The election moves into the streets – and the U.S. needs to be paying attention
MEXICO CITY (July 11th) -- A full week after the most viciously contested presidential election in its modern history, a Florida-sized fraud looms over the Mexican landscape and the nation has been divided almost exactly in half along political, economic, geographical and racial lines.
Mexico has always been two lands -- "Illusionary Mexico" and "Profound Mexico" is how sociologist Guillermo Bonfils described the great divide between rich and poor. But now, should it be allowed to stand, right-winger Felipe Calderon's severely questioned 243,000 vote victory over left-wing populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) will split the country exactly in half between the industrial north and the impoverished, highly indigenous south with each winning 16 states -- although the southern states won by Lopez Obrador, who also won Mexico City by a million votes, constitute 54% of the population.
Moreover, the disputed election pits an indignant Indian and mestizo underclass that believes AMLO was swindled out of the presidency by electoral fraud against a wealthy white conservative minority that controls the nation's media, its banks, and apparently, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), Mexico's maximum electoral authorities. Lopez Obrador charges the IFE and its president Luis Carlos Ugalde with orchestrating Calderon's uncertain triumph.
At a raucous July 8th rally that put a half million supporters in Mexico City's vast Zocalo plaza, the political heart of the nation, Lopez Obrador called upon his people to demand a complete vote by vote recount of the results. Speaking from a flatbed truck set up in front of the National Palace, the official seat of the Mexican government, the fiery, former Mexico City mayor characterized President Vicente Fox as "a traitor to democracy" and for the first time at a public meeting uttered the word "fraud," accusing the IFE of rigging the election to favor his opponent.
Indeed, fraud was the central motif of the mammoth meeting. Large photos of IFE president Luis Carlos Ugalde slugged "Wanted for Electoral Fraud" were slapped up on central city walls and tens of thousands of protestors waved home-made signs dissing the IFE official with such colorful epithets as "No To Your Fucking Fraud!" Throughout the rally, (which was billed as a "first informative assembly"), the huge throng repeatedly drowned out Lopez Obrador's pronouncements with thunderous chants of "Fraude Electoral!" At times, AMLO seemed on the verge of tears at the outpouring of support from the sea of brown faces that pressed in around the speakers' platform.
The gathering in the Zocalo signaled the kick-off to what is sometimes called "the second election in the street," a mass effort to pressure electoral officials into a ballot-by-ballot recount that Lopez Obrador is convinced will show that he was the winner July 2nd. The IFE has resolutely resisted such a recount.
AMLO, a gifted leader of street protest, is always at the top of his game when he is seen as an underdog battling the rich and powerful, and the next days will be heady ones here. This Wednesday (June 12th), the left leader is calling upon supporters in all 300 electoral districts across Mexico to initiate a national "exodus" for democracy that will converge upon the capital on Sunday, July 16th for a mega-march that may well turn out to be the largest political demonstration in the nation's history. Indeed, AMLO already set that mark in April 2005 when 1.2 million citizens surged through Mexico City to protest Fox's efforts to bar the leftist from the ballot; the president dropped his vendetta three days after the march.
But Lopez Obrador and his Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) will not just do battle in the streets. Evidence of wide-spread ballot box manipulation in a third of the 130,000 polling places (including ballot-stuffing and duplicate numbers in thousands of them), malfeasance in the reporting of district totals to the IFE, inexplicable cybernetic confabulations in both the preliminary count or PREP (3,000,000 mostly AMLO votes were removed) and the final tabulation in the districts, are being presented to the nation's top electoral tribunal (code-named the TRIFE) by Lopez Obrador's battery of attorneys in an effort to persuade the seven justices that a hand recount is the only way to determine who will be the next president of Mexico. Such recounts have recently been conducted in close elections in Germany, Italy, and Costa Rica (as well as in Florida 2000 until ordered shut down by the U.S. Supreme Court).
Felipe Calderon and the PAN and Ugalde's IFE consider AMLO's demands to open the ballot boxes an "insult" to the "hundreds of thousands of citizens" who were responsible for carrying out the election. "The votes have already been counted - on Election Day" Ugalde upbraids Lopez Obrador.
The TRIFE is an autonomous judicial body with powers to annul the presidential election. It has annulled gubernatorial elections in Tabasco (AMLO's home state) and Colima and invalidated results in entire districts because of electoral flimflam in recent years. Lopez Obrador and the PRD have also petitioned Mexico's Supreme Court to invalidate the election because of Vicente Fox's apparently unconstitutional meddling on behalf of Calderon, and this reporter has learned that AMLO is considering calling upon all PRD elected officials not to take office December 1st if the ballots are not recounted, a strategy that could trigger a constitutional crisis.
Despite the uncertainty about who won the July 2nd election, the White House and Ambassador Tony Garza, a Bush crony, have been quick to congratulate Felipe Calderon for whom they exhibited an undisguised predilection during the campaigns. President Bush actually called the right-winger from Air Force One, and Garza has been lavish in his praise of the much-questioned performance of the IFE as proof of "a maturing Mexican democracy."
The U.S. embassy has a track record of intervening in Mexico's presidential selection. Ronald Reagan recognized Carlos Salinas as the winner of the stolen 1988 election within 96 hours of the larceny. In 1911, U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson signed off on the assassination of Mexico's first democratically elected president Francisco Madero, to whom Lopez Obrador has often compared himself.
Most of the U.S. Big Press has followed in lockstep with the White House. The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Washington Post all expressed editorial satisfaction at Calderon's coronation based on the results of the admittedly manipulated preliminary count. The New York Times, however, which 18 years ago, after free-marketeer Carlos Salinas stole the presidency from leftist Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, called that tormented proceedings "the cleanest election in Mexican history," this time around was more cautious, urging a ballot-by-ballot recount.
As tens of thousands of AMLO's supporters -- "the people the color of the earth" Subcomandante Marcos names them -- march across the Mexican landscape on their way up to the capital to demand electoral justice, invoking scenes of the great movement of "los de abajo" (those from down below) during Mexico's monumental 1910-1919 revolution, the country holds it breath.
In Mexico, the past has equal value with the present and the memory of what came before can sometimes be what comes next. T
hese are history-making moments south of the Rio Bravo. North Americans need to pay attention.
A shortened version of this piece appeared on the Nation.com. John Ross's "Making Another World Possible: Zapatista Chronicles 2000-2006" will be published this October by Nation Books.