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.
In April 2005, before the race began in earnest, López Obrador’s enemies had tried to prosecute him on the grounds that the city government had built an access road to a hospital without the proper permits. The move was seen as a desperate attempt on the part of Fox and the PAN to prevent the mayor from running for president. The ‘desafuero’, as the episode was called, turned out to be the perfect way to kick-start López Obrador’s campaign. During his years as mayor, López Obrador arrived in his office at six in the morning every day and called a press conference half an hour later, to the dismay of journalists: now he started even earlier, leaving the city before dawn in an unarmoured truck headed for distant villages and forgotten towns. He told an interviewer that while his rival’s campaign was based around media appearances, he planned to visit each of the 32 states and travel to the poorest regions – especially to villages that had never been visited by a presidential candidate or a politician.
But the tide soon began to turn: Calderón hired a team of political consultants who advised him to launch a campaign portraying López Obrador as a threat to the country’s stability. If elected, the argument went, he would derail the economy, as Chávez had done in Venezuela, alienate foreign investors and plunge the country into recession and disarray. A series of radio and television ads were designed, one of which began by showing a brick wall collapsing. ‘Unemployment, devaluations, rampant crime, instability, chaos’: this was what the country could expect if López Obrador was elected. The man, the ads claimed, was ‘a danger to Mexico’. A friend of mine who voted for López Obrador told me that one day, watching television, his six-year-old daughter asked him why López Obrador wanted to take their house away. This threat struck a sensitive spot: many Mexicans had lost their homes in the 1994 peso crisis. Another ad showed one of López Obrador’s close associates, who had recently been charged with taking bribes, stuffing his pockets with cash, while a voiceover described the mayor’s office as a hotbed of corruption and illicit deals.
The ads worked: López Obrador’s lead in the polls dropped to single figures. In a television interview, he claimed that he was communicating directly with the people, combing the country and speaking in person to northern cattle farmers, southern campesinos and urban factory-workers, whereas Calderón just talked to the media and broadcast hundreds of ads every day. He told an American journalist that he would respond to the smear campaign with ‘peace and love’. Meanwhile, his team launched a negative campaign of its own. The film-maker Luis Mandoki contrived an ad showing footage of Nazi rallies followed by a list of dictators who had described their enemies as ‘dangerous’: ‘Jews are a danger to Germany: Hitler’; ‘The Republic is a danger to Spain: Franco’; ‘Trotsky is a danger to the Soviet Union: Stalin’; ‘Allende is a danger to Chile: Pinochet’; and finally, ‘López Obrador is a danger to Mexico: Calderón.’
Calderón’s advisers were more successful at getting their message across than López Obrador’s, however, and the gap between the two candidates continued to close. (Although López Obrador claimed that his rival, backed by big business, had much more money to spend on ads, the IFE’s statistics show that the two candidates aired roughly the same number.) In April, López Obrador announced that he would not take part in the scheduled American-style candidates’ debate: he preferred to address the voters directly. During a televised interview with one political commentator, he refused to take part in a general knowledge quiz which all the other candidates had agreed to attempt, and which included questions like ‘What is the capital of Belize?’, ‘What is the price of a subway ticket in Mexico?’ and ‘What is the value of pi?’ Mexicans got to see Calderón give all the right answers, but not López Obrador. ‘Ask me anything about my campaign, about my handling of the city government,’ he told the interviewer, ‘but I won’t take part in your quiz.’
López Obrador’s absence from the first presidential debate – there was a second one in early summer – was a turning point in the campaign. For more than an hour, Mexicans watched Calderón defending his proposals against the PRI candidate, Roberto Madrazo, while López Obrador’s podium stood empty. Madrazo performed so poorly that his chances of winning ended there and then, while Calderón came across as a level-headed, intelligent man with a long list of proposals (buying technology from foreign oil companies, for instance, to modernise the state-owned Pemex).
