A REMARKABLE thing happened when Mexico voted for a new president on July 2.
The centrist candidate, Felipe Calderon, who started the campaign in January far behind the then-leading contender, won the election with a forward-looking message of jobs, investment and hope. In the process, he upset the conventional wisdom that the populism sweeping through Latin America would inevitably overtake Mexico as well.
The populist in the campaign, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, lost, with roughly two-thirds of the voters rejecting his calls for class warfare and a return to statist economics. Throughout the campaign, Lopez Obrador claimed to speak for the majority of Mexicans, but the actual voting clearly showed that he did not.
Moreover, Calderon won in free, transparent and fair elections by a margin of about 240,000 votes out of almost 42 million cast. Although that margin is certainly close, it has been certified by autonomous and nongovernmental electoral authorities after an election presided over by almost 1 million citizen volunteers and monitored by thousands of international observers who overwhelmingly praised the validity of the process.
Calderon's victory has several important consequences. First, it guarantees that Mexico will renew its commitment to economic growth based on market economics, transparency and accountability. Second, the only way to solve the problem of too many Mexicans seeking jobs in the United States is to create more jobs in Mexico, which was candidate Calderon's core commitment.
But third, Calderon's victory demonstrates that Mexico can conduct a highly partisan election campaign among candidates with dramatically different visions without the violence that has occurred in some other emerging democracies. This is a testament to the Mexican people and to Mexico's democratic institutions.
The only problem is that the loser has refused to accept his loss. On election night, even as the electoral authorities judged the vote too close to call, Lopez Obrador declared victory. Then he denounced the preliminary count. Next he denounced the official count. As the evidence of his defeat mounted, so did the volume of his demands for a "vote-by-vote recount" and his accusations that the election had been stolen. He called his supporters into the streets and demanded that the election be nullified, apparently on the grounds that any result other than his own victory must be invalid.
This demagoguery threatens the underpinnings of Mexico's democracy. On one hand, every candidate for office in Mexico has the legal right -- and moral responsibility -- to challenge an outcome that he thinks is somehow flawed. On the other, every candidate also has the obligation to accept the final results of an electoral process and dispute-resolution system that was carefully designed and unanimously approved by all participants, including Lopez Obrador's own party.
But Lopez Obrador has said he will never accept the results because now he does not accept the legitimacy of the institutions. Like a spoiled child, he wants the right to play, but not the obligation to accept the final score. He'll try to hold Mexico hostage with street demonstrations and increasingly radical rhetoric until he gets his way. Calderon will continue to play by the rules, pursuing his own legal counter-demands through the nation's electoral tribunal and accepting whatever remedies the court orders. The contrast is deafening.
Mexico must be a nation of laws, not of men, if it is to remain a functioning democracy. Any other outcome would be a step on the road to anarchy -- a disastrous recipe for Mexico and its northern neighbor -- and a blow to the concepts of openness, democracy, tolerance and pluralism in the Americas.