Mexico's mission: Bridge the divide

The big picture made clear by Mexico's election is that the country is bitterly divided along class lines.

Hundreds of thousands of supporters have been mobilized by the runner-up in Mexico's July 2 presidential election who has undermined his legal appeal – to be decided by Sept. 6 – by threatening nonrecognition of the winner if each and every ballot is not recounted.

As the increasingly acrimonious controversy over Mexico's July 2 presidential election passes from tallying votes to the electoral court (and to the streets), the debate over the vote count distracts attention from the big picture. Mexico is bitterly divided along class lines, and the 2006 vote distribution makes this clearer than ever.

All of Mexico anxiously awaits the electoral court's final declaration regarding appeals by left-leaning Andrés Manuel López Obrador (commonly referred to as AMLO), who lost to right-leaning Felipe Calderón by approximately 0.5 percent of the vote. The lesson of this cliffhanger is that Mexico's red-blue divide has worsened over a decade of uneven economic growth.

With few exceptions, urban, globalized, and affluent northern Mexico, including economic hubs Monterrey and Guadalajara, went for Mr. Calderón's blue-logo National Action Party (PAN), while the poor center and south chose Mr. López Obrador's gold and red-flagged Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). AMLO won Mexico City, where he served as mayor until last year, its suburbs (Mexico State), and the rural south.

The gaping geographical breach represents a much deeper class breach, even than the US red-blue gap. Northern Mexico's standard of living approaches that of South Korea, whereas southern Mexico's approaches Turkmenistan. Belying claims of a post-NAFTA boom, most Mexicans are barely better off today than in the mid-1990s, and they are worse off, in absolute terms, than before the early 1980s economic crisis. Nearly half of Mexico's 110 million citizens, predominantly in AMLO's rural center and south, live in poverty, and extreme poverty among this group has recently worsened.

As Mexico City's mayor, AMLO delivered social programs for "his people" with the aplomb of Juan Perón, Argentina's legendary populist. Before coming unglued some two weeks ago by a postelectoral ire that threatens to undermine Mexico's institutions, AMLO lived modestly, talked with a down-home bonhomie, and promoted old-fashioned hard work over technocratic know-how, which to him was often paternalistically wielded by elites.

Calderón exudes technocratic competence. This bright, Harvard-trained former energy secretary and PAN congressional leader seems more at home in policy discussions than at meet-and-greet campaign stops. He won the official tally by conveying cool competence, promising to stay the course economically and further modest growth, and by fear-mongering on TV. Calderón emphasizes a "firm hand" for Mexico, depicting AMLO as a Venezuela-leader-Hugo Chávez-like demagogue who would nationalize private property and, now, as a poor loser.

Pending any unlikely court-ordered changes in results over the next month, Calderón seems destined to be Mexico's next president, and his policies, recognition that he has no real mandate, and disposition to compromise in Congress, will undoubtedly benefit Mexico's middle and upper classes and US interests in Mexico. He was clearly the more moderate choice, as Mayor López Obrador expressed a populist's willingness to spend Mexico City into debt, and a nationalistic insistence on protecting Mexico's bloated state-owned oil company from foreign participation.

But Calderón comes to power with no voter mandate, a divided Congress, and wild card leadership from the spoiler Party of the Institutional Revolution. The PRI held the power monopoly for 70-plus years before coming unglued in 2000, but still holds sway in Congress and possesses over half of Mexico's governorships. He will also face a disgruntled López Obrador, whose belligerence against Mexico's democratic institutions is increasing with each street mobilization.

Calderón has hinted that he would start the postelectoral healing process by naming a plural cabinet. But stitching Mexico together again is going to require much more. Calderón is going to have to offer more than vague job creation pledges and a furthering of President Vicente Fox's mildly successful Opportunidades welfare program for the most destitute. The new government is going to have to embrace Mexico's south and prioritize social spend- ing. It must strive for genuine, medium-term improvements in health and education rather than short-term populist giveaways.

Many of these rural disaffected voted some time ago "with their feet" and now live in the US. But Mexico's democratic institutions are still magnitudes stronger than they were a century ago, when class antagonism boiled over as the Mexican Revolution. Diminishing the class war by promoting economic development and rational social spending, especially in AMLO's Mexico, will grant Calderón credibility, incorporate the PRD's oft-ignored constituents, and motivate Mexico's rural poor to stay at home and strive for what we all want, to better ourselves and our country.

Todd A. Eisenstadt, who teaches political science at American University in Washington, is author of "Courting Democracy in Mexico: Party Strategies and Electoral Institutions."

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