What Does the Future Hold for Mexican Politics? A federal tribunal in Mexico recently declared Felipe Calderon president elect. But that hasn't stopped his opponent, Manuel Lopez Obrador, from continuing the fight. Guests examine politics, protest and the next leader of Mexico.
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What Does the Future Hold for Mexican Politics?

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What Does the Future Hold for Mexican Politics?

What Does the Future Hold for Mexican Politics?

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Two weeks ago, Mexico's electoral court declared Felipe Calderon the winner of July's highly contested presidential election. The tally was razor thin; Calderon, the candidate of the ruling National Action Party won by fewer than 234,000 votes, that's out of some 41 million cast. The losing candidate will not go quietly. Andrès Manuel Lopez Obrador, of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, refuses to accept the court's decision and continues to demand a complete recount, vote-by-vote. Thousands of his supporters set up a sprawling tent city in the main plaza in Mexico City, where they blocked traffic on some of the main roads in a city already notorious for gridlock. Lopez Obrador plans to sustain the protest and to establish a parallel government.

Today we discuss Mexico's political crisis and what the close vote says about the country's deep political and economic fault lines. Later, the Political Junkie in full throttle - Ken Rudin joins us for an overview yesterday's primaries. If you're curious about the results, the issues or the candidates, you can send us e-mails now. The address is talk@npr.org.

But first, what next in Mexico? If you have questions about the standoff, the challenge to the legitimacy of the president-elect, or the challenges he will face, our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

And we begin with Manuel Roig-Franzia, Mexico City bureau chief for The Washington Post. He's on the phone with us today from Havana in Cuba, where he's covering this week's Summit of Non-Aligned Nations.

And nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. MANUEL ROIG-FRANZIA (Mexico City Bureau Chief, The Washington Post): As always, a pleasure to be with you and from an even more exotic local than usual.

CONAN: Than usual, and it sounds a little exotic on that telephone. Maybe we can improve that line a bit. This Saturday is Mexico's Independence Day. Traditionally a military parade marches down the avenue through that main square, where Lopez Obrador supporters are camped out. There are some who fear a confrontation.

Mr. ROIG-FRANZIA: Well, everyone has been worried about a confrontation from day one of the dispute (Inaudible) about. But I have to tell you that having walked around in the protest cities that have been set up, the tent cities that Lopez Obrador people are using, haven't seen any signs of people burning things, of people seeking a violent confrontation. But still, that fear hangs over any large demonstration in Mexico because there's a history of violence related to political movement. For that reason, we're all on the edge of our seats.

CONAN: And even before the Independence Day Parade, there's an event called The Grito. Tell us about that?

Mr. ROIG-FRANZIA: Oh, this is one of the great moments in Mexico and particularly in Mexico City. The Grito is the commemoration of the Mexican Revolution. And Grito translated from the Spanish means the (Unintelligble). And this is this great cry, big shout that the Mexican (Unintelligible) for independence. So on the 15th, every year, there is (Unintellible).

CONAN: And we're having difficulties with that cell phone connection with Manuel Roig-Franzia, the Mexico City bureau chief of The Washington Post, whose with us today from Havana in Cuba where he's covering the Non-Align Summit. And we'll try to see if we can get a better connection to him and bring you his comments again.

We're talking about the election this past summer of the president in Mexico, where Felipe Calderon - the conservative candidate of the ruling National Action Party - defeated the leftist candidate Lopez-Obrador, by just a little bit under 230,000 in an election where 41,000 - 41 million votes were cast. There were widespread protests by Mr. Lopez Obrador and his supporters that the election had been stolen. They demanded a recount. In a procedural quirk, they demanded recounts in several specific areas.

Those recounts went ahead. They adjusted the totals slightly in Mr. Lopez Obrador's favor but nowhere close enough to overturn the results of the election. And his supporters though demanded vote-by-vote, a recount; and they continued to do that, as we were hearing from our reporter there. It's an occupation really of the Central Square in Mexico City, reminiscent of the situation that we've seen in Eastern Europe in various places, in the kinds of protests for democracy and that have great appeal. At the same time, these protests have gone on for - well, weeks now and they continue to block traffic and create other problems in Mexico City, which of course annoys people too.

