REVIEW: Article

Mexico on the Eve of Presidential Transition

* The author would like to thank Alan Meltzer and Jennifer Davis of the United States Embassy in Mexico City for their invaluable assistance with this article.

A quarter century ago, former United States (US) Ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield described the US-Japanese relationship as “the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none.” Much has changed in our world and in this hemisphere since the economic relationship with Japan in the 1980s that inspired that comment. While I would not minimize the importance of our relationships with our traditional, post-World War II allies, I believe that today Ambassador Mansfield’s words aptly describe the US-Mexican relationship. Indeed, just last year, President Bush said as much.

Certainly, no other country has such a broad impact on the United States, and no other country is so intertwined with the United States and its people at such a basic level. In the wake of a closely-fought presidential election in Mexico that captured the attention of the world, and on the eve of an historic transition, now is a particularly appropriate time to take stock of recent developments in Mexico and what they mean for US-Mexico relations.

The election of Vicente Fox as President of Mexico in 2000 represented a clear dividing line between Mexico’s authoritarian past and its emergence as a genuine democracy. Until Fox’s election, one party—the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)—had dominated Mexican political life entirely for over 70 years, controlling the presidency, the Congress, and most state governments. Indeed, between 1929 and 1989, the PRI held all 32 state governorships, and did not lose its absolute majority in either house of Congress until 1997.

While Fox’s legacy will include many positive achievements, perhaps no single achievement during his time in office could match in historical importance the very fact of his election, which ended Mexico’s long history of one-party rule and reflected the emergence of a bona fide, multiparty democracy. Fox’s election also ushered in an era of broader cooperation than ever before between the United States and Mexico. In addition to the continued growth in our vast economic relationship, we have seen very significant expansion in other areas of cooperation.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States, Mexico agreed to greatly expand counterterrorism cooperation, culminating in March 2005 with the launch of the Security and Prosperity Partnership between the United States, Mexico and Canada. Also, the last few years have witnessed much enhanced cooperation in counternarcotics operations and extraditions. Under President Fox, Mexico also has shown a new willingness to address regional challenges, often in consultation with the United States.

There is no question that President Fox and his first Foreign Secretary, Jorge Castañeda, deserve much of the credit for overcoming Mexico’s long-entrenched preference for a policy of detached neutrality in international relationships. Castañeda made increased cooperation in areas of pressing bilateral interest a priority and urged Mexico to become more involved in international organizations. While this approach is far from institutionalized in Mexico’s foreign ministry, Felipe Calderon has shown every indication that he will work towards expanding Mexico’s role in the hemisphere.

In the economic area, the Fox government has done much to ensure that Felipe Calderon will inherit a growing economy marked by well-recognized stability on both the financial and institutional fronts. There is no talk of crisis, but rather of how the economy can improve given excellent public finances, record oil revenues, and Mexico’s prime location bordering the world’s largest economy. 

An Election for the History Books

Mexico’s political agenda has been dominated over the past year by the presidential election held on July 2. While in 2000 Vicente Fox succeeded by framing the election as a call for change after generations of one party rule, the 2006 election could not be reduced simply to “change.” For the first time in Mexican history, this year’s campaign was a genuinely competitive three-way race between the center-left PRI, President Fox’s center-right National Action Party (PAN), and the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), with each having a plausible shot at winning, at least at the outset of the campaign.

Each of the candidates sought to frame the election differently. The PRD’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (known by his initials AMLO), while not rejecting the free market outright, successfully tapped into the resentment of Mexico’s poor, arguing that Mexico’s current political-economic model was benefiting only a small portion of the population and that the country needed fundamental changes to increase socio-economic equality. Seeking a restoration of the PRI to power, Roberto Madrazo sought to position himself as a centrist candidate between the PAN’s market-oriented approach and the PRD’s more statist solutions; he argued that only the PRI had the experience to govern Mexico effectively. The PAN’s Felipe Calderon—a former congressman and Secretary of Energy—essentially campaigned on a platform of stability and continuity, proposing further reforms consistent with free market principles.

While AMLO began the campaign as the odds-on favorite, Calderon successfully closed the gap, in large part by playing to the concerns of many Mexicans that AMLO’s election would bring instability. By Election Day, AMLO and Calderon were in a statistical dead heat.

On election night, the Federal Election Institute declared the election “too close to call” based upon preliminary returns and urged the two front-runners to show restraint until more complete returns were available. Minutes later, Lopez Obrador went on the air declaring victory, on the basis of his campaign’s exit polls. Calderon responded moments later by declaring victory himself, citing the results of several exit polls.

