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Felipe Calderon Certified Mexico’s President-elect

September 5, 2006 at 6:10 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez covered Mexico’s election for us in July. He now has the story of the winner being declared.

RAY SUAREZ: As supporters of the losing candidate demonstrated outside, Mexico’s top electoral court delivered a widely anticipated decision today, upholding the slim lead tallied by ruling party candidate Felipe Calderon in July’s election.

The Federal Electoral Tribunal certified, Calderon won July’s election by more than 230,000 votes out of more than 41 million cast. A 44-year-old, a former energy minister, Calderon will replace incumbent president Vicente Fox, whose term expires December 1.

While the election was contested, Calderon appealed for calm and national unity.

FELIPE CALDERON, Mexican President-Elect (through translator): The way to solve our differences is to respect the law and each other.

RAY SUAREZ: Both the outgoing and incoming presidents are members of the pro-business and pro-trade party known as PAN. But the PAN victory has been under challenge since election night by the candidate of the more left-wing PRD Party, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, popularly known as AMLO.

Lopez Obrador has called his supporters to the streets of Mexico City and across the country to protest what he labeled a fraudulent election and vote count. After promising earlier this year to accept the voters’ verdict, Lopez Obrador later said he would refuse to accept the electoral court’s ruling. He promised to establish a parallel government, even though the court’s ruling is final and cannot be appealed.

Lopez Obrador spoke last night, just ahead of the ruling.

ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR, Mexican Presidential Candidate (through translator): We are defending our rights, because the people’s will is not being respected, and because they want to steal the presidency of Mexico from us. We all have a legitimate right to defend ourselves.

Meaningless ruling

Pamela Starr
The Eurasia Group
The left in Mexico is convinced that the political system in Mexico will never allow them to win the presidency. So, what they want to do is see a radical reform of that political order.

RAY SUAREZ: And, last Friday, members of Lopez Obrador's party blocked President Fox from delivering his last state-of-the-nation address in parliament, after a six-year term in office.

For more, we talk with Denise Dresser, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technical Institute of Mexico, or ITAM, in Mexico City, and a columnist for the Mexican newspapers Reforma and Proceso -- she is a Mexican citizen -- and Pamela Starr, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, a risk consulting firm. She was previously a professor of political economy at ITAM for eight years. She is a U.S. citizen.

Professor Dresser, this ends the legal battle over who the next president of Mexico is going to be. Does it end the political battle?

DENISE DRESSER, Autonomous Technical Institute of Mexico: Not at all, because 30 percent of the population, or more, according to a recent poll in Mexican newspaper El Universal, says that people will not accept the result.

Thirty percent of the population believes that there was fraud. And although there has been a final ruling by the tribunal, that ruling will be meaningless to those who think that there was fraud, that there were irregularities, and that, as a result, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has the right and the legitimacy to contest the result, declare himself -- himself to be an alternative president, and to continue with the popular movement, whose final outcome may be the desire to topple Calderon's government in the future.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Pamela Starr, contest in what way? There's that 30 percent the professor mentions, but what channels do they have to -- to make their unhappiness known?

PAMELA STARR, Eurasia Group: Well, their -- their contestment now is not focused on the election outcome, per se. Their concern now is to try to change the political system in Mexico, so that it will allow for an election of the left.

The left in Mexico is convinced that the political system in Mexico will never allow them to win the presidency. So, what they want to do is see a radical reform of that political order. They're going to use their power, both in the legislature and on the streets, to try to force the government to make those dramatic changes.

Opposition

Denise Dresser
Autonomous Technical Institute of Mexico
He [Obrador] is positioning himself as an anti-institutional player, who no longer wants to play within the rules of the game, but actually change them in a way that will benefit his political movement in the future.

RAY SUAREZ: The tribunal decided, in the end, some minor mistakes were made. And they made adjustments to the vote total. But, basically, they said, they got it right.

Did they? Was this a free and fair election, by international standards?

PAMELA STARR: I think it was absolutely a free and fair election on July 2, on Election Day.

The problem with the election is that, to a certain extent, it was mismanaged. President Fox, for example, chose not to intervene when Congress decided to establish an electoral commission whose members were dominated by individuals from the PRI and the PAN, the two parties that opposed the PRD and Lopez Obrador in this election.

He also tried to eliminate Lopez Obrador as a candidate by impeaching him when he was mayor of Mexico City. And, then, during the campaign, he skirted the legal limits of the law by implicitly campaigning for Felipe Calderon, when the Mexican president is prohibited from doing so by law.

And, then, on Election Day, and a few days after that, the Federal Electoral Commission mismanaged the way they presented the results of the election. The result was, this fed into the preconceptions of the left that this election was going to be stolen from them.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree, Professor Dresser, that those missteps, as Pamela Starr lays them out, helped build the -- the opposition, even after this very close contest was over?

DENISE DRESSER: Absolutely. And the tribunal reprimanded President Fox for intervening in the election and stretching the limits of the law, pushing those limits.

And that gave Lopez Obrador leeway to declare that the level -- the playing field had not been level for him. And, therefore, whatever he is doing is justified, in so far as Vicente Fox did not behave as he should have.