The fact of the matter is, in Mexico's presidential election, the winning candidate, Mr. Calderon, got about 36 percent of the vote, Mr. Lopez Obrador, slightly less. Neither one has a great mandate. There's sort of a political gridlock, as well as traffic gridlock in Mexico, where it's difficult for anybody to get anything through the Congress or, indeed, to take the decisive steps. And that's - it's a situation that maybe addressed in the future.

And one of the things we're curious about is how much sway the new president, Mr. Calderon, is going to be able to have with the difficult situation in Congress.

Joining us now is Pamela Starr, a Latin America analyst at the Eurasia Group. She's with us from her office here in Washington, D.C.

Nice to have you on the phone with us.

Ms. PAMELA STARR (Latin America Analyst, Eurasia Group): It's a pleasure to be with you.

CONAN: And the crisis that Mr. Calderon faces: he is a minority and is going to have difficulty getting any help from other parties.

Ms. STARR: I think that's a overstatement of the problems that Calderon is going to face. He clearly is a minority president; his party holds about 41 percent of the seats in the Congress. But he also has some viable candidates for alliances in the Congress, particularly on an issue-by-issue basis. There is a party known as the New Alliance Party that strongly supported Calderon for president; that will give him an extra nine seats in the Lower House.

But also, the former ruling party, the PRI, has indicated that it is willing to work with Calderon. And its incentive is that it sees this as a way of renewing itself. It lost very badly in the July 2nd election. But with Lopez Obrador's and the PRD's refusal to play by the institutional rules of democracy, the PRI now sees an opportunity to reposition itself - as rather surprisingly - as the party of democracy in Mexico and the democratic opposition. So I think Calderon will be able to get some legislation through the Congress.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. At that same time, he's going to have to figure out some way to accommodate the demands of the opposition.

Ms. STARR: Absolutely. I don't mean to say that it's going to be easy to govern Mexico. I think it's going to be very challenging to govern Mexico through - at least through 2007. Not the least because the PRI is going to be very tough bargaining partner, because they realize how important they are to Calderon. But also because Lopez Obrador and his supporters are going to be nipping at Lopez Obrador's - excuse me, at Calderon's heels throughout his - for the first few years of his presidency, at least.

And Lopez Obrador, although many people are talking about how his power has declined because of the blockades of streets in Mexico City, and that there is some discontent within the party about his tactics, in fact, all of that is very much overstated. Lopez Obrador is very much in the leadership of the left in Mexico and he has strong support of about a third of the population of key unions and of almost a third of the members of the national congress. So he's in a good position to cause a lot of problems for Calderon.

CONAN: He's also the former mayor of Mexico City and extremely popular there.

Ms. STARR: Exactly. He has still about a 60 percent approval rating in Mexico City.

CONAN: And as you look at this - really, we see the split between the two leading presidential candidates, but they reflect a deep division within Mexican society.

Ms. STARR: Yes. Clearly, about a half of Mexico voted for an economic program that's completely different from what Felipe Calderon proposed, and this half of Mexico's society tends to be concentrated in the poorest segments of Mexico, and particularly in Mexico's south. This election was a wakeup call for all of Mexico to - it reminded Mexico of the profound divisions - socioeconomic divisions and cultural divisions that are within Mexico. Calderon must directly confront this challenge if he wants to be able to be seen as the legitimate president of all of Mexico as he insists, but also if he wants to weaken Lopez Obrador's capacity to oppose his legislative initiatives.

CONAN: And could he co-opt some of the positions that Mr. Lopez Obrador ran on? For one thing, the idea of pensions for older people.

