The 2006 Mexican Presidential Election: Democratic Development or Democratic Debacle?

By Sabia, Debra; Kohler, Vincent | Journal of Third World Studies, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

The 2006 Mexican Presidential Election: Democratic Development or Democratic Debacle?


Sabia, Debra, Kohler, Vincent, Journal of Third World Studies


INTRODUCTION

Five days after Mexico's July 2nd presidential election, in the midst of growing public anxiety over an election in which preliminary results had been much too narrow to call, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) declared Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party (PAN) the "winner" over Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). The final vote count, issued by the IFE, showed that Calderon had obtained 35.89% while Lopez Obrador had received 35.31%, giving the PAN candidate a victory by a slim half of a percentage point. Despite the declaration, Lopez Obrador refused to concede defeat. It was not just that Felipe Calderon had won by such a narrow margin. Lopez Obrador called for an official recount of the vote because he suspected that the election had been fraudulently stolen from him.

In Mexico a presidential election must be certified by the country's Federal Electoral Tribunal. During the two months of that certification process Mexicans waited with great public uncertainty to learn who their next president would be. That public uncertainty was punctuated with increasing unrest characterized by rallies, hunger strikes, and demonstrations aimed at pressing the seven judges of the Tribunal to agree to Lopez Obrador's demands for a total vote-by-vote recount.

Clearly, the post-election debacle was a great disappointment for Mexico. Indeed, prior to the presidential campaign there had been much speculation that in July 2006, "Mexico would have an opportunity to consolidate its democratic process for the first time in modern history." (1) Such expectations were clearly premature, raising serious questions about Mexico's progress toward creating a stable democratic system. As Mexico's newly established electoral infrastructure was receiving international recognition and being heralded a s "a model for other emerging democracies," it appears that political optimists were misreading events, believing Mexico to be further along in its transition toward democratic consolidation. (2) Such optimism was tempting based on Mexico's 2000 presidential election experience. The victory of PAN candidate Vicente Fox in that undisputed election against the long ruling PRI marked the country's first truly democratic national contest in modern times. Despite expectations for democratic consolidation in the years that followed, Mexico failed to establish the institutional conditions necessary for deepening its democracy. It appears that Mexico is "stuck" between transitions and may even be vulnerable to reversal. Indeed, what are the consequences of this election for the future of Mexico's emerging democracy? Have democratic reforms hurt Mexico more than they have helped it? Is society prepared to accept the election's results? If not, has Mexico's newfound "democracy" risked the stability of the nation? What can the Mexican case tell us about the conditions necessary for a country's democratic consolidation?

DEMOCRATIC CONSOLIDATION: A REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE

Much has been written about Latin America's democratic openings in the wake of tremendous political changes in the region during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Regional transitions from authoritarian regimes to newly elected governments were regarded as part of a "third wave" of global democratization. But what defines democratization? Samuel Huntington, who coined the term "third wave," was among those who suggested the importance of free and contested elections as a critical component of democratization. (3) The peaceful transfer of power through free and fair elections, however, is by no means the only sufficient criteria for suddenly characterizing a country as democratic. A careful review of the literature on democratization suggests a general lack of consensus on what democracy is. For example, Collier and Levitsky (1995) have inventoried more than one hundred qualifiers that have been attached to the term democracy.

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