At the beginning of May, with a couple of months to go until the Mexican elections, I interviewed Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the presidential candidate of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party. We spoke for more than an hour, most of which he devoted to his usual talking points about how today's Mexico is a cabal of rich men who operate in cahoots with a corrupt political system obsessed with self-preservation.
I had heard it all before, as had the Mexican electorate, which rejected Lopez Obrador's bid for the presidency last month, giving the victory to his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, opponent, Enrique Peña Nieto, by more than 6 percentage points. But just before my interview time ran out, I asked Lopez Obrador one final question: "How should I explain who you are … to my 4-year-old son?" He didn't hesitate: He should be characterized "as a social leader, a fighter."
In filing a court challenge to the election results earlier this month, Lopez Obrador made clear that he is serious about reinforcing at least the "fighter" part of his reputation. But does he really have his country's best interests at heart?
On the evening of the presidential election on July 1, as soon as Mexico's electoral commission announced the results of its widely respected "quick count," the National Action Party's Josefina Vaquez Mota and the New Alliance Party's Gabriel Quadri quickly conceded. Outgoing President Felipe Calderon congratulated Peña Nieto on his victory on national TV.
Lopez Obrador, however, held back.
In the days that followed, he rejected not only the "quick count" but also the official final vote tally. He demanded a recount of ballots from polling places overseen by 1 million average citizens. More than half of the ballots were retallied, and once again the count found Peña Nieto leading. Lopez Obrador dismissed that finding as well.
He is now seeking the annulment of the election on every ground he can think of. He has spoken of a sense of general unfairness, of media bias, of the perverse and deliberate inaccuracy of the polls and of what he and his followers have deemed to be "massive vote buying" by the PRI, which dominated Mexican politics for seven decades before being ousted from power in the 2000 presidential election.
The court has until early September to decide whether Lopez Obrador's claims have merit. Meanwhile, his disgruntled supporters are going to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to push their assertions that the election was unfair. But social-media-generated indignation does not a judicial invalidation make.
To prevail, Lopez Obrador would have to prove that the PRI acted illegally in winning the election, that it bribed voters, that the vote count was crooked or that the media acted unscrupulously and illegally in promoting Peña Nieto's candidacy. According to many legal experts, Lopez Obrador is highly unlikely to convince the court. Nor has he been able to sway public opinion: A recent poll by the newspaper Reforma found that two-thirds of Mexicans (including a majority of those in Lopez Obrador's own party) think he should stop his fight.
But if the court's decision doesn't favor him, Lopez Obrador will be faced with a familiar decision: whether to finally accept the verdict of Mexican institutions, or to continue his seemingly interminable battle against them.
One can argue that challenges such as this are healthy and help contribute to the strength of Mexico's democracy. But part of living in a democratic nation is accepting the verdicts of its institutions. If Lopez Obrador were to reject the court's decision and encourage social unrest (however peaceful), that would undermine rather than strengthen the nation's democratic progress.
Since 2000, Mexico has steadily built its democratic institutions, and it has made remarkable progress. That's not to say it is perfect. Money still flows under the table and votes are still bought. The political parties have, unfortunately, gained some influence over the country's election commission, which is supposed to be independent. But things are nevertheless far better than they were.
If the law was broken in the election, the nation's courts should intervene. But if they rule that the election violated no laws, Lopez Obrador should accept the will of the majority (those 18 million voters he has called "masochists"). If he thinks Mexican election laws need changing to strengthen the democratic process, then he should work through the system to effect those changes.
Taking the high road is never easy, but there are politicians who have done it admirably. In 2000, Al Gore had to decide whether to accept the defeat dealt him by a single vote in the Supreme Court. Gore knew that democracy probably hadn't been served, yet he accepted the verdict with grace: "While I strongly disagree with the court's decision," he said on hearing the decision, "I accept it. For the sake of our unity and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession."
For a man groomed for the presidency from an early age, capitulation must have been extremely difficult. Still, Gore did what he felt was best for the country and its democratic institutions. If Lopez Obrador needs a model, he need look no further than Gore.