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Mexican Elections 2006

John Gibler
Date Published: 
January 01, 0001
    You can hear the drums in the distance, the amplified voices, and the short percussive explosions of bottle rockets all interwoven and echoing off the high stone buildings and down the narrow streets of Mexico City’s crumbling and beautiful historic center. This is the nightly combative serenade of several thousand people who have set up camp in Mexico’s Plaza de la Constitucion—the symbolic core of the nation—and down Madero and Juarez avenues, where their high-roofed plastic canopies turn onto Paseo de la Reforma and extend for miles. The crowds of civil disobedience campers, their supporters, and passersby swell into the tens of thousands, creating an unparalleled political protest that has some in awe, many caught in traffic, and others in stewing in anger.

This is post-electoral Mexico 2006, where seven weeks after the July 2 elections people still do not know who their next president will be. The Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), after conducting a vote count that could have been performed on a Vegas stage by David Copperfield, called right-wing Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party (PAN) the winner by half a percentage point. Within days, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the center-left candidate of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), called hundreds of thousands of supporters into the streets all decrying fraud and demanding a vote-by-vote recount. The PRD formally challenged the IFE’s results before the highest electoral authority in the country, the Federal Electoral Tribunal, charging mass manipulation of the vote tally that led to shaving off votes for Lopez Obrador while piling on extras for Calderon.

The pre-electoral climate was equally vitriolic. For months Calderon, the PAN, and their high-rolling donors spent tens of millions of dollars trying to swift-boat Lopez Obrador, running countless television and radio advertisements that linked Obrador to lynch mobs and “that crazy Chavez” (Hugo Chavez, the many-times elected President of Venezuela) and hammered home their campaign’s core message: “Lopez Obrador, a danger for Mexico.” The PRD and Lopez Obrador slammed Calderon and the PAN as corrupt, elite, cartel market trumpeters with no concerns for the poor. Lopez Obrador’s main slogan was a tad more bucolic: “For everyone’s benefit, first the poor.”

Media wars

While the PAN ran a television smear campaign against Lopez Obrador, it must be said that Obrador himself stumbled through a series of colossal campaign errors that fed into the PAN’s attack-dog style. He let the “danger for Mexico” ads go unchallenged for months. He finally brought a case before the electoral tribunal; the tribunal ruled the ads slanderous and had them pulled off the air, but long after the damage had been done. He also refused to attend the first presidential debate, where Calderon came off as the clear winner and Lopez Obrador—in his absence—as pretentious and slightly manic. And Lopez Obrador famously called the current PAN president, Vicente Fox, a loud chattering bird (chachalaca), which the PAN and the media spun into a testament of unruly, thug-like behavior completely unfit for a president (recall Howard Dean’s candidacy-ending scream experience).

For all the signs of emerging class warfare throughout the six-month campaigns, Election Day was relatively quiet. As millions gathered by televisions and radios to wait for the results, most of the talk was celebratory: long lines of voters in cities across the nation—emblem of this narcotic and elusive thing called Democracy—all waiting to mark their ballots without shooting at each other or setting anything on fire. The fire would be lit that evening, on national television, by the head of the IFE, Luis Ugalde.

At 11pm, Ugalde came on the air announcing that the race was too close to call, that the electronic “quick-count” was not reliable, and that the IFE would tally the voting place totals on July 5. (These totals consist of acts where citizen volunteers counted each vote on July 2 and added them up; witnesses from the political parties, when present, signed the tally sheet. The July 5 official vote count would not reopen the urns and count each vote individually, but only add up all the polling place tally sheets.) Ugalde urged the candidates to refrain from declaring victory. Within seconds, President Fox appeared in a pre-recorded video message spewing a Baroque eulogy to the IFE’s impartiality and impeccable scientific make-up, and reiterated the call for all to wait, without declaring victory, until the official July 5 vote count. Neither Calderon nor Lopez Obrador waited; both declared victory, citing their party’s exit-poll results.

Obrador began claiming fraud the following day when he pointed out that, according to the IFE’s official number of votes cast, nearly three million votes were missing from the unofficial “preliminary count.” The IFE later found over two million of these votes, most of which went to Obrador. Meanwhile, local citizens started to make their own findings, including urns stuffed with votes in a trash dump outside of Mexico City, a region won by Obrador, and statistical anomalies throughout the preliminary count.

But the real show came on July 5, during the official vote count, the results of which were published in real time on the websites of several national newspapers. Throughout 70 percent of the count, Lopez Obrador held a steady 2.5 percent lead. At 70 percent, the lead began to slip, ever so gently, until—you could almost hear “Chariots of Fire” through the screen—Calderon passed Obrador at 98 percent of the votes counted, leading by half a percentage point. At the same time that Obrador and Calderon switched places during the last 15 percent of the vote count, the other three candidates maintained the exact same percentages.

Street protests

Within a week, on July 8, Lopez Obrador put several hundred thousand protesters on the street shouting against the fraud and calling for a vote-by-vote recount. A week later, July 16, Obrador doubled the number of marchers to about a million. Two weeks later, according to PRD activists and Mexico City officials, nearly two million marchers filled the streets and gathered in the town square and several surrounding city blocks. If the number is correct, the July 30 march was the largest in Mexican history. But the numbers were not the main headline the next day. Lopez Obrador asked his supporters to set up camp in the square and down several major avenues until the electoral tribunal answered their demand for a vote-by-vote recount. The multitude enthusiastically accepted the proposition, and within minutes delivery trucks arrived with canopies, plastic chairs, folding tables and porta-potties, making the Obrador encampment not only the largest, but also the most well equipped political sit-in in the country.

On August 5, the electoral tribunal threw out the PRD’s call for a total recount, instead demanding a vote-by-vote recount in nearly 12,000 polling places, 9 percent of the total, where the PRD’s complaints were incontrovertible. Obrador and his supporters denounced this decision and vowed to continue in the civil disobedience. The partial recount began on August 9. While the official results have yet to be released, PRD representatives who witnessed the count (along with representatives from the other parties) have leaked numbers to the press claiming that even this small recount proves systematic fraud, shaving over 61,000 votes in some polling places and lumping an extra 58,000 votes in other polling places. The tribunal has until August 31 to fully resolve all complaints and September 6 to certify the elections and name the victor. While the tribunal calculates and the PRD supporters occupy the streets, the weekly political magazine, Proceso, is using a little-known freedom of information law to gain access to all of the original ballots and thus carry out a citizen’s recount, a potentially devastating act for Calderon’s legitimacy if the tribunal should name him the next president of Mexico.

While Lopez Obrador is a somewhat unpredictable Lula-style populist, Calderon has been explicitly clear that he will use violence against protesters as he pursues a politics of market gangsterism. Much is at stake. And the Mexico City protests, though corralled by the PRD, are an inspiring show of the grassroots mobilizations that will be urgent and necessary throughout the coming six-year presidential term.


John Gibler is a human rights fellow with Global Exchange. His writing on Mexican social movements appears in Left Turn, Znet, Z Magazine, & In These Times.