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The Mexican electoral cliffhanger part 2: To recount or not to recount - is there a question?

Written by Alina Rocha Menocal

Three weeks after the presidential elections held on 2 July, the situation in Mexico remains tense and volatile. The race was decided by the narrowest of margins. According to the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), Felipe Calderón of the Party of National Action (PAN) defeated Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) by 0.58 percentage points, or less than 250,000 votes in an election in which 42 million votes were cast. This result is in the process of being challenged in the courts -- and there will be no official winner until the Federal Electoral Tribunal (TRIFE), the country's highest electoral body, makes a ruling about the elections based on the complaints and accusations of electoral irregularities that have been lodged by different parties. The TRIFE has until 31 August to make its deliberations, and a president elect needs to be declared by 6 September.

At stake here is the issue of whether a vote by vote recount of all of the ballots (or even an annulment of the presidential elections) is warranted. Those opposed to a total recount argue that the votes have already been counted through a transparent process overseen by the IFE and led by almost one million citizens who were in charge of counting votes in polling stations across the country. To demand a total recount, the argument goes, is to put in doubt the work done by all these citizens and to delegitimise the IFE as an institution. At most, only a limited number of ballots (those that have been credibly contested) should be recounted, as a total recount is bound to create even more problems. Both the IFE and President Fox himself have sided with this camp. Fox has characterised those who question the results of the elections as 'renegades'.

My own view, however, is that there is no question as to whether there should be a total recount. Nothing short of a vote-by-vote recount will provide a lasting and sustainable solution to the current electoral impasse in Mexico. Aside from the fact that López Obrador (or any other citizen who should wish to do so) has a legal and institutional right to dispute the elections, and regardless of who prevails, a total recount seems to be necessary to establish beyond the shadow of a doubt who the legitimate winner of the elections is. The logistical complications that are likely to accompany a vote-by-vote recount process (there is no precedent of anything like this in Mexico) seem to be a risk well worth taking to avoid a deeper crisis of legitimacy later on.

The memory of the 1988 presidential elections - when the system (in)famously 'crashed' and the ballots were eventually burned - is still too raw. Mexico never managed to achieve closure on that episode. The situation in 2006 is undoubtedly different. On this occasion there has not been an overall systematic failure that could be compared to 1988, and the level of fraud that took place in 1988 was of a scale almost unimaginable today.

Nevertheless, while the 2006 elections themselves were clean and transparent in many ways, the process leading up to them offered numerous reminders of a more troubling political reality in Mexico. The campaign waged against López Obrador over the past two years by a constellation of business and political interests was remarkable in its tone and manipulation of popular fears. President Fox himself did not hesitate to use the powers and resources of the Executive to do everything possible to discredit López Obrador - including lending his office to the shameful charade of attempting to keep the leftist candidate off the presidential ballot last year over a minor legal issue. The IFE itself at times behaved in ways that were at best inept, and its president, Luis Carlos Ugalde, never quite managed to convince his critics of his alleged neutrality (he had been an activist within the once ruling Institutional Revolution Party, PRI, since his youth), or of his capacity to rise to the occasion in this electoral crisis.

Beyond all of this, to suggest the possibility of human error in tallying the votes in a race as close as this as not only plausible but rather likely is not to demean the work of the citizens who participated in counting the ballots, but rather to state the obvious. As if to underscore this very point, only last week the IFE itself took out ads in all major newspapers stating that, out of a sample of 2,780 electoral packages that were opened and recounted (as stipulated by the law) with the purpose of removing any doubts about the reliability of the results, 95 percent contained irregularities. Why the IFE chose to disclose that finding last week and not earlier is unclear - especially since the announcement came only after López Obrador organised a march calling for a recount that attracted 1.2 million people. (One is tempted to ask, would the IFE have provided this information if the mobilisation for a total recount had subsided?).

The Calderón camp has attempted to dismiss this finding by suggesting that in the recount of the 2,780 electoral packages, the benefited party was actually the PAN, accruing an additional 1,000 votes. This argument, however, seems to be beside the point. The issue is larger than the outcome of the elections. It is about the legitimacy and credibility of the process of getting to those results. Thus, the fact that a re-tallying of the sample packages favoured Calderón offers little solace and instead points to the fact that many other errors are likely to have been made elsewhere.

Those who argue against the recount seem to believe that López Obrador is the one who stands to benefit the most from that process, given that it could overturn the results of the elections. But in truth, Calderón should be the first person interested in a recount. Should he emerge victorious once again, he will be able to go about the hard task of governing Mexico with enhanced credibility and legitimacy. In addition, if the recount turns out in Calderón's favour, López Obrador would find it hard to continue to challenge the electoral results and would lose considerable popular support if he were to insist on pursuing a strategy that denies the legitimacy of the elections.

Much more than precedents or outcomes, what is at stake is the legitimacy and credibility of our incipient democratic institutions. If there is no vote-by-vote recount, the next president risks being haunted by the unfinished business of 2006 throughout his term in office and further alienating an already polarised citizenry. Aren't the stakes too high?

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