Learning from Mexico

On July 2, Mexico held a presidential election that triggered what has become a bitter political firefight. After conservative candidate Felipe Calderon was declared the winner by less than 1% of the vote, his populist rival, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, quickly claimed fraud. For the past two months, thousands of Lopez Obrador’s most fervent supporters have transformed the Zocalo, Mexico City’s central square, into a virtual sea of tents – the center of gravity of opposition to the official result.

On September 1, dozens of opposition lawmakers created a primetime spectacle inside Mexico’s parliament by occupying the speaker’s podium, thereby denying outgoing President Vicente Fox the chance to deliver his final state of the nation address in person. Four days later, Mexico highest electoral court ruled that Fox had improperly interfered in the election but unanimously reaffirmed Calderon’s victory. Lopez Obrador has vowed to obstruct Calderon’s presidency from the moment he takes office on December 1.

You learn a lot about a country’s underlying stability by how it responds to a crisis. Similar electoral conflicts unfolded in the United States in 2000 and in Ukraine in 2004. In the wake of fiercely contested presidential elections, large numbers of voters in each country questioned the legitimacy of the outcome. The nation’s highest courts were compelled to rule on demands for a ballot recount.

But US political and economic stability was never in doubt in 2000, because public confidence in the country’s governing institutions allowed them to resolve the conflict peacefully. These institutions proved far more powerful than the political personalities involved.