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Conservative Calderon Declared Winner in Mexican Elections

July 6, 2006 at 6:10 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Election officials in Mexico worked overnight, recounting Sunday’s poll numbers, as supporters of the two candidates hoped their vigilance might sway the count their way. Citizens woke to the news that at last there may be a victor.

FELIPE CALDERON, Mexican Presidential Candidate (through translator): What I can tell you is that, at this hour of the morning, the National Action Party is ahead in elections for president.

RAY SUAREZ: Dawn brought Felipe Calderon, candidate of the ruling National Action Party, a tight, but definitive lead. By late afternoon, the count was complete. Calderon had 35.8 percent of the vote; Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador 35.3 percent, separated by just 236,000 votes, out of more than 41 million votes cast.

Only yesterday, the count pointed to victory for Lopez Obrador, the candidate of the left.

ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR, Mexican Presidential Candidate (through translator): The people do not accept the result. We are going to the federal electoral tribunal, under the terms established by law. We have four days. We are going to formally challenge the process and all of its elements.

RAY SUAREZ: Lopez Obrador has promised to fight, saying he will take his election challenge to court, which is his option under Mexican electoral law. And he has urged his supporters to fill Mexico’s main square on Saturday.

An unprecedented event in Mexico

Armand Peschard-Sverdrup
Center for Strategic and Int'l Studies
The Federal Electoral Tribunal has until -- you know, until September 6 to certify. They have two things they have to do, validate the election and certify the IFE's results.

RAY SUAREZ: For more, we hear from Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, director of the Mexico Project at the Center For Strategic and International Studies -- he recently returned from Mexico, where he served as an observer at the electoral commission headquarters -- and from Jonathan Fox, professor of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of California in Santa Cruz. He is working on a new book called "Accountability Politics: Voice and Power in Rural Mexico." And he is not related to Mexico's President Vicente Fox.

Let's start with you, Professor Fox.

Just in the past few hours, the count was completed. Felipe Calderon was officially certified. What happens now?

JONATHAN FOX, Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies, University California at Santa Cruz: Well, the Mexican people have worked very hard to build reliable electoral institutions.

And the first one that we have heard is about the Electoral Institute, that handles the counting. And the other is the Federal Electoral Tribunal, that handles disputes about those results. And now the challengers have the legal option of taking their claims to the Electoral Tribunal.

RAY SUAREZ: Has this ever happened before?

JONATHAN FOX: It's happened at the state and municipal levels. And the tribunal is really going to be put to the test now.

RAY SUAREZ: Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, as you look down the road -- and you were there in those tense days after the polls closed -- what do you see?

ARMAND PESCHARD-SVERDRUP, Mexico Project Director, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Well, I think it's important to note that the election is not certified.

The IFE issued its official result. The Federal Electoral Tribunal has until -- you know, until September 6 to certify. They have two things they have to do, validate the election and certify the IFE's results. So, yes, they have declared the official process, you know, the official result.

But the tribunal -- whether the election is adjudicated or not, as a result of disputes, the tribunal still has to certify the IFE's results.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, both you and Professor Fox have mentioned these two separate institutions. So, let's clarify that a little bit. The IFE is the independent federal electoral commission, the institute.

ARMAND PESCHARD-SVERDRUP: Yes. And it's responsible for the administration of the electoral process at the federal level.

RAY SUAREZ: So, what's the tribunal, and what's the difference?

ARMAND PESCHARD-SVERDRUP: The tribunal is basically the highest court in Mexico on electoral affairs. They're the last word. In fact, their rulings can't be even overturned by the supreme court. So, they are the ultimate authority on electoral issues.

The case for a challenge

Jonathan Fox
University of California, Santa Cruz
It looks hard, but there is some ambiguity, in terms of what counts as a reasonable threshold for deciding whether to reopen the what are called the electoral packets, the polling packets, the actual ballot boxes.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Professor, under the law, as it's written, does Lopez Obrador have a legitimate grievance to bring to that tribunal and say, in effect, I want another look?

JONATHAN FOX: He has the right to bring his claims. The legitimacy depends on the court's evaluation of the evidence that's brought to bear.

RAY SUAREZ: So, they don't have to take his complaint, then?

JONATHAN FOX: They have the power to decide how to interpret the evidence that's presented.

RAY SUAREZ: So, what threshold does he have to cross, or do we even know yet?

ARMAND PESCHARD-SVERDRUP: Well, I think it's important to note that the tribunal adjudicates based on the same rationale as the Federal Electoral Institute. It's on a by-district basis.

Mexico has 300 electoral districts. And the tribunal has to be presented with evidence that will warrant the review of particular districts. So, Lopez Obrador's desire of having every ballot recounted really is impossible, because the tribunal will review whether any of the 300 electoral districts are -- warrant a review, and then they will make that determination and review the results of that district.

But they will not review districts that do not warrant the legal review.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree that it's basically impossible for him to get what he wants, which is a complete recount?

JONATHAN FOX: It looks hard, but there is some ambiguity, in terms of what counts as a reasonable threshold for deciding whether to reopen the what are called the electoral packets, the polling packets, the actual ballot boxes.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, since the count was done from those bundled ballots and the report, the sheet that came with each one of them, what if the problem came one step earlier in the process, and the count is incorrect?

