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Mexico's vote

July 04, 2006

ON SUNDAY NIGHT, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador showed why he probably would not make a great president of Mexico. A few hours after the polls closed, and moments after independent electoral authorities announced that the race was too close to call, the leftist former mayor of Mexico City took to the airwaves to declare himself the winner, by half a million votes. He urged election officials to "confirm our results" and pledged, menacingly, to protect the people's verdict.

The degree to which Lopez Obrador is a demagogue who considers himself above the law was a question debated throughout the campaign. His actions after the polls closed provided a definitive answer. Fortunately for Mexico, Lopez Obrador appears to have lost this three-way cliffhanger -- by no more than 1 percentage point -- to conservative candidate Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party. (By law, President Vicente Fox, the current leader of the party, could not seek a second term.) No results will be official for days, if not weeks.

The next president will face some of the same hurdles that thwarted many of Fox's aspirations. Calderon's party will only hold a third of congressional seats, which will make it difficult for the government to push ahead with needed reforms. Mexico's energy sector, to name one prominent example, desperately needs private and foreign investment, but the nationalist, leftist opposition continues to romanticize the notion that "the people" should own the nation's oil reserves.

Despite the dashed hopes of the Fox years, it is encouraging that Mexican voters resisted the old-style populism and state interventionism peddled by Lopez Obrador. Mexico's problem isn't that free-market capitalism has run amok; rather, it's that there isn't enough of it. State-owned and private monopolies control too much of the economy, and one of the challenges facing Calderon will be to take on his supporters in the business community with vigorous antitrust policies. He has rightly emphasized that Mexico needs to be more, not less, integrated into the global economy. And for all the talk that Fox achieved little in his six years in office, his responsible economic policies helped provide novel stability, which led to low inflation and the expansion of credit to lower-middle-class voters.

On Sunday, Mexicans faced a clear choice on the right and on the left -- a healthy ideological contest for a maturing democracy. The other story line was the ongoing implosion of the nebulously centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled the country for 71 years until losing power in 2000. The PRI finished a distant third. Its weakness is a triumph for democracy, and its collapse could help consolidate a two-party system in Mexico. On the other hand, if the grouping of three major political forces proves lasting, the country should consider adopting a second round of balloting, to strengthen its presidents' mandate.

Extremely close elections have a way of testing even the most entrenched democracies, as Americans witnessed in 2000. But by all accounts, Mexico's independent elections overseer -- the young but highly respected Federal Electoral Institute, which dispatched more than 900,000 citizens to work more than 130,000 polling places -- managed the process well. Now, what Mexican democracy requires is for all the contenders to show more statesmanship and maturity than Lopez Obrador did Sunday night.

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