It seemed hardly surprising, Monday, that the most hotly contested presidential election in Mexico's history has flamed into a crisis unlikely to be resolved before week's end, if then. With 96% of polling stations reporting after Sunday's balloting, fewer than 400,000 votes (about 1% of the total) separate the leader, Felipe Calderón of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD). Federal election authorities call that margin too thin to announce a winner before a more detailed count can be completed but both Calderón and López Obrador wasted no time last night declaring victory. "We won the election without a doubt," Calderón told his supporters near midnight, while López Obrador went so far as to assure backers that his camp's own vote tallies indicated a PRD "triumph" that was "irreversible."
The candidates' chest-thumping could portend a protracted legal battle like the one north of the border in 2000 or even more disruptive political unrest once officials do report a winner. But the electoral crisis also drives home the deep conflict over Mexico's economic future, which had been the most passionate issue of the campaign. Mexico, which until 2000 had lived for the better part of a century under one-party rule, is a traditionally conservative country. The Harvard-educated Calderón, 43, who appears to have garnered about 36% of the vote, campaigned on promises to stay the course of Mexico's modest market-driven economic growth. But López Obrador, 52, the former mayor of Mexico City, narrowly led voter polls going into last weekend's election because he insisted that the nation's economic gains have only served large monopolies, and the grinding poverty that afflicts half of Mexicans forces them to cross illegally into the U.S. in search of real jobs.
For many in the López Obrador camp, the delay brings back the specter of the 1988 presidential election, when the candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was declared the winner over the PRD candidate after a suspicious "breakdown" of vote-tallying computers. Most Mexicans today believe a massive fraud was committed that year, and documents recently revealed largely bear that out. So, because López Obrador's campaign challenged powerful economic interests and because Calderón's campaign painted López Obrador as the like of the hemisphere's left-wing bogeyman, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez PRD loyalists may cry fraud if their man is declared the loser.
But those same supporters can also thank López Obrador's own authoritarian bent for helping to whittle away the lead he enjoyed during the campaign. Though he is hardly as radical as Chavez as even Wall Street bigshots concede he often sounded sufficiently messianic and self-righteous on the stump to alienate swing voters located somewhere between the poor he champions and the middle-class. Calderón took his own big hit with voters last month when it was revealed that while he was Energy Secretary, his brother-in-law received a piñata of lucrative, energy-related federal contracts.
Critics, especially in the PRD, insist that Mexican election officials could have resolved the count as early as Monday morning without throwing the nation and the financial markets into days of uncertainty. But those authorities appear more overwhelmed than crooked. Mexico is still a fledgling democracy at best. And whoever does come out the winner this week will have nothing even remotely resembling a mandate. With the Congress looking more or less evenly divided between the PAN, PRD and PRI, turning any presidential agenda into law will be as precarious as a Mexican migrant's trek through the Arizona desert. Which means the political stalemate is likely to continue south of the border, even after the electoral deadlock is resolved.