Right now, as Armand suggests, you can't reopen that. You can't actually look at those ballots, unless there is an apparent problem with them.

JONATHAN FOX: There is a catch-22 there.

And one reason why some independent electoral observers are concerned is that the IFE lost some of its credibility when they announced the quick count as having been based on 98 percent of polling places, when it turned out, a day later, they left out 2.6 million votes.

And it turns out their current count is not too far out of line with their original quick count. But that discrepancy, that claim that turned out not to be true, that their initial quick count was based on 98 percent, really damaged credibility at a very delicate moment.

RAY SUAREZ: And 2.5 million votes is, like, 7 percent of the vote. It's not a small number.

ARMAND PESCHARD-SVERDRUP: Yes, but the preliminary result is just -- it's a projection of -- you know, it's based on a very comprehensive sample that gives a certain percentage of accuracy.

And there was a technical review that determined whether the results should have been announced or not. And given, as Jonathan had said, that they had not completed 100 percent of the tally, they felt that, from a methodological standpoint, they couldn't have come out and announced the final result of the preliminary results.

Uniting a divided nation

Armand Peschard-Sverdup
Center for Strategic and Int'l Studies
[T]o some extent, you have got a polarized society socioeconomically, but also geographically, because the northern part of Mexico tends to be the more prosperous, and the southern part of Mexico tends to be less prosperous.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, even the exit polls were pretty close to this final result. So, let's say for the moment this is roughly the way Mexicans voted, without taking a stand either way.

What does it tell you that Felipe Calderon won just about every state in the north, and Lopez Obrador won just about every state in the south?

ARMAND PESCHARD-SVERDRUP: Well, you -- what it tells you is that Mexican society is polarized. Lopez Obrador projected himself as candidate of the have-nots.

Felipe Calderon, from the National Action Party, has traditionally obtained electoral support from the middle-class urban centers and the business class. And, so, to some extent, you have got a polarized society socioeconomically, but also geographically, because the northern part of Mexico tends to be the more prosperous, and the southern part of Mexico tends to be less prosperous.

So, if we looked at it from the blue-states/red-states perspective, you would have one color on the northern part of Mexico and another on the southern part of Mexico.

RAY SUAREZ: Anything you want to add to that?

JONATHAN FOX: Well, I think we're going to see Mexico's electoral institutions put to the test.

And we need to keep in mind that nobody won more than 36 percent of the vote, which is hardly a mandate. And it's really going to be a challenge for the coalition-building skills of Mexico's political elite.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, just in the past week, Vicente Fox said that he came -- coming in with 42 percent of the vote, as he did, made it hard for him to accomplish the things that he wanted to accomplish as president.

So, winning with 36 I guess might even give you the same problem, but worse.

JONATHAN FOX: Exactly. Exactly. And it's really going to take thinking outside the box for the winner to build the kind of coalition that Mexico needs.

Historic display of democracy

Jonathan Fox
University of California, Santa Cruz
And a lot is going to depend on the electoral court and its ability to establish an outcome that is not only formally legal, but also seen as legitimate in the eyes of the losers, as well as the winners.

RAY SUAREZ: Does this leave the country stronger, or weaker, or more cynical? Or should it be proud of what's it's pulled off in the past year?

ARMAND PESCHARD-SVERDRUP: I think, in terms of its electoral system, I think that, once the dust settles and the passions subside, this process, this election would have strengthened Mexico's electoral institutions. So, that's point number one.

Point number two, in terms of governance, I think we have had a very heated election. Negative campaigning was used extensively. And, given the tight margin between the two front-runners, I think that all of the political will, goodwill, that may have been a remnant of this process, will not be there.

And, so, consensus-building, I think, is going to be a challenge for Mexico's next president and Mexico's next Congress.

RAY SUAREZ: Should Mexicans be proud of what they have accomplished in the past week?

JONATHAN FOX: I think it's too soon to tell. We need to see the Mexican people come together. And a lot is going to depend on the electoral court and its ability to establish an outcome that is not only formally legal, but also seen as legitimate in the eyes of the losers, as well as the winners.

RAY SUAREZ: And what should Americans be looking for?

JONATHAN FOX: Americans should be patient, just like the Mexican people. We know from our experience here in the U.S. that close elections are tough for any political system. And we could use a Federal Electoral Tribunal here as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Armand, same question.

ARMAND PESCHARD-SVERDRUP: I actually think this election is a success for Mexico.

You have to remember, this is a country in which, in previous eras, you knew who the next president was going to be months in advance. Many joked in Mexico that they went to bed having voted for a president, and woke up the next day with three, President Fox and two president-elects, after they both declared themselves winners.

What -- I think it's -- this election was a success because the level of debate among Mexicans about which platform they preferred is a success. I think it's been a success for the political country -- the political culture of this country. I think it's been a success for the institutions.

And, so, I am -- I think, once the dust settles, I think Mexicans will realize that this was in fact a historic election for them.

RAY SUAREZ: Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, Professor Fox, thank you both.

JONATHAN FOX: Thanks.

ARMAND PESCHARD-SVERDRUP: Thank you.