On the night of 2 July 2000, Mexico achieved, in less than 15 minutes, one of the most peaceful, transparent and civilised transitions to democracy in modern history. At 11 p.m. José Woldenberg, the head of the Federal Electoral Institute, announced on Mexican television that Vicente Fox had defeated his opponent from the PRI by a wide margin – 8 per cent – and that the elections had been clean and orderly. Minutes later, President Ernesto Zedillo came on television to congratulate Fox and to concede defeat on behalf of the PRI. The final television address came from the losing PRI candidate, who appeared shocked and incredulous. The PRI – the Institutional Revolutionary Party – had been in power since 1929.
Everyone I knew was glued to the TV and when the news came, people shouted, hugged each other, shed tears of joy. Thousands took to the streets. At the Angel of Independence, the symbolic centre of Mexico City, Fox joined the revellers and was met with music, cheers and the hooting of car horns – an expression of support normally reserved for the Mexican soccer team. ‘No nos falles,’ they shouted: ‘Don’t let us down.’
Six years later, the atmosphere could not have been more different. The 2006 elections were won by Felipe Calderón, a technocrat from the PAN, the right of centre party Fox had represented, but by a razor-thin margin: 243,000 votes out of 41 million cast, or 0.6 per cent. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose campaign promise had been to ‘put Mexico’s poor first’, refused to concede defeat and insisted that the election had been rigged. His sympathisers launched massive protests, paralysing Mexico City’s main thoroughfare for more than six weeks; Mexico’s highest electoral court confirmed Calderón’s victory; lawmakers from López Obrador’s party, the PRD, prevented Fox from giving his final state of the union address to Congress; López Obrador declared himself the legitimate president in an open-air ceremony in Mexico City’s main square before hundreds of thousands of supporters. The scenarios that pessimists had predicted in 2000 materialised six years later. How did this come about? How did Mexico get from the orderly elections of 2000 to a situation that threatened to leave the country with two rival presidents?
In January 2006, seven months before the election, López Obrador appeared to be well ahead in the race. He had been mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005; he had given out monthly stipends of $60 to elderly residents, boosted social programmes, invited writers and intellectuals to join his administration, and constructed a web of futuristic elevated highways above the capital’s eternally clogged expressways – all while balancing the city’s budget. But what made him most popular was his open defiance of Fox, whom he portrayed as a weak leader, out of touch with the country’s social problems and propped up by big business. López Obrador spoke in simple, down-to-earth terms; he talked about the need to ‘put the poor first, for the good of all’, and endlessly recited alarming statistics: half of all Mexicans live in poverty; millions survive on $2 a day. When Fox criticised his campaign, López Obrador called the president a chacalaca – a noisy, twittering bird found in the jungles of southern Mexico.
Calderón, by contrast, was completely unknown to most voters and had little experience as a public servant; he was an uncharismatic technocrat whose speeches, which focused on interest rates and economic growth, found little resonance with the masses. In the beginning, he didn’t even have the support of Fox, who initially favoured the candidacy of another member of the PAN. And, after seven decades of a government that was officially secular, many voters were suspicious of Calderón’s ties to the Church: there were rumours that he was a supporter of Opus Dei and Provida, an anti-abortion group, and many feared he would use the presidency to roll back rights recently obtained by women and sexual minorities, including the legalisation of same-sex unions.