Ms. STARR: He can and he will. It's fully expected that when he reaches the presidency, one of the things he's going to do is propose - potentially in the budget that he's proposing for this fall - is propose an old-age pension, which was Lopez Obrador's signature policy in Mexico city, but also to support a price supports for - excuse me - subsidies on electricity and gasoline for the poorest in Mexican society. These are exactly the kinds of handouts that Lopez Obrador had proposed. And Calderon is going to use them in the hope of gaining support from precisely those segments of the society who were afraid of voting for somebody like Calderon - who seemed to be more of the same, more of an old economic elite in Mexico that paid no attention to them.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Let's see if we can get a caller on the line. 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. Let's go to John. John's calling us from Florida.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. I notice this story every time it's presented in the U.S. press they always tag Lopez Obrador as a leftist, and I know she just did the same thing about ten minutes ago.


JOHN: And then Calderon is presented as the conservative.


JOHN: Now, it should be right wing is Calderon, which is what he is, you know. I mean, he's somewhat extreme. That's one point.

CONAN: Well let's ask Pamela…

JOHN: It's not just semantics, you know. Because leftist has this socialist connotation, you know. In reality, Lopez Obrador is a populist.

CONAN: Let me ask Pamela Starr. Do you think that's an accurate characterization?

Ms. STARR: I think we have to do is you think about it - I use those terms not in terms of extreme left, extreme right, but in terms of if you look at the center of politics in Mexico, Lopez Obrador is undoubtedly center left. Calderon is undoubtedly center right. And center right in Mexico is where politics currently is. So calling Calderon a conservative means that he stands for conserving the basic structure of politics, society, and economics in Mexico, which is absolutely true.

Lopez Obrador leans left because he favors more state involvement in the economy, more state efforts to restructure the nature of politics and that economy. That's why they get those labels.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call.

JOHN: And one other…

CONAN: I'm afraid we're out of time, John. We have to go to the break. So I'll put you on hold and we'll bring you back afterwards, all right? I think he's left us. Anyway, Pamela Starr, thank you very much for your coming up at the last minute and pinch hitting for us.

Ms. STAR: It was a pleasure.

CONAN: Pamela Starr, Latin-American analyst at the Eurasia Group joined us from her office in Washington, D.C. We'll continue this conversation after a short break. Again, 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Mexico may have a president elect but his opponent still refuses to accept defeat. Protests continue. Felipe Calderon, the declared winner, now has a tough job taking office and proving his legitimacy. Today we're talking with Manuel Roig-Franzia, the Mexico City bureau chief of the Washington Post, who joins us now, on we hope a better phone line from his hotel in Havana, Cuba, where he's covering the Nonaligned Conference. Manuel, you there?

Mr. ROIG-FRANZIA: Yes I am, and I think we're in better shape this time.

CONAN: It sounds much better on this end. Thanks very much for switching phones for us. And this question of legitimacy: is this continued protest - this shadow government that Lopez Obrador proposes to set up, is this going to challenge the legitimacy of the new president?

Mr. ROIG-FRANZIA: It's difficulty to imagine how you would run a parallel government in Mexico. Mexico has institutions related to its government and to its democracy that are pretty well founded. And to try to suddenly create a completely separate government structure - it's almost unimaginable. But I will say that when the question of legitimacy comes up, it means more than just within the confines of Mexico. And I'll give you a good example: I'm hear in Havana. Well, on television we see a lot of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, clearly one of the big players in Latin America right now. He was on television last night saying he will not recognize the new government of Mexico. That's a pretty astounding statement to hear, and it's something that Calderon will have to contend with.

CONAN: One person who has proposed that maybe world leaders could convince Mexico's two rival candidates to settle their differences is Jorge Castaneda. He's a former foreign minister of Mexico, from 2000 to 2003. Now a professor of Latin-American studies and international affairs at New York University. He joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on the program today, sir.

Mr. JORGE CASTANEDA (Former Foreign Minister of Mexico): Thanks for inviting me, Neal.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you - is this crisis going to build, do you think, or is it going to be diffused?

