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Steal his thunder by recounting the votes

Lopez Obrador's challenge to Mexico's election results could be easily defused.

July 13, 2006|Denise Dresser | DENISE DRESSER is a columnist at the Mexican newspaper Reforma and a professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

TODAY, MEXICO is a house divided, a deeply polarized place where some believe that Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party won the election and others insist that he stole it.

Ten days after the election that split the country in two, the word "fraud" has become an integral part of a bitter national debate. The challenger, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is raising sharp questions about the outcome of the vote, and if he doesn't get answers, it is increasingly clear that he will make it hard for Calderon to govern. In a country where deep doubts about the cleanliness of the electoral process have resurfaced, both sides now need to dispel them.

Lopez Obrador, of course, has every right to legally question the results of a close election, just as the country has every right to demand that he respect its results. A vote-by-vote recount would leave him no recourse but to do so.

Mexico needs to review the votes in order to move beyond the paranoid style of its current politics -- especially now that Lopez Obrador seems intent on destroying the country with the hope of governing it someday. Instead of keeping a cool head, he is butting it against everything he can: President Vicente Fox, the Federal Electoral Institute, the media, international observers and all those who believe that although irregularities might have occurred, massive fraud did not.

Once again he has resorted to the "all or nothing" approach that has become his trademark. He is confronting his opponents, encouraging conflict; he wants the presidency or else he vows to unleash civil unrest.

Paradoxically, the only way to rein him in would be precisely through the recount he has been pushing for. The best mechanism to neutralize Lopez Obrador and his followers would be to give in to their demands. To call their bluff. To smoke them out. To push the Federal Electoral Tribunal to order a recount, as it is legally allowed to do. To insist that Lopez Obrador accept whatever the electoral authority decides.

Total transparency might be the only way to deal with Lopez Obrador's aggressive political posturing and the social discontent it has fueled. This may be the last chance Mexico has to force him to play by the rules instead of challenging them at every turn.

The partial or total review of votes cast shouldn't be viewed as a concession to Lopez Obrador but as a way of taming him. The objective of a recount shouldn't be to question the majority's will but to clarify its intent. As the opening of 67 electoral packages in District 29 of Mexico City during the official count revealed, human error does indeed happen. In 62 out of the 67 that were opened (out of a total of 450 packages), the tallies on the outside didn't match the votes inside. It would take only one mistake in every 400 votes for the official results of the election to change. They could still do so, or perhaps not, but both people who worship Lopez Obrador and those who loathe him need to know for sure. Otherwise, uncertainty will prevail, and Mexico's warring factions will take advantage of it.

Yet many members of Mexico's political and economic establishment don't understand this. They believe that by presenting this election as a done deal, they are standing on principle and weakening Lopez Obrador, who they believe is no more than a demagogue. But, in fact, they are empowering him. Their resistance to a recount is feeding the growing perception that massive fraud may have taken place, even though it probably didn't. People are marching and mobilizing because the country's elites keep providing them reasons to do so.

Every time Fox argues that those who voted for Lopez Obrador are "renegades," he creates more of them. Every time Calderon starts speaking about his future cabinet and acting as if he won, he only angers those who question whether he really did. And soon they will be pouring into the streets of Mexico City, ready to prove that Lopez Obrador wasn't dangerous until his enemies forced him to act that way.

In order to move beyond this tense stalemate, Calderon would have to accept some form of recount, and Lopez Obrador would have to promise to unequivocally abide by its results. The Federal Electoral Tribunal has until Sept. 6 to give a final verdict and declare a president-elect. As an institution created to deal with post-electoral conflicts, the tribunal must show that it can use a vote-by-vote recount to defuse them.

Only then will winners and losers be able to put the country back together again, instead of threatening to tear it apart.

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