Disputed Election

Obama Plays Risky Game in Mexico With Embrace of Enrique Peña Nieto

Enrique Peña Nieta says he’s president-elect—and Obama is playing into his hands, says John M. Ackerman.

Susana Gonzalez, Bloomberg / Getty Images

The Mexican people are more stunned than excited by Enrique Peña Nieto’s apparent victory in Sunday’s presidential election. No one has taken to the streets to celebrate the return of the old Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI). To the contrary, thousands of youth congregated at the Revolution Monument in downtown Mexico City to protest against the “imposition” of Peña Nieto through media manipulation, vote-buying, and ballot-tampering. Meanwhile, waves of people who sold their vote to the PRI on Sunday in exchange for gift cards flooded local supermarkets on Monday to cash in on their payments.

It is likely that Peña Nieto’s advantage in the preliminary count, 38 percent to leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s 32 percent, will hold up once the official count is issued at the end of the week and the electoral tribunal later resolves any lawsuits. But the formal, legal recognition of Peña Nieto as Mexico’s new president will not necessarily translate into the public legitimacy he would need to govern the country effectively.

Elections are nothing new in Mexico. The country’s distinct brand of authoritarianism, or “perfect dictatorship,” according to Mario Vargas Llosa, has always used elections to gloss over its public image. The infamous 19th-century dictator Porfirio Díaz won eight elections between 1877 and 1910. The first leader of the Mexican Revolution, Francisco I. Madero, did not take power by force but through elections. Since 1934, Mexico has held presidential elections like clockwork every six years, even during the worst moments of authoritarian politics.

Scholars, therefore, do not have the privilege of being able to identify the advent of democracy in Mexico with the arrival of electoral politics. The big question is not whether elections occur but whether they are free and fair and whether the new president is recognized by the people as their legitimate leader.

Sitting president Felipe Calderón was significantly bruised by his experience in the last presidential elections in 2006. He refused to accept a full recount or even allow citizen access to the ballots after the election was over, casting a long shadow of doubt over his 0.58 percent lead, especially since half of the electoral tally sheets had evident irregularities. Even today, a third of Mexico’s population thinks that Calderón did not win the elections, and at least 40 percent of the population does not trust electoral results.

The legitimacy crisis explains a great deal about how Calderón has behaved as president. Instead of attacking the roots of the problems by reconstructing institutions, fighting corruption, and reducing poverty and inequality, Calderón has preferred “shock and awe” tactics that appeal to the media and foreign leaders but have proved to be highly ineffective on the ground. Just as George W. Bush covered up his own legitimacy crisis after the 2000 presidential elections with the war in Iraq, Calderon has done the same with the “drug war” against his own people.

Peña Nieto is heading down the same road. Instead of waiting for the official results, he has already started to put together his “transition team” and presents himself in the U.S. media as “president-elect”. This is false self-representation; according to Mexico’s highly sophisticated electoral laws, only the electoral tribunal can name a candidate president-elect after a full review of the legality of the election. And preliminary reports suggest that thousands of irregularities have tainted the results.

But President Obama has agreed to play Peña Nieto’s game. On Monday, Obama called the Mexican candidate to congratulate him prematurely for his “victory.” Obama’s action reveals a worrisome lack of respect for both the Mexican people and for legal process south of the border. Such double blindness is precisely what has led to the present impasse in U.S.-Mexican relations, as well as the bitter failure of the “drug war.”

Obama’s irresponsible phone call can best be understood Peña Nieto’s presentation of himself as the most “modern,” pro-American candidate. The U.S. president, therefore, wants to support him from the beginning to guarantee U.S. interests and consolidate American intervention south of the border.

But a Peña Nieto administration may create more problems than solutions to the longstanding issues that affect North America. In the candidate’s op-ed Tuesday in The New York Times he argues that one of his principal objectives will be to “end the polarization that has paralyzed our politics.”

Such a statement is both wrong and dangerous. Over the last 15 years, the Mexican Congress has passed, normally with broad multipartisan support, more constitutional reforms and new laws than during any other equivalent period in modern history, including new criminal justice, human rights, anti-corruption, transparency, and electoral legislation. There is no paralysis or polarization.

But instead of appreciating the dynamic and plural nature of Mexico’s new politics, which requires careful negotiations and coalition building, Peña Nieto openly disqualifies it. His attitude betrays a dangerous nostalgia for the old days, in which the president could unilaterally impose his will on the country. Peña Nieto apparently has the firm intention of excluding the opposition to push through highly unpopular reforms like privatizing Mexico’s national oil company or scaling down protections for labor.

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But the political opposition is stronger today than ever before. López Obrador received more votes on Sunday, approximately 15.5 million, than he did six years ago, when he came within a hair of winning the presidency. This time around, his more conciliatory campaign was highly effective in courting broad public support.

And López Obrador’s relative political strength against Peña Nieto will likely grow in coming years. According to Reforma newspaper’s exit poll, the leftist is strongest among the young, the well-educated, and independents. In contrast, Peña Nieto’s most important support is in the countryside, as well as with the elderly and the underschooled. López Obrador also held a 13-point lead over Peña Nieto among those voters who voted “for a change” in government and a commanding 28-point lead among those who voted for the most “honest” candidate.

If Peña Nieto tries to rule as he did as governor of the state of Mexico, where his friends and allies controlled party politics and all three branches of government, the result will be dangerous political instability and social conflict. This situation could derail Mexico’s slow democratic progress and put peace and development in North America at risk.

To avoid such a scenario, the U.S. government needs to stop pandering to Mexico’s corrupt leaders and robber barons. It is time for U.S. diplomacy toward Mexico to branch out to include the political opposition, Congress, civil society, and the common person. Military aid also should be replaced, perhaps entirely, with support for infrastructure and the economy. Instead of helping Mexico’s old guard reestablish the ways of the past, the U.S. should help the Mexican people protect the gains of the present.