Mexico Votes for Stability

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Felipe Calderon, presidential candidate of the National Action Party (PAN) at his party headquarters in Mexico City on Thursday

Four days after the polls had closed, Mexican election authorities on Thursday evening finally declared Felipe Calderón the top vote-getter in the tightest presidential election in Mexico's history. But, like a hot jalapeño pepper on the tongue, the dispute over the results could linger a while longer than expected.

The official count shows Calderón, of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), on top by a mere 243,934 votes, only .58% ahead of the runner-up, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD). Calderón received 35.89% of the almost 42 million votes cast, to López Obrador's 35.31%. Still, López Obrador says he's not buying the official tally. Before Mexico's electoral tribunal definitively declares Calderón the winner early next week, López Obrador is calling on his supporters to gather by the tens of thousands on Saturday in Mexico City's main square, the Zócalo, to challenge what he called the election's "many irregularities." While demanding that officials conduct a new vote-by-vote count, López Obrador insisted that "we can't accept or recognize these results."

By law, López Obrador and the PRD can take their challenge to the tribunal before it anoints Calderón the victor. But unless they present concrete proof of 244,000 votes' worth of errors or fraud, it's doubtful Calderón's victory will be reversed before the Dec. 1 inauguration. At this point, said an election observer from the European Union, "any other decision is a fairy tale."

For his part, Calderón congratulated Mexicans on their almost 60% voter turnout last Sunday — a peaceful, fraud-free process that most agree was a credit to Mexico's fledgling democracy — and he promised a "government of coalition and unity" among the PAN, PRD and the third-place finisher, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). (The PRI had ruled Mexico in dictatorial fashion from 1929 to 2000, when it was finally toppled by current President Vicente Fox of the PAN.) A spirit of coalition may be Calderón's only choice: Sunday's election divided the Mexican Congress among the three parties, emphasizing the remarkably limp mandate the new President can look forward to — and which the uninspiring Calderón may have serious difficulties overcoming. Mexican political experts say the whole experience may prod the nation to build a run-off into future presidential elections.

The results also point up a Mexico as sharply split as the U.S. looked after its hotly contested election of 2000. Mexico's political fault line runs between its relatively affluent, technological north (where Calderón won 16 states) and its poor, backward south (where López Obrador took the other 16, including Mexico City). Half of Mexico's 106 million people live in poverty, yet the country also has 10 billionaires; and that glaring disparity was a big reason why the issue of economic reform dominated the campaign. Calderón, a Harvard-educated technocrat and former Energy Secretary, pledged to stay Mexico's market-oriented path of modest but steady economic growth. López Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City, insisted that the status quo simply coddles the nation's entrenched business monopolies, forcing hundreds of thousands of desperate Mexicans to migrate illegally to the U.S. each year in search of real jobs.

López Obrador had played that populist card to a commanding lead in voter polls early in the campaign; but in the end Mexicans, a largely conservative electorate, opted for continuity. Some analysts believe López Obrador's strong showing could nudge Calderón toward a more liberal economic agenda, especially when it comes to curbing the enormous tax and regulatory privileges enjoyed by Mexican big business, advantages that all but freeze out smaller businesses that employ most of Mexico's workforce. Others, however, suggest Calderón is too beholden to those corporate interests to do much to improve conditions for Mexico's workers — and hence reduce illegal migration. One reform Calderón may pursue is greater foreign investment in Mexico's dominant but sluggish oil industry.

Calderón's campaign also preached stronger ties to the U.S. — but that hardly means he'll be able to escape the anti-immigration fervor gripping Mexico's northern neighbor. Calderón has said he disagrees with Americans' calls for a border wall to keep out more Mexican migrants, and he told the Associated Press on Thursday that while he wants a "constructive relationship" with the U.S., he doesn't want to have to "bow my head and lower my eyes to the Americans."

López Obrador's critics, meanwhile, chided him for urging his backers to take to the streets and risk possible unrest or violence. But aides close to the fiery runner-up say that while he doesn't want to stoke unrest, he has little choice but to keep fighting for his PRD loyalists, given the party's history: in 1988 its candidate lost to the PRI due to what most Mexicans now acknowledge was massive computer vote fraud. Many PRD-istas believe that the powerful economic interests López Obrador promised to challenge this time around banded together, especially with mudslinging campaign ads, to thwart his election.

Still, López Obrador made plenty of his own mistakes on the stump — such as arrogantly refusing to take part in the first presidential debate this past spring. But the PRD can take heart that this election raised it to a national power instead of a largely Mexico City-centered party. And if there was nervousness about possible unrest, the Mexican stock market, the Bolsa, didn't seem to notice. As soon as Calderón was officially declared the winner, it rose 2.7% — a fitting beginning for the Calderón era.

With reporting by Dolly Mascarenas/Mexico City