is standard practice for other Latin American countries, but Mexico is distinct from them in many ways. The turnout for Mexican expatriates was shockingly low, however: Only about 28,000 cast ballots, about one-tenth of one percent of the total population of eligible voters in the U.S.A., including those who hold American citizenship and those who are here illegally. Another unique feature of the Mexican election system is that there is no second round voting in case no candidate gets a majority. Virtually all other Latin American countries have some version of the two-round system, which makes sense in countries that have several political parties. In Mexico, there used to be one dominant party (PRI) and one token opposition party (PAN). Now there is genuine competition among three major parties, and it can no longer be taken for granted that one of their candidates will get a clear majority. If this election turns out badly, Mexico may move to adopt the two-round system in the future.

Bolivia votes for assembly

In South America, meanwhile, the people of Bolivia voted for a constituent assembly to draft a major constitutional revision pushed by new President Evo Morales. According to preliminary results, Morales will get a slight majority of the members, which means that he will need support from other parties to reach the necessary two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution. See Washington Post.