Mr. CASTANEDA: Well, I think it will very slowly be diffused but it will be quite a while before we really see it disappear. Lopez Obrador is losing support, is losing people, is losing momentum, but he still has a lot of support, a lot of people and a lot of momentum. And so I think it's not going to be a short-lived thing.

CONAN: And as this goes on, you have suggested that in fact, electoral reform ought to be at the heart of the new president's term.

Mr. CASTANEDA: Well, I think that both electoral and institutional reform. What president elect Calderon, I think, has to do is to give the country the institutions and the electoral system that it clearly does not have - electoral systems so that you can settle an election a little bit less than two months and that the losers accept their defeat. And institutions that allow the country to make decisions, which over the last ten years - four years of Zedillo - three years of Zedillo and six of Fox - has been practically impossible. These are not individual problems that Zedillo and Fox had. These are not personal problems, these are institutional challenges that have to be addressed.

CONAN: Wouldn't that involve a rewrite of the constitution?

Mr. CASTANEDA: It would imply some constitutional reforms. It's important to recall that Calderon's party, the P-A-N - the PAN - and the PRI, the former ruling party, together having two-thirds majority in the Congress. So they can at least hypothetically approve constitutional amendments that would transform both the electoral system and the institutional design that Mexico has. If Lopez Obrador wants this, it would be in his interest to do so. Because it would be conceivably impossible to reduce Calderon's term from six years to four years and then have a reelection campaign - have Calderon eligible for reelection. And he could run against Lopez Obrador in 2010, and you never know, maybe Lopez Obrador wins. I doubt it, frankly, after what he's done, but you never know.

CONAN: And as you look at the situation - we have some experience in this country of a narrowly-elected president after a disputed election going in and running - considering that a mandate and putting together his program. You suggested, in fact, that Mr. Calderon would be well advised to take on some of his opponent's programs.

Mr. CASTANEDA: Well at least through this triangulation idea that I think Dick Morris invented for Bill Clinton and that Anthony Giddens sort of conceptualized for Tony Blair in Britain - perhaps a bit before or a bit later - I don't really know which came first. Not directly to take over Lopez Obrador's suggestions or proposals but to transform them into something which is both viable and acceptable to Lopez Obrador's supporters, but also to Calderon's constituency - which after all, the ones who got him there in the first place.

And I think on several accounts it can be done whether it's a universal pension or the equivalent of sort of Social Security and Medicare in Mexico, which the un-entitled elderly to not have in Mexico - and which is a real problem that Lopez Obrador was pointing to during his campaign.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved again on the conversation. We'll go to Rodriguez(ph). Rodriguez is calling us from New York City.

RODRIGUEZ (Caller): Yes, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

RODRIGUEZ: Well, Mr. Felipe Calderon is going to have a very, very difficult time because the election was almost 50/50. But Lopez Obrador, in reality has to really (unintelligible) and be a good listener(ph) and be a positive opposition. Up to now he's not doing that and he's going to lose a lot of people. But if Felipe Calderon - if he continues what Fox did - create four million jobs - not in Mexico, here in United States - it's a big mistake. So Mr. Calderon has to do - has to appease and really has to reach to the half of the population of Mexico City. And which is perhaps more than half - good majority - because they are poorer.

So I wish him good luck, but I wish Lopez Obrador accepts the Felipe Calderon as the president and fights in a good way, with good rules, and be the best opposition - but positive opposition. And he can be the next president in another six years. He can't - we're talking about Mexico City, we're not talking about people. And Mexico is going to exist more than six years. So the thing is, it's going to be tough for Felipe Calderon, no question about that.

CONAN: Let's turn to Jorge Castaneda. What Rodriguez says: take the long view. It doesn't appear that the opposition is taking the wrong view right now.

Mr. CASTANEDA: Well Mr. Rodriguez is quite right in that Lopez Obrador should accept his defeat and should acknowledge and recognize that Felipe Calderon is the country's legitimate president because he won the election according to the institutions that Lopez Obrador's party contributed decisively to design and to create and to approve. The seven judges of the electoral court that decided that Calderon won, were voted in by Lopez Obrador's party in 1996 and in 2006. SO this is a first point, which is very important.