Then López Obrador made another strategic mistake: he responded to questions about his standing by attacking both the polls and the media. Television, he said, was controlled by the country’s oligarchs (the two main television stations, Televisa and TV Azteca, are owned by two of Mexico’s richest businessmen), and the polls were unreliable propaganda tools financed by the PAN (not true). He portrayed himself as a victim of a powerful alliance that included the president, the country’s oligarchy and the media. Calderón’s supporters argued that López Obrador was showing his true colours: he was a stubborn, inflexible and paranoid man who could deal with his falling popularity only by claiming foul play. López Obrador insisted that the PAN’s attack ads were libellous and a violation of his human rights, and went to court to have them taken off the air.
Election day finally arrived on 2 July and the IFE said it would broadcast preliminary results later that night. At 11 p.m. the IFE’s president announced that the vote was too close to call. In 2000 all sides had waited until the official IFE statement before making speeches: this time both López Obrador and Calderón immediately claimed victory. Four days later election officials finally announced that Calderón had won. López Obrador would not concede defeat, and filed a complaint with Mexico’s highest electoral court asking for a complete recount. The court ordered a partial recount and set a 6 September deadline to announce its final ruling.
Meanwhile, López Obrador launched a series of rallies culminating in a massive blockade of Reforma, one of Mexico City’s main avenues. The plantón, as the blockade became known, was part street fair, part political rally, part open platform for poor people from all around the country to express their discontent with the government and its handling of the election. The blockade lasted almost six weeks, and featured daily speeches by López Obrador as well as concerts, poetry readings, even painting workshops.
The novelist Elena Poniatowska, who has been writing about Mexico’s social problems since the 1960s and played a prominent role in the López Obrador campaign, spoke enthusiastically of the plantón: ‘Every day there were cultural events that people took very seriously. Paco Ignacio Taibo launched his book on Pancho Villa next to the Juárez monument, on the Alameda Park, and there were hundreds of people there – humble people, nacos, as they are usually called. And Taibo sold 450 copies of his book. I saw women reading García Márquez, I heard children saying: “I had never seen a violin recital.”’ The plantón was a cultural event, one that expanded the meaning of ‘popular culture’.
Others saw the plantón as ‘an excellent strategy to avoid violence’. ‘People were so angry, so frustrated, that a violent outburst was imminent, and the plantón defused this threat,’ another eyewitness reported. ‘I even met some people who had come to Mexico City from the countryside determined to kill Calderón.’ But there were complaints too. ‘Shutting down Reforma for six weeks actually harmed many ordinary citizens who had voted for him,’ the novelist Juan Villoro told me. Many people couldn’t get to their jobs, sick people couldn’t see their doctors or go to hospital. And López Obrador called for the plantón in early August – a full month before the electoral court was to rule on the elections.’
In the last days of August, when the electoral court was working through the partial recount, López Obrador, armed with videos showing ballot stuffing and other forms of tampering, again demanded a complete recount. The tribunal ruled that the partial recount had not revealed any irregularities, and ratified Calderón’s victory. More protests followed, culminating on 20 November, the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, with a massive rally in Mexico City’s main square. Standing before a huge crowd of supporters, López Obrador declared himself the ‘legitimate president’ of Mexico and spoke again of a vast conspiracy against him involving the media, the country’s oligarchs, the president, the IFE, the courts, and those writers and intellectuals who had begun to question his tactics.
‘López Obrador,’ Villoro said, ‘made a terrible mistake by insisting on a fraud he cannot prove.’ ‘All of the evidence he submitted to the courts turned out to be bogus. And he made an even graver error by declaring himself president. The “legitimate presidency” was decided at a rally in which hundreds of thousands of people raised their hands – an act that excluded the vast majority of the 15 million Mexicans who voted for him, who voted for a specific presidential project and not for the bizarre antics that came afterwards.’ Villoro has been active on the left since the 1970s, first as a militant in the Workers’ Party – a moderate organisation that sought to present an alternative to hardline Marxism – and then, since 1988, as a member of the PRD. ‘For the first time in history the left could expect to win the presidency,’ Villoro told me. ‘One of my projects was to convince a broad group of constituents to vote for López Obrador: ecologists, gay rights activists, feminists and indigenous communities. I saw this not only as a way of diversifying the PRD, but also as a way of establishing counterweights within the party so that we wouldn’t be handing López Obrador a blank cheque.’
