Recount the Votes — and Be Patient

By Jorge de los Santos. He is currently U.S.-Mexico affairs adviser to Andrés Manuel López Obrador. He is also director of the Pan-American initiative office at Arizona State University and special adviser to the university president (THE WASHINGTON POST, 27/07/06):

The 2000 U.S. presidential election was a bitter episode in American history. It was one of the closest elections ever, with 537 votes in the state of Florida separating the candidates. It took a month of court challenges and recounts before the election was finally certified.

After Election Day, several weeks of legal maneuvering by the Bush and Gore teams followed. Neither side was satisfied with the vote counts, and both crafted plans of action and created their own “recount commissions.” At the end, after hearing all the arguments, the courts ultimately ruled, clearing the way for a Bush presidency.

Independent studies by universities and news organizations concluded that the different methods of counting the votes yielded different results. For example, a lenient standard of counting the hanging chads gave the victory to George W. Bush, while a strict standard gave it to Al Gore. But the courts played the final part in the episode. They brought certainty and finality to the dispute.

Now Mexico has its own soap opera version of an election. After a nerve-racking election night, contradictory exit polls and preliminary recounts that went up and down like a roller coaster, the conservative candidate, Felipe Calderón, is holding a razor-thin lead over the left-leaning candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. With a margin of 200,000 votes separating the candidates, and allegations of serious irregularities, Mexico is still waiting for its new president.

This was a highly polarized campaign. Below-the-belt attacks and challenges were widespread. Companies, nonprofits and even local governments interfered and swayed public opinion. It was a take-no-prisoners battle for the presidency. In some cases, flat-out lies and off-color comparisons were so far from reality that the Mexican Electoral Institute resorted to outlawing some TV ads.

The problems in the election are ubiquitous. Charges of ballot stuffing, vote buying, misreported vote tallies and blatant support from elected officials raise serious concerns about the quality and, most important, the equality in this election. The good news for Mexico is that, as in the United States, there are courts that will bring closure to the election.

The Federal Electoral Tribunal in Mexico will decide on the validity of any allegations or irregularities. This court is the single institution with the authority to announce the winner of the election. It has experience with high-profile elections and difficult decisions and has even overturned the elections in two Mexican states. It will be up to the court to officially declare the winner.

A truly democratic electoral process is still a challenge in Mexico. López Obrador is leading peaceful civil resistance to appease the frustrations of the millions of people dissatisfied with the electoral process. These frustrations can also be alleviated by the court, through a new recount.

A full recount of the votes, and transparent legal proceedings, would be good for Mexico for several reasons. First, it would strengthen Mexico’s young democracy. Mexico has a long history of electoral fraud, and there are still sour memories of the 1988 election, in which left-leaning Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas was allegedly robbed of victory. A vote-by-vote count would ease these worries and bring credibility.

Second, it would make government more effective. Either Calderón or López Obrador will need to negotiate with Mexico’s deeply divided Congress to approve critical reforms. A genuine and lawfully recognized winner will be able to negotiate across party lines. Since none of the parties will be holding a majority in Congress, it will be impossible to govern without full authority.

Third, it will bring legitimacy to the winner of the election. Each one of the front-runners received only about one-third of the votes, and regardless of who wins the election, the victor will win with less than one percentage point difference. Approximately 65 percent of Mexicans will not have voted for the new president, whether it is Calderón or López Obrador. That is why the president will need as much clout as possible.

López Obrador has said that if he loses the recount, he will accept the results, though under protest, and will call off any demonstrations. He has also said that he will work over the next few years to create a civil organization that will promote a national democracy project.

But Mexicans still have a month and a half before they know the outcome of their election. In 2000 the United States also waited to find out who the winner was. Thankfully, Mexico has an advantage over the United States in its electoral process: enough time for legal challenges.

On Sept. 6, the Federal Electoral Tribunal will declare the winner. The winner takes office on Dec. 1, which means that he will have ample time to create a transition team, come up with a cabinet and get ready to tackle the business of running a nation. Mexico just needs a little bit of patience.