Guys, I know that you're all busy looking at Iraq and whatever Cheney is dreaming up this week to finally get rid of the Bill of Rights. But if could draw your attention South of the Border for a few minutes? I got a tale to tell you.
We Mexican voters thought we've had seen it all after 70 years of one-party-rule: voting fraud on a massive scale, presidential front-runners killed live on national TV, nuclear-scale economic meltdowns every six years... But having an undecided national presidential election so sharply divided with less than a 1% point difference between both main contenders? We still can't get over the shock.
To the right we have conservative National Action Party (PAN) technocrat Felipe Calderón Hinojosa. To what passes here as left, you'll find populist firebrand Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD). Trapped in the middle we have a whole country that will have to hold its breath for three days until the Federal Electoral Institute announces a winner, and then go through the loser's expected backlash.
Mexico, cleaning up its sordid electoral history, has spent billions of dollars setting up a very impressive and straight-forward popular vote process over the last twelve years. Six years ago, this produced the unquestionable victory of PAN's Vicente Fox and the end of the National Revolutionary Party's (PRI) 70 year grip on power, which was a kind of soviet-style nomenclature. The other 2000 election big winner was López Obrador, a former PRI charter member, who became mayor of Mexico City and immediately obtained a head start for the 2006 presidential race. We voters thought that this was the long-awaited consolidation of democracy in our country.
Early on, López Obrador masterfully took advantage of Fox's huge political inexperience and blunders. Any trouble our goofball president got in, it was easily and safely exploited in daily press conferences at the break of dawn by López Obrador, and it didn't hurt to have all of the national media pointing its cameras and microphones at him in the morning newscasts. The mayor quickly became the most recognizable politician in the country, and was heavily resented by Fox and his party.
Then things got ugly: in a bid to hurt López Obrador's popularity, Fox and his party accused him of disregarding several rulings against high-profile works in the city and started federal investigations to look into it. And things got even worse: in a scandal for the history books, a corrupt contractor got in videotape several of López Obrador's top aides in compromising spots, including the city's Finance Minister betting heavily at Las Vegas' Bellaggio and the mayor's former personal aide stuffing suitcases full of greenbacks (he even put the rubber bands that held the wads of money into his pockets) as “campaign contributions” from the contractor to “help the cause”.
Any other politician would have imploded after this. López Obrador conjured up a defense strategy blaming all of his woes on his political enemies, which included Fox, former president (and Mexico 's favorite villain and resident Chupacabra) Carlos Salinas, and a faceless right wing. This was famously known as the Compló strategy, since López Obrador thick southern-state Tabasco accent prevented him of saying Complot with a hard t at the end. Amazingly, it worked wonders (and the media had a big fiesta). The mayor became more popular than The Beatles and started likening himself with Jesus.
While all this was happening, Fox's then obscure Energy Minister, Felipe Calderón, was gearing up for his own presidential bid. Big Problema, since acting bureaucrats are forbidden to do this, Fox had to very publicly fire him, to which Calderón very publicly replied: ‘I quit!'
This endeared Calderón to the conservative PAN's political base, which was very disillusioned by the scarce results and almost daily fumbles of president Fox. After a grueling primary campaign, maverick (if you can call an accountant that) Calderón ended up handily beating Santiago Creel, Fox's powerful Interior Minister and protégé.
As the campaigns kicked into gear, López Obrador, still very full of himself, disdained appearing on the first televised presidential debate, implying that his contenders were unworthy to even appear next to him. His strategist thought this was a great idea, but it became a great problema. Calderón easily won the debate against a weakened PRI leader Roberto Madrazo.
The stage was set for the main race: popular favorite López Obrador head-to-head against black horse Calderón, who was quickly catching up in the polls. So fast indeed that López Obrador loudly criticized many polls that showed that he was losing his 10-point lead and even questioned the Federal Electoral Institute, claiming that the independent organization was gearing up for a massive fraud come election day.
We know that you are used to seeing candidates be swift-boated into oblivion, smearing opponents left and right is part of the game after all. We've never seen such vitrol before until this campaign came crashing on our heads. Corruption scandals exploded, accusations were leveled daily, and TV spots showed hardened criminals wet themselves in fear of a candidate's promise. American-style democracy had finally arrived!
And this takes to where we are right now: both candidates ARE tied, with only 400,000 votes separating winner from loser as of this morning. We're waking in total uncertainty about Mexico 's future and the consequences of having to live without a clear winner. This election has shown us exactly how polarized is Mexican society right now, since this was a referendum on global-market policies and good-old fashioned populist nostalgia. As López Obrador succinctly put it, it's a “poor vs. rich” fight. Sadly, this fight does not have a clear winner.
López Obrador and Calderon are merely making things worse by claiming that they each won the election and that Mexicans are looking at their next president. But both of them have made it very clear that they're only interested in a naked, hapless pursuit of power, screw whoever needs to be screwed. That's not the way a statesman is supposed to handle himself, particularly when they still haven't won the election. Neither one of them deserves to be the next Mexican president.