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Observer offers views on Mexican elections

Professor Lawson sees strength in controversy

Six years ago J. Chappell Lawson, an MIT professor of political science, traveled to the small Mexican village of Santiago Tlacotepec as an international observer of the 2000 Mexican presidential elections. He watched as Mexican voters ousted the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) from the presidency -- after more than 70 years of one-party rule -- and elected Vicente Fox of the opposition National Action Party (PAN), a significant victory for democracy.

He remembers how a little girl cried out that she wanted to go home when her father, a PAN supporter, scuffled with a PRI supporter. The mother admonished the sobbing child, saying, "You're not allowed to go home. This is the time to be brave and fight for your rights." The 6-year-old dried her tears and marched up to the PRI man to say the family wouldn't go home, "no matter how mean he was." That was, Lawson said, "a crystallizing moment in the development of Mexican civic culture."

Lawson returned to that same village this month to observe the July 2 presidential election, in which PAN candidate Felipe Calderon has claimed a razor-thin victory -- by a margin of 244,000 voters or less than 1 percent -- over Party of the Democratic Revolution (PDR) candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The outcome of the race remains somewhat in doubt as Lopez Obrador has demanded a national recount, claiming evidence of fraud.

But Lawson thinks the election controversy -- a contrast to the decades when the PRI blithely claimed victory no matter how suspect the vote -- may demonstrate the potential strength of Mexican democracy, a subject Lawson has explored in books, numerous articles and an ongoing research project. Just back from Santiago Tlacotepec, Lawson said he did not see the little girl this time, but the turnout was as high as six years ago, and he saw no evidence of fraud or irregularities.

Q: So what do you think is going on with the Mexican election results? Do you think there was fraud, or is Lopez Obrador being a sore loser?

A: I think there are real concerns at the margins of the system, as there are in virtually every election system. I don't think this election was any worse than elections in established democracies. I think in many cases it was better. But the margin is so narrow that even a small amount of manipulation --��exploitation of welfare programs for political gain, violation of campaign finance limits, scattered episodes of vote buying��--��could have changed the outcome. So the problem isn't the way the election was run. The problem was that the election was so close.

Q: Would the process of going through a recount strengthen Mexican democracy?

A: I think it would. I think the legal case for a recount isn't overwhelming, but a recount could go a long way politically to reconcile what are now the two main factions in Mexican politics. There is one worry: That the left won't accept the results, and post-electoral conflict could turn violent or politically tumultuous for a long period of time.

Q: In the U.S. press, Calderon of PAN is always called conservative and Lopez Obrador of PDR is always called a leftist. Is this correct shorthand?

A. No, that's soft food for American readers. Calderon favors a more market-centered approach and Lopez Obrador favors a more state-based approach to government. That is a big difference and that is fair to point out. On the other hand, Calderon, the supposed rightist candidate, has called for expanding transfer payments to the poor, is in favor of universal health care coverage and describes himself as the candidate of jobs.

Q: Would their foreign policies differ substantially, particularly in relations with the United States?

A: No. This is another way it's not necessarily fair to characterize the candidates as left and right. The quote "right-wing" candidate is a Mexican nationalist who favors expanding ties with the rest of Latin America and continuing to negotiate free trade agreements with countries other than the United States, and who is likely to normalize relationships with Cuba. The supposedly left-wing candidate doesn't use anti-American discourse, unlike virtually every other Mexican leftist, and has almost no interest in foreign affairs.

Q: How do their positions on illegal immigration to the United States differ?

A: The debate in Mexico --��among politicians, among the media --��is so one-sided on this issue that it would be impossible for a candidate to suggest Mexico (has) partial responsibility for the immigration problem. The debate is framed exclusively in Mexico in terms of the rights of migrants and their treatment at the hands of American authorities. Only peripherally and occasionally do Mexico politicians mention the failure of the economy to produce enough jobs.

Q: So most Americans don't realize the whole immigration question is reframed entirely differently in Mexico. Were there any differences in voting patterns between north and south?

A: Sure. That was the big divider in Mexico politics. Every southern state except for one went clearly for Lopez Obrador and every northern state except for one went for Calderon. That was by far the biggest predictor of the vote.

Q: Does that break a pattern in Mexico voting?

A: It breaks a pattern in the 20th century. It recapitulates a pattern in the 19th century. Northern Mexico is more prosperous, more tied to the North American market and, of course, has benefited more from the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Q: Why is it important for Americans to pay attention to Mexico's internal politics?

A: The United States and Mexico are intimately linked by good things, like commercial relationships and trade investment, and by bad things, like (illegal) immigration and drug trafficking. It's impossible to imagine building a wall between the two countries; Mexico is our third largest commercial partner ��� The United States is much better off if Mexico prospers economically and remains stable politically.

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