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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Mexican Presidential Elections at a Cliff Hanger

Written by Alina Rocha Menocal

Last night at 11 o’clock, the Instituto Federal Electoral (IFE), the Mexican federal institute in charge of elections, announced that the presidential election that took place yesterday was too close to call. Results will have to wait until this coming Wednesday, 5 July.

As predicted in numerous polls over the past few weeks and months, the race between Felipe Calderón of the right-leaning PAN and Andrés Manuelópez Obrador of the left-leaning PRD/Coalición por el Bien de Todos is at dead heat, with Roberto Madrazo of the PRI trailing behind.

The good news seems to be that at least voters have rejected a return of the PRI to the presidency, the party that ruled Mexico without interruption from 1929 to 2000, when Vicente Fox of the PAN became president. Madrazo is a true PRI ‘dinosaur’ who represents the most unreformed, authoritarian, and atavistic current within his party, and in that respect it is a relief that Mexicans in their majority have turned their backs against what he represents.

The not so good news, however, is that this impasse reflects how deeply disillusioned and divided Mexicans are about their political system and the (non)choices it offers. When Fox was elected in 2000, voters may have voted strategically for the candidate most likely to defeat the PRI, but there was a feeling of jubilation and boundless optimism in the air when the President-elect declared victory amid a cheering crowd of thousands in the centre of Mexico City and said “Ya Ganamos!”. Six years later, after the Fox administration failed to deliver on many of its promises and managed to get involved in practices that at best called into question the independence, neutrality, and transparency of the Executive (such as President Fox supporting his wife’s ambition to become President), the situation is very different.

This time around, the mood appears to be more sullen. As voters cast their ballots less for the candidate they thought would be best for Mexico and more for the one they thought would be “menos peor” (least bad), there is a palpable sense of disappointment and uncertainty about the future of Mexico. What is most striking perhaps is the climate of fear and character assassination that dominated this electoral process. There seemed to be little emphasis on policy proposals and ideas about how to carry out difficult but necessary reforms and about how to address ongoing problems than on personal accusations of corruption and misbehaviour.

The attacks on López Obrador were particularly vicious – with dire warnings from the business community, intellectuals, and even the government itself that if the left-leaning candidate were to win the elections Mexico would descend into some kind of populist chaos. But regardless of what one may think of López Obrador (he may a Lula or a Chávez, or frankly, neither), it would be good to keep things in perspective. López Obrador was mayor of Mexico City – a city of almost 20 million people – for five years, and, while the city has a lot of problems, it is fair to say that he did no worse than his predecessors, and in many aspects has actually done much better. In this respect, Fox's use of the Executive to back up Calderón and discredit López Obrador has been shameful.

In the end, what Mexico seems to be lacking is mature responsible leaders who have a vision for Mexico. I would much rather have the three candidates battle each other in the field of facts and ideas than on the basis of doomsday scenarios – but alas that was not meant to be.

The next few days will be particularly tense for Mexico. Let us hope that the IFE can rise to what is surely the biggest challenge it has had to confront in its institutional history and ensure that all votes are counted fairly. Candidates, for their part, will also need to act responsibly and accept those results. But with both Calderón and López Obrador already proclaiming themselves the winners, that may be more easily said than done.

For more, see ODI's Latin American and Caribbean Blog