Those Mexicans who hoped to awaken on July 3 finding closure to a long and divisive campaign were surely disappointed. According to preliminary returns available that day, Calderon and Lopez Obrador won 36.38 percent and 35.34 percent of the vote respectively, a 1.04 percent margin of victory for Calderon that narrowed to 0.56 percent in the final tally. The PRI’s Roberto Madrazo finished a distant third with approximately 22 percent (largely because of a sense amongst voters that he and his party were hopelessly corrupt and because of internal divisions within the PRI itself). In congressional races held the same day, the PAN emerged for the first time as the largest party in both houses. The PRD surged, supplanting the PRI as the second party in the lower house and only narrowly falling short in the upper house. The elections represented a political watershed, with Mexico’s long hegemonic PRI clearly relegated to a third place finish. 

Upon the release of these preliminary returns, Lopez Obrador charged he had been cheated out of victory. It was not the first time in Mexico’s history that a candidate cried “Fraud!” Until the establishment of independent electoral institutions in the 1990s, Mexico had a long history of electoral fraud, and many observers believe that Lopez Obrador himself had fallen victim to fraud in his earliest races in his home state of Tabasco. 

Nevertheless, today, Mexico’s federal electoral system—equipped with numerous overlapping safeguards—is widely considered to be one of the most secure in the world. Nearly all foreign observers deemed this year’s election to be free and fair, and the campaigns themselves made similar characterizations on Election Day.

Initially, Lopez Obrador alleged that he was the victim of cyber-fraud, arguing that the software of the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) had a secret algorithm that automatically deducted votes from him (or added them to Calderon) in each precinct as the returns were recorded. Frankly, many observers found this allegation implausible, not least because the results in each one of Mexico’s approximately 130,000 precincts can be verified online, and any alleged inconsistencies between the actual returns reported on election night and those registered by the IFE’s database could be easily detected.

Lopez Obrador later said there was not cyber-fraud but rather “old fashioned” fraud—ballot box stuffing and the like. He filed a number of challenges in Mexico’s independent electoral tribunal, arguing alternatively for a full, nationwide recount and for the annulment of the entire election. He also challenged the specific results in some 50,000 of Mexico’s 130,000 precincts on the basis of alleged irregularities in those precincts.

In a preliminary decision, the Tribunal ruled unanimously that under Mexican law, one cannot simply demand a nationwide recount. It noted that Congress intended for the votes to be counted by randomly selected and trained citizen election workers on election night. In order to request a recount, one must provide some evidence of the possibility of an error or irregularity in the election night count in each precinct to be recounted. It went on to rule that Lopez Obrador had met this burden in approximately nine percent of all precincts and ordered a recount in those precincts, which in the end had scant impact on the overall results. 

The Tribunal found no evidence of fraud, even if there were numerous, apparently randomly distributed, counting and arithmetic errors. It chastised President Fox and a business group for obliquely supporting Calderon during the campaign, in violation of Mexican electoral law. Nevertheless, finding that Calderon had won the most votes and that any electoral law violations during the campaign were insufficiently transcendent to justify annulling the entire election, on September 5, the tribunal certified Calderon as the President-elect.

Concurrently with his legal challenge, Lopez Obrador mounted a campaign of civil disobedience, presumably to pressure the tribunal to order a nationwide recount. He convoked a number of mass rallies in Mexico City’s Zócalo (central square), and his supporters occupied the Zócalo and one of Mexico City’s leading thoroughfares with extensive encampments for over six weeks (causing widespread traffic havoc).

Having exhausted all available legal remedies, he now appears committed to converting his election protest into a broader movement aimed at transforming Mexico’s institutions. To that end, he presided over a “National Democratic Convention” held in the Zócalo on September 16. Participants resolved to reject Calderon as “a usurper,” declared Lopez Obrador Mexico’s “legitimate president,” and approved his formation of a parallel cabinet and itinerant government, which would lead an ongoing civil disobedience movement. This may well be a high-risk strategy—with Mexico enjoying economic stability, it is not clear the country currently offers fertile ground for such a broad-based, long-term protest movement. Should Lopez Obrador fail to generate the broad movement he has promised, his tactics risk marginalizing him further.

As of late September, the key political question is whether members of Lopez Obrador’s party will seek to distance themselves from him and use their legislative power to pursue their goals by working within the system, or continue to offer him their full support. Public opinion polls suggest his aggressive tactics have considerably hurt the public perception of his party, which may pay a high political price for its continued support of him. On the other hand, Lopez Obrador himself undoubtedly deserves much of the credit for the party’s impressive gains, and many recently elected PRD officials may feel indebted to him. How the party resolves this tension may well determine the future of Lopez Obrador’s protest movement.

A House Divided?