‘In the early stages of the campaign,’ Villoro continued, ‘López Obrador sent signals that he supported this kind of plurality. He said that his cabinet would include some very well respected intellectuals and public figures, but even then some writers thought that López Obrador behaved at times like a caudillo. They had a point: López Obrador was suspicious of political analysts and of any intellectual who criticised him. He didn’t like to hear his supporters disagree with him on anything.’
Carlos Fuentes, the country’s most famous novelist, was another early supporter who quickly distanced himself. Writing in Le Monde in October, Fuentes warned that López Obrador’s actions after the elections were a threat to Mexico’s young democracy. ‘A candidate from López Obrador’s party won the race for mayor of Mexico City, with over 75 per cent of the vote. And never had a party on the left won so many seats in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. When López Obrador rejects the election results and cries out “To hell with institutions,” he condemns a political democracy that his own party helped to build.’
Even harsher criticism has come from Letras Libres, a monthly magazine edited by the conservative historian Enrique Krauze, which has the largest circulation in Mexico. In an article in June 2006, Krauze called López Obrador a ‘tropical messiah’, criticised him for being uninterested in the rest of the world – López Obrador proudly admits that he does not have a passport – and claimed that he feels uncomfortable even in Mexico City, which is far from his home state of Tabasco. López Obrador often invokes the 19th-century liberal president Benito Juárez as his political model, but Krauze finds that his ideological position is much closer to a long line of autocratic political figures from Tabasco.
Tensions mounted in the days leading up to 1 December, when Calderón was scheduled to assume office. On 30 November, PAN senators took over the dais in Congress, where the president was to be sworn in, worried that their PRD colleagues might derail the ceremony. The stand-off degenerated into a fistfight, and lawmakers from both parties spent the night on the floor of the house in sleeping-bags. The next day, Calderón was sworn in as president. His brief appearance in Congress – where he was heckled by the PRD and cheered by his own party – was followed by a longer ceremony at the National Auditorium on Chapultepec Park, next to the headquarters of the Mexican Army. At the same time, López Obrador led several thousand of his own supporters on a march towards the auditorium. López Obrador, it seemed, was playing with fire, on the way to a head-on confrontation with the army that might detonate a civil war. But he stopped the march before reaching the auditorium. ‘We will not fall prey to their provocations,’ he told his followers.
Since then, López Obrador has gone back to doing what he does best: organising rallies and denouncing his enemies. At a recent event in northern Mexico, he called the media ‘corrupt’ and ‘lieutenants of the right’, and lambasted the newspaper Reforma as ‘the PAN’s official bulletin’. There are those who think that López Obrador’s shadow presidency is a good idea, that, in the words of a British expatriate, ‘it can serve as a counterweight to Calderón and his ministers, and knowing that someone is trailing them might push them to reform the system. But I doubt that it can last six years. What will last, however, is the PRD majority in Congress. The PRD is now the second force in the Senate, and Calderón will have to work and negotiate with its members.’
Meanwhile, in a politically shrewd move, Calderón announced that he would cut his own salary by 10 per cent, and apply the same reduction to all the secretaries, undersecretaries and chiefs of staff in his administration. He has also embraced, at least rhetorically, the austere policies of Benito Juárez (López Obrador immediately denounced Calderón’s programme as a pale copy of his own). Perhaps some of López Obrador’s social projects will be implemented by a president from the right. If this turns out to be the case, he will have to be given credit for making so much noise that his ideas could no longer be ignored by the opposition.