A Review of Consolidating Mexico’s Democracy: The 2006 Presidential Campaign in Comparative Perspective


A Post-mortem on the Country’s 2006 Presidential Election


by | May 6, 2010


Consolidating Mexico’s Democracy: The 2006 Presidential Campaign in Comparative Perspective Edited by Jorge I. Domínguez, Chappell Lawson, Alejandro Moreno The Johns Hopkins University Press, 366 pages.

On Mexico’s presidential election night, July 2, 2006, I stood with reporters in a brightly lit room in the Federal Electoral Institute, the sprawling nerve center located in Mexico City’s outskirts. The large screens displaying early returns made one thing clear: a photo-finish ending was on between Felipe Calderón of the ruling and center-right National Action Party (PAN) and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

With a showdown imminent, I headed to Mexico City’s immense central square. A crowd of pro-López Obrador supporters stood in the rain shouting, “We won! We won!’’ Others, inflamed that some tallies tilted Calderón’s way, cried: “They’re stealing the election!” Meanwhile, at a nearby hotel, Calderón fans began celebrating.

Soaking wet and knowing that a final tally might take days, I went home. Eventually, Calderón would seal his win with fewer than 250,000 voters. López Obrador also claimed victory and waged a legal challenge, along with protest camps and press conferences alleging electoral fraud. In a truly surreal moment, López Obrador organized a large ceremony, donned a presidential sash and, presto, proclaimed himself Mexico’s “legitimate president” (a title he still claims). Florida in 2000 looked tame.

Now arrives a welcome post-mortem. Consolidating Mexico’s Democracy brings together veteran Mexican scholars to offer a micro-view of the 2006 election. In many senses, this book could only be written now, with the passing of the election’s scandals, grandstanding and emotion.

The book spans a range of topics, from comparisons to the 2000 election and Mexico’s regional splits to independent voters and campaign tactics. For close followers of Mexico, many of the conclusions will not be surprising: wealth and partisanship largely explain Mexico’s north-south, blue state-yellow state divide. López Obrador’s overconfidence cost him dearly and, in general, Mexican voters are becoming more similar to those in the United States. The book’s value is that conclusions are backed up by history and enriching nuance, along with data from a multi-wave voter survey conducted by Reforma, a leading Mexican newspaper. The book is also evergreen for those looking for clues to how voters and campaigns can play out in other new democracies.

In 2006, competition was tight to become Mexico’s next president, but the battlefield had changed from 2000. Back then, voters largely supported Vicente Fox in order to end 71 years of corrupt presidential rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In 2006, says Rodric Ai Camp, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, voters cared more about a candidate’s ability to manage serious public issues of crime, immigration and, chiefly, the economy. Electoral democracy may have arrived to Mexico, but some things had not changed: the ranks of the poor remained enormous. Voters wanted practical results and would punish any party that didn’t deliver, says Camp.

It was also a three-way race, at least for a bit. Despite his scandalous, fraud-plagued past, PRI candidate Roberto Madrazo might have had a chance. The PRI had won local and state elections, kept key governorships and could position itself as a centrist choice, as Calderón and López Obrador polarized. Yet Joy Langston, professor at Mexico City’s Center for Economic Research and Education, explains the importance of the PRI’s primary process and how its messy divisiveness ultimately saw Madrazo “acquiring as many enemies inside the party as outside of it.” Ultimately, the splits left Madrazo isolated with little hope of winning.

In contrast, the PAN saw Calderón as one of its own: a Harvard-educated conservative and former energy secretary whose father co-founded the PAN. Calderón counted on the PAN’s elite and its ties to Mexico’s campaign-contributing business moguls. A pro-market, devout Catholic, Calderón was a “rebel with a cause” and anxious to be a “loyal standard-bearer for his party,” writes David Shirk of the University of San Diego.

Still, López Obrador was the frontrunner. As Mexico City mayor, he enjoyed massive popularity thanks to his ordinary man image: he arrived to work at dawn, lived in a simple apartment and drove a Nissan Tsuru. His call to attack poverty and serve the underdog “have-nots” mostly attracted lower-income Mexicans, but also cut across class lines. He appeared bulletproof and able to escape rivals’ attacks.

Yet cracks emerged. While López Obrador was favored, the PRD was not so. Fox was also still relatively popular and the economy was shoring up. And as the authors stress, nearly half of the voters they surveyed had yet to had to settle on a candidate mere months before the campaign.

Calderón closed in. He associated himself with the better economic times and, importantly, Fox’s relatively successful welfare programs, including a cash-transfer program called Oportunidades that aims mostly at the urban poor and assisted nearly five million families at the time. This let Calderón curry a voter pool that might have firmly sided with López Obrador. Eventually, Calderón “owned the economic issue” and was seen as a capable manager, writes Alejandro Moreno, a professor at Mexico’s Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

Then came a series of negative televised ads targeting López Obrador. One likened him to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, asking viewers: “Is this the type of authoritarian we want to elect?” In reality, López Obrador had never met Chávez. He intentionally “kept his distance from Chávez, fearing just this blowback effect,” notes Kathleen Bruhn, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The PRD complained to the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), correctly arguing that the spots violated electoral law stating that parties must avoid “any expression that implies diatribe, calumny, infamy, insult, or defamation.” Yet the ads remained and Calderón’s team noted their effectiveness. The IFE did not act until nearly a month after the PRD’s complaint (and, still, the spots later reappeared). Questions remain about the IFE’s passivity toward Calderón’s campaign spots during such a tight race. Might the final outcome have changed if the IFE had pulled the ads immediately? It’s a tricky moment to measure, and the book’s contributors recognize the gap. But these questions still linger and deserve more attention.

Beyond that point, López Obrador became overconfident. He did not respond strongly to Calderón’s charges of radicalism. Instead, he boycotted the first televised debate (a vacant chair was shown on screen) and insulted Fox, telling him to “stop squawking and shut up.” “López Obrador,” writes Bruhn, “would have benefited from sticking to his more moderate position, which was not so different from that of average citizens.”

Meanwhile, more traditional voter breakdowns still counted. Both candidates leaned heavily on Mexico’s classic regional splits, with more voters in the wealthier and industrialist north siding with Calderón and those in the poorer and more marginalized south picking López Obrador.

The authors also signal that Mexico in 2006 was more a U.S.-style election. “Images triumphed,” observes Kenneth Greene, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. That can be troubling. The polarizing positions that Calderón and López Obrador assumed did not necessarily reflect sentiments at the mass level, which leaned toward the center, the authors argue. The candidates were “badly out of step with the voters” and saddled them with mud-slinging ads instead of issue analysis. And the candidates’ perceived capabilities to solve pressing issues were not linked to clearly explained solutions.

Today, solutions to Mexico’s urgent problems are hard to spot. Last year, the country’s U.S.-dependent economy contracted, while gruesome drug cartel-related killings escalated. As a result, the PAN’s image is suffering, while support for the PRD has dropped precipitously. Frustrated and mistrustful of the government, Mexicans voted in last year’s midterm election to double the number of seats in Congress held by the PRI, which is positing itself as the centrist option. Now, talk in Mexico is whether voters will back the old-guard PRI in the 2012 presidential elections and escape to the past.

Spring | Summer 2010Volume IX, Number 2

Monica Campbell is a 2009-2010 Nieman Fellow. She was a freelance journalist based in Mexico City from 2003 to 2008, publishing regularly in leading U.S. newspapers and magazines.

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