While the controversy over Calderon’s narrow margin of victory dominated post-election coverage, the results also revealed an increasing political polarization in Mexico across regional and socio-economic lines. Much as the 2000 and 2004 US elections revealed a country divided neatly between “red states” and “blue states,” the Mexican electoral map broke down almost as neatly between the prosperous and industrialized northern states, won by Calderon, and the poorer and less developed central and southern states, where Lopez Obrador prevailed. Likewise, exit polls suggested that Lopez Obrador did better among poor and less educated Mexicans, whereas Calderon polled strongest among the more prosperous and well-educated.

While only a very small percentage of Mexicans personally participated in the post-electoral protests, the dispute greatly embittered relations between the PAN and the PRD. Surely the most vivid example of this was the action taken by PRD legislators on September 1 to occupy the podium in the Chamber of Deputies, preventing President Fox from delivering his final annual report to the customary joint session of Congress. Fox became the first President ever to have been prevented from delivering the annual state of the union address.

In an election as close as this one, and with voter preferences reflecting a clear socio-economic divide, the results bear a message for the winner as much as for the loser. Having won the presidency with little more than a third of the vote, Calderon faces the urgent challenge of reaching out to those who supported his rivals, particularly Lopez Obrador. Early indications are that Calderon has heard this message, with his transition team emphasizing that anti-poverty programs will rank high among his first priorities in office. In the first year or two of his administration, he may need to be less ambitious in pushing some of the structural reforms on which he campaigned, such as controversial energy sector reforms, while he focuses on the pressing social issue of reducing the immense disparity between Mexico’s rich elite and its vast poor.

Calderon also will face the challenge, unknown by his PRI predecessors, of forging a working majority in Congress. With the PAN scoring just over 40 percent of the seats in each house, he will need to forge alliances with other congressional factions to pass his legislative agenda. The PRI legislative leadership appears disinclined to form an across-the-board coalition agreement with the PAN, even if it appears likely to cooperate on many specific issues. To the extent that many of the structural reforms proposed by Calderon during the campaign require constitutional amendments—and a two-thirds congressional majority—Calderon’s task in winning necessary congressional support will be complicated further.

Calderon’s tenure no doubt will provide Mexico with the opportunity to serve as a leader in regional politics. Already, he is planning to visit several countries in Latin America before he is sworn in. Additionally, his positions on many key issues will provide the United States and Mexico with an opportunity to advance our important bilateral agenda. We are hopeful that we will share the same close cooperation on law enforcement and security-related matters—where our two countries’ interests coincide entirely—as we had with the Fox administration. And our two governments will work closely and effectively to expand further our economic relationship, which already accounts for nearly one billion dollars in bilateral trade per day.

As Calderon enters office, he confronts no greater challenge than that posed by narcotics-related violence, both along the border and in many communities within Mexico. Having reached new levels of frequency and cruelty, such violence threatens not only the rule of law, but those basic human values our two countries hold dear. During the transition, Calderon made clear that he understands the significance of this challenge and is prepared to address it head-on. The stakes are high: unless such violence is brought under control, it will threaten President Calderon’s ability to advance his entire reform agenda.

Also, how the Mexican government chooses to work with the United States to deal with the challenge of border violence and border enforcement will have obvious consequences for the immigration debate in the United States. If we have a partner who is serious about helping us prevent illegal immigration and enforce our border, serious debate in the United States on comprehensive immigration reform might again be possible. 

As the immigration debate unfolds in the United States, our Mexican friends must not lose sight of the fact that unlike many other areas of cooperation, immigration reform requires legislative action, in which US domestic political considerations will necessarily play an important role. Also, attempts by the Mexican government to encourage immigration reform that includes increased legal guest worker mechanisms would be greatly assisted by a decrease in the rhetoric within Mexico that implies Mexicans have a “human right” to enter the United States illegally to work.

The Future?

Calderon’s narrow electoral victory provides a double-edged message. On the one hand, a narrow plurality of Mexicans—a majority if PRI voters are included—value Mexico’s stability and seek incremental reforms that do not threaten that stability. On the other hand, the PRD’s emergence as Mexico’s second political force reflects that many Mexicans are deeply dissatisfied with the status quo and disappointed with the inability of Mexico’s traditional parties to address effectively the issues of poverty and inequality. While Mexicans are a patient people, their patience is not inexhaustible.

Mexicans expect results and while President-elect Calderon clearly understands the sensitivity of the moment, he faces a challenging political climate. Unless he is successful in improving the lives of ordinary Mexicans, by the 2012 elections, their willingness to stay the course with the traditional parties may finally run out.

Issue Date


United States Ambassador to Mexico