ALTHOUGH IT might be days or even weeks before Mexico's cliffhanger election is officially settled, it seems almost certain that right-of-center, neoliberal candidate Felipe Calderon will be the country's next president. He may not have won by more than a percentage point; his 36% of the vote is hardly a mandate; his opponents will likely challenge the results in the streets, the courts and the political arena, and he will face strong, though divided, opposition in Congress. Still, winning is better than losing, and Mexico is better off today than Sunday, when many thought the left-of-center populist contender, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, would obtain a resounding endorsement from the electorate.
Calderon means continuity. That's probably why he won, and that is what Mexico needs.
In the end, Mexico's voters did not fall for Lopez Obrador's stratagem. His case was simple: Mexico is a basket case today; let's throw out the rascals and replace them with leaders who will represent and help the poor, who make up half of the population. Regardless of the fact that this description is largely, though not entirely, inaccurate, the voters decided that the last people they wanted to fix the mess were those who created it in the first place. Lopez Obrador surrounded himself with high-level former officials of the Echeverria (1970-1976), Lopez Portillo (1976-1982), De la Madrid (1982-1988) and Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) administrations. It simply didn't fly with the electorate.
Conversely, Calderon basically stated that over the last 10 years, Mexico, although hardly paradise, was sort of on a roll: inflation under control, growth beginning to pick up, poverty being reduced and interest rates way down, making credit available to the lower middle class. And all of this without the familiar repression, human rights violations, uprisings, political assassinations and runaway corruption of old. According to exit polls, 60% of the voters who thought things had improved over the last year voted for Calderon; 60% of those who approve of President Vicente Fox also chose Calderon.
The challenges Calderon faces are enormous. Mexico is the victim of a gaping ideological divide that most other countries in Latin America have put behind them. The election was not about policies, simplistic or not: war or peace; raise or lower taxes spend more or less; combat poverty or create jobs; for or against capital punishment, abortion, gay marriage or whatever. The campaign was about Mexico's soul, over the highly abstract, partly imaginary, broad ideological themes of nationalism; separation of church and state; the market versus the state; law enforcement versus eradicating privilege and poverty; belonging to Latin America or to North America; poor versus rich. Viewed from afar, this might not have been a bad thing. After all, countries need these types of discussions now and then. But in fact they were largely meaningless, because the policies that theoretically would have sprung from the electorate favoring one worldview or another were either unviable or already in place.
Calderon cannot hand education over to the church, privatize the state oil company Pemex or abolish social anti-poverty programs, as his adversaries falsely claimed that he might. And Lopez Obrador would not have been able to move Mexico away from the United States and renegotiate NAFTA, reorient public spending massively overnight, eliminate poverty or create millions of jobs through infrastructure programs, as he seemed to believe he could. As in most cases, Byzantine ideological debates lead nowhere, but they do crowd out meaningful policy discussions.
But Calderon will not only be plagued by this artificial ideological divide, he also will have to confront the same paralysis that Fox and his predecessor, Ernesto Zedillo, encountered. Mexico's current institutions were designed and built for authoritarian rule, not for a real democracy; they worked while Mexico was governed by a single party, the PRI. When democracy came, everyone -- Zedillo, Fox, this writer and many more -- thought that the same institutions would remain functional despite a radically different context.
We were all wrong, and the challenge for the new president isn't how to govern with these dysfunctional institutions but how to replace them with something that works. Designing and building those institutions should be his first priority: Achieving, at long last, the reelection of congressmen and senators; establishing a referendum for amending the constitution; creating a hybrid, semiresidential, semiparliamentary system that encourages the formation of legislative majorities in a three-party system; allowing independent candidates to run for office, and abolishing the U.S.-style campaign-financing system, in which the bulk of airtime is purchased instead of allotted, leading to Sunday's election probably being, per vote, the most expensive in the world. These are the most important and urgent reforms.
With such reforms, everything is possible, including progress on the country's pending substantive issues: energy reform, tax policy, poverty reduction, education and so on. Without them, nothing is possible. With them, Mexico can finally begin to harvest the fruits of a decade of crisis-free stability (no small feat for a country where the last time this happened was between the late '50s and late '60s). But without fundamental structural reforms, Mexico will simply plod along, falling behind everyone else.