A Reluctant Recognition
Standing alongside the likes of Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro, and Kim Jong-Un, Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador has remained one of a handful of current world leaders who continues to withhold their recognition of Joe Biden as President-Elect of the 2020 American elections. As late as November 25, the Mexican President, speaking shortly after China’s President Xi Jinping (who coincidentally congratulated Biden for his victory), reiterated his stance that it would be wrong to offer congratulations until the electoral process has been formally concluded. He once again defended his stance by referring to his own experiences during the 2006 Mexican Presidential Elections, which he continues to adamantly assert was rigged against him and plagued by mass voter fraud. This description is scarily similar to that of President Donald Trump’s assertation of mass voter fraud during the 2020 American Elections. With no one knowing for certain the events that will unfold between now and when the next American President is sworn in on January 20, it is perhaps beneficial to make a correlation between these two elections to gain insight into our precarious electoral future.
“For the good of all”
The 2006 Mexican Presidential Election, much like our own in 2020, was also marked by uncertainty in the days leading up to the election. While there was a total of five candidates, the real contenders were Andres Manuel López Obrador of the leftist Partido de la Revolución Democrática party and Felipe Calderón of the ruling conservative Partido Acción Nacional party. After a six-year presidency under PAN’s Vicente Fox, many Mexican voters had become disenfranchised with the party; So much so in fact Calderón did his utmost to distance himself from his predecessor, who he had served as energy secretary under. From the beginning, Obrador was favored to win the election, and with Calderón being the least known of the candidates at the start of the race, no one expected the last three polls, conducted eight days before the election, to suggest that López Obrador’s and Calderón’s shares of the vote would be well within the statistical margins of error. On July 2, 2006, the day of the election, came the shock: The official results showed that Calderón defeated López Obrador by fewer than 244,000 votes – a margin of 0.6 percent.
“We cannot accept these results”
What followed the July elections was a period of political turmoil. Obrador, upon hearing the results, is quoted as saying, “We cannot accept these results. We are going to ask for clarity. We are going to ask for a vote recount, polling place by polling place.” He and the PRD alleged that some polling stations had more votes than registered voters, and that Calderón’s ruling party had exceeded spending limits and that a software program was used to skew initial vote-count reports; All allegations that seemingly could come straight out of the 2020 Trump Campaign. Obrador refused to concede.
Obrador called for massive protests, claiming himself to be the “Legitimate President”, with his supporters blocking the capital Mexico City’s major avenue for weeks. As the presidential election must be certified by Mexico’s Federal Electoral Tribunal, Mexicans waited with great uncertainty to learn who their next president would be in the following two-month-long certification process. This uncertainty was exacerbated by rallies, hunger strikes, and demonstrations aimed at pressing the seven judges of the Tribunal to agree to Obrador’s demands for a total vote-by-vote recount. On September 5, two months after the election, the Tribunal came to a decision, acknowledging “significant electoral irregularities” and signaling out President Fox and Mexican corporate interests for engaging in practices that were, “unjust and a source of concern.” Nevertheless, the court refused to question the fundamental legitimacy of the election. Calderón would be the next President of Mexico.
The July 2006 election deeply polarized the Mexican electorate. Mass anger, frustration, and political polarization were all consequences of a badly mismanaged election. Interestingly enough though, the polarization of the electorate was regional. The northern industrial states of Mexico that benefited from NAFTA and other free trade reforms under Vicente Fox’s leadership were the very states that voted for Calderón, while the poor central and southern states of Mexico, which have been left out of the benefits of the country’s prosperity, voted overwhelming for Obrador. The maladies were deeply rooted in an economic system that left the majority of Mexicans outside the benefits of the country’s newly democratizing society, and as a result, serious social conflict became a significant threat as millions of people had very little to gain by respecting the existing political or economic rules of the game.
I think the United States has a lot to learn from Mexico’s 2006 election. Allegations of mass voter fraud during the election still persist fourteen years later in Mexican political society. After winning the 2018 Presidential election, Obrador is quoted as saying, “We did fear the possibility of fraud during these elections, but the victory was so overwhelming, the distance between the first and second place was so big, that the system couldn’t consolidate a fraud.”
The amount of polarization within American politics has left deep divisions and doubts placed upon the legitimacy and integrity of our elections, whether based on factual evidence or not. Over 73 million Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2020, and 70% of Republicans don’t believe the election to be “free and fair.” Given Trump voters aversion to talking to pollsters, it can be fair to assume this number might be higher. Furthermore, analysis of the 2020 election results indicate that the partisan divide between America’s cities and open spaces is greater than ever. Excluding counties that are 10% or more Hispanic that shifted right for reasons unrelated to density, voters in the least urbanized counties voted for Trump by a margin of 33 points in 2020, up from 32 points in 2016. Meanwhile, voters in the most urbanized counties—the top 20%—voted for Biden by a margin of 29 points, up from Clinton’s 25-point margin in 2016. This situation is very reminiscent of the electoral situation in Mexico in 2006, which at the time was considered “a model for other emerging democracies” due to its newly established electoral infrastructure.
Regardless of who is sworn into the office of the President on January 20, the United States will not be “united” for the foreseeable future if the 2006 Mexican election is a standard for comparison.