On the night of July 2, 2006, millions of Mexicans listened to the calm, slow-paced voice of Luis Carlos Ugalde, president of the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), announcing what many had feared: that the election to designate a new president of México was too close to call. As with the 2000 presidential election in the United States, both candidates claimed they had won and hired lawyers and political advisers to defend their victory claims. Weeks afterward, on September 15, countless citizens gathered at the Zocalo square in México City to witness the traditional ceremony of El Grito, or the cry of independence. This rite, which celebrates the beginning of the fight for Mexican independence from Spain in 1810, has normally been performed by the president himself. This year it was performed by the mayor of México City; Alejandro Encinas, one of the top aides to the former mayor of México City; and the presidential candidate of México’s left-wing Democratic Revolutionary party (PRD), Andres Manuel López Obrador. Shortly afterward, a multitude of López Obrador’s partisans raised their hands to “elect” him the legitimate president of México. This was small consolation to his supporters, because ten days before, the Federal Electoral Court had declared the right-of-center liberal candidate Felipe Calderón the winner of the cliff-hanger election. Who was this man who, after having lost what was one of the cleanest elections in México’s history, had himself proclaimed the real president?
At the beginning of 2006, López Obrador’s campaign seemed to be unbeatable. The polls gave his party an average lead of 8 percent. People from across the social spectrum were visiting his campaign headquarters in México City to greet the man they believed would be the next president. The candidate boasted that not even a coalition made up of the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) and the right-of-center National Action Party (PAN)—the other two big Mexican parties—would prevent him from winning the election. The talk of the town was the imminent, first-time-in-history victory of the Mexican left. How did López Obrador manage to lose such a clear advantage? What are the reasons for his defeat?
At least three reasons have been offered. First, some argue that the election was marred by fraud: the IFE and Vicente Fox’s administration maneuvered successfully to deprive the PRD of the victory it actually earned. Second, there are those who contend that even if there was no fraud in the election proper, the IFE permitted a radically unfair electoral process. According to this view, a long series of inequities vitiated the political campaign from start to finish, beginning with Fox’s and private corporations’ illegal backing of Calderón, the PAN candidate. Third, there is the view that López Obrador’s overconfidence and hubris led him to an unexpected defeat.
In what follows I will suggest that the first tw...
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