Now clearly, up until now, Lopez Obrador does not want to do that. He does not want to be a loyal opposition. He does not want to see his program implemented partly by Calderon. He does not want to support Calderon's initiatives that would mirror his own in the Congress. He wants to overthrow Calderon if he can't stop him from reaching office. And this is a question that many people in the United States and in Mexico who supported Lopez Obrador, I imagine, are asking themselves now: How come we didn't realize that this is a guy who in fact did not accept the institutional framework that Mexico had constructed over the last ten years? How come we didn't know that this was a fellow who would not accept that structure, those rules of the game, even though he participated in designing the rules of the game.

Well, they should ask themselves that question. Why didn't they know? Or to paraphrase famous saying in the United States: When did they know about Lopez Obrador and what did they know and when did they know it?

CONAN: Yeah. You say overthrow. This protest has been entirely peaceful up until now.

Mr. CASTANEDA: Well, it's been peaceful but its objectives have been very clear - they said so. They want to stop him from becoming president, from taking office. And if they can't stop him from taking office they want to subsequently overthrow him and create an interim government. They said so. One thing is to do so peacefully. I'm not sure how - where the difference between peacefully and violently is established. For example, not physically not allowing him to take the oath of office, is that peaceful or violent? I'm not so sure. Not letting President Fox deliver his state of the union message.

If, for example, the Democrats in the United States next January do not allow President Bush to deliver his State of the Union message after, perhaps, gaining a majority in the House - would that be peaceful or would that be violent? I don't know.

CONAN: Well, thank you so much for being with us today, Jorge Castaneda. We appreciate your time.

Mr. CASTANEDA: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Jorge Castaneda, a former foreign minister of Mexico. Now a professor of Latin American studies and international affairs at New York University.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is still with us on the line from Havana. This talk of overthrow - our conversation earlier, about the fears of a confrontation this coming weekend with that march through the center of Mexico City. All of that is tied up, as you were talking about earlier, in the long history of violence in Mexico.

Mr. ROIG-FRANZIA: Yeah. I think even with that history, a few months ago people would've said, well, there's no way they can stop Calderon from being inaugurated. There's no way they could overthrow him. But, you know, we saw a couple of weeks ago an extraordinary thing happen in Mexico, and that was President Vicente Fox being stopped by supporters of Lopez-Obrador's from giving his annual State of the Nation address. That had never, never happened in the history of Mexico.

And it did give a signal, and it certainly, I think, sent the message that the Lopez-Obrador protest movement is capable of doing some very surprising things.

CONAN: Again, there are fears of violence, but a lot of people would characterize some of the things that both you and Jorge Castaneda were talking about as civil disobedience.

Mr. ROIG-FRANZIA: Yeah. That's what's been occurring right now. And, but it's civil disobedience that is happening on a playing field that is very much tilted in favor of Lopez-Obrador. The reason is that Mexico City, the government of Mexico City - which is obviously the most important non-presidential, non-federal government entity in the country of Mexico - because one out of, almost one out of five Mexicans lives in Mexico City.

Mexico City, the city, is ruled by a Lopez-Obrador supporter. The mayor of Mexico City has allowed these demonstrations to take place. The mayor of Mexico City has had police block off streets. And not done nothing really to stop this from occurring.

Now if it moves into a different arena, if the protestors try to get on to the turf, so to speak, of the federal government, there is the possibility for the confrontation. If they were to try, for instance, to storm the gates of Los Pinos, which is the presidential complex, there you might see the possibility of some rough stuff.

CONAN: Manuel Roig-Franzia, thanks very much for being with us. We appreciate your time. And, again, thanks for switching phones for us.

Mr. ROIG-FRANZIA: Great pleasure. Sorry for the initial problem.

CONAN: Okay. Manuel Roig-Franzia is the Mexico City bureau chief of the Washington Post. He joined us today on the line from Havana in Cuba where he's covering for that newspaper, the Nonaligned summit.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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