And, unfortunately, that has fed into the perceptions of many Mexicans that the system is always corrupt, always unfair, and that the only way to deal with this new injustice is to topple the whole building down, and as Manuel Lopez Obrador on Friday gave a fiery speech, in which he said, to hell with the institutions.

So, he is positioning himself as an anti-institutional player, who no longer wants to play within the rules of the game, but actually change them in a way that will benefit his political movement in the future. But that won't be a -- a movement that seeks power through elections or through the legal -- the legal path that Mexico has used in the past to evolve.

It will be a very confrontational, very divisive, very polarizing approach to political change in Mexico in the future.

Second place

Pamela Starr
The Eurasia Group
But I think he [Obrador] has also been a very clever strategist, when we talk about how he goes about positioning himself for what he sees as the best shot for reaching the presidency in the longer term.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, he said, to hell with the institutions, but does Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's hand begin to weaken the moment there is a final declared winner, and every day until there's a newly sworn president in December?

DENISE DRESSER: Well, we have seen the weakening of his support.

Another poll in newspaper Reforma showed that, if the election were held today -- and this poll was released 10 days ago, prior to the ruling of the tribunal -- Felipe Calderon would win by 43 percent vs. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, with 23 percent.

So, Lopez Obrador knows that this is a risky strategy, and that he is alienating many of the moderates who voted for him in the campaign, and -- I mean in the election. But he has chosen to solidify his support with a hard-core group willing to follow him to whatever extreme position he chooses to take.

And this is going to mean that the Mexican left is probably going to face difficult times ahead. It feels excluded. And it is taking steps to further perpetuate its -- its exclusion. It's generating a vicious cycle. The PRD is going to claim that it's being kicked out of the political system, while, at the same time, it does everything to get itself kicked out of the political system.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, do you agree with that notion that, in fact, the post-election Lopez Obrador has been, in some ways, his own enemy?

PAMELA STARR: I think, in some ways, he has been his own enemy, when we talk about that moderate left that Denise was referring to.

But I think he has also been a very clever strategist, when we talk about how he goes about positioning himself for what he sees as the best shot for reaching the presidency in the longer term. What he's trying to do, above all else, is to hold his political alliance together.

And that alliance is based on politicians who felt that the election was stolen from them in 1988. That's when Cuauhtemoc Cardenas lost the election to Carlos Salinas. But the difference is, at that time, Cardenas chose not to threaten political stability in Mexico by challenging the outcome of the election.

That has left a scar in the Mexican left. Lopez Obrador is very cleverly playing to that sensibility in the left to try to strengthen his position as the leader of the left, saying: I am the individual who will challenge this outcome, and thereby make it possible for the -- the left to come to power at some point in the future.

And, up until now, it has worked beautifully for him. It's difficult to find a left-leaning politician in Mexico who will openly oppose Lopez Obrador at this point.

The future for Felipe Calderon

Denise Dresser
Autonomous Technical Institute of Mexico
He [Calderon] has to present himself as an advocate of change and recognize that this election was a warning sign. It was a red light. And it sent out a signal that more of the same in Mexico is simply not going to be good enough.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, maybe it has -- it has been working better than he even expected...

RAY SUAREZ: ... because look at how much time we have spent talking about the guy who came in second.

Let's talk about the man who is now president-elect. Does he have to walk carefully in the next two months?

PAMELA STARR: I think he does. But he also has to demonstrate that he is now the president-elect and now leading Mexico. Calderon needs to be very, very forceful in the process of building a -- a government, building his -- his cabinet, but also working with Vicente Fox in the transition process, to try to bring some of his preferred legislation before the Congress, and, hopefully, get some wins before he even takes the presidency, takes the oath of office on December 1.

In that process, he needs to reach out. He has to reach out to that 30 percent of the population who still backs Lopez Obrador, many of them who think that Lopez Obrador lost as a result of fraud. He needs to appeal to them, not only in the process of building his cabinet, but also in his rhetoric, in his -- his tone of voice. And, on the latter, Felipe Calderon has not historically been extremely good.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, after the tumult of the last two months, Denise Dresser, is until December 1 enough time for president-elect Calderon to bind up some of the wounds of this country?

DENISE DRESSER: Well, he's going to have to move very quickly, very aggressively, to position himself as a progressive force for change in Mexico.

What he needs to understand is that Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is the symptom of a deeper problem: inequalities, disparities in wealth, extreme poverty, and a system of crony capitalism that erects huge barriers of entry for real competition and for real empowerment of people in Mexico.

If, on the other hand, he is filled with a sense of complacency and falls into the inertia of the past, and continues to muddle through with Mexico's electoral democracy, but a democracy that doesn't provide real benefits for the vast majority of the Mexican people, he will be putting himself in a very dangerous position.

He has to present himself as an advocate of change and recognize that this election was a warning sign. It was a red light. And it sent out a signal that more of the same in Mexico is simply not going to be good enough.

RAY SUAREZ: And, very quickly, before we go, any new footing for the U.S.-Mexican relationship?

PAMELA STARR: I think the United States, the best thing it can do right now, is to just simply recognize Felipe Calderon, and leave it at that, leave it as a pure diplomatic relationship.

But I don't think that this outcome, this election outcome, is necessarily problematic for the United States in the medium term. What the United States needs is for Felipe Calderon to be successful. To the extent that he's successful, this is good news for the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Pamela Starr, Denise Dresser, thank you both.