Sometimes, No Se Puede

Mexico's leading leftist refuses to master the art of losing.
July 11, 2012 |
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Memo to Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, the Mexican presidential candidate who lost on July 1 by six percentage points: Losing is bad; not accepting your defeat is worse.

Losing well is an underappreciated virtue. Whether we’re talking about a family game of Monopoly, a summer softball league, or an intense firm whose associates vie for a promotion to be partner, the ability to lose gracefully, and concede defeat in a manner that isn’t destructive, is essential to community well-being.

The art of graceful losing is also vital to any democracy. Americans relish the political rite of the election night concession speech by losing candidates as much as they do the shaking of hands between winning and losing coaches on the sports field. And for good reason: A losing candidate’s concession legitimizes electoral verdicts and allows opposing partisans to accept their outcomes.

It’s not easy, of course. When we participate in any type of contest, even if all of the odds are against us, we usually believe we might win. And there’s always the temptation to keep fighting somehow, even if it means extending the contest. However, a healthy society requires a mature political culture to counter that temptation.

Mexico’s democracy is suffering some growing pains on this art-of-losing front. In the 2006 presidential election, the leftist Lopez Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City, lost a three-way race to the conservative Felipe Calderón by the smallest margin ever: only 0.58 percent (243,934 votes). That year it was understandable that Lopez Obrador didn’t concede the night of the vote or in the days immediately after. He decided to challenge the election through all possible legal means, as was his right. But once the Federal Electoral Tribunal declared Calderón president-elect, the country would have been better served if Lopez Obrador had conceded. Instead, he called for street protests and proclaimed himself the country’s “legitimate President.”

Graceful losing, it’s worth noting, isn’t only a sacrificial art that is important to social cohesion. There’s also an element of self-interest involved; losing gracefully in an electoral context enhances your prospects of winning the next time. This is the tragedy of Lopez Obrador. What we can only call in Spanish a “berrinche” (tantrum) cost his party dearly, and has retarded the emergence of a democratic left in Mexico. His party, the PRD, was pummeled in the mid-term elections of 2009, dropping from the second largest party to the third largest party in the lower chamber of Congress.

Lopez Obrador tried to reinvent himself and present a more conciliatory face in this year’s presidential campaign. But unfortunately, after the polls closed on July 1 and exit surveys had him trailing the PRI candidate by more than six percentage points, Lopez Obrador refused to concede (unlike Josefina Vázquez Mota of Felipe Calderón’s party, who came in third) and has been claiming irregularities in the process ever since.

I didn’t vote for the winner, the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto, and I’m certainly not happy to see the PRI win back the presidency for the next six years. Many Mexicans felt the PRI was doomed for good after voting the party out in 2000. Most of its members were referred to as “dinosaurs” for good reason. They represented a system that ran Mexico with an iron fist for seven decades. The fact that Peña Nieto won with less than a majority of votes is a problem, and I would like Congress to pass a political reform that would, among other important elements, enable a run-off between top two vote getters. But I am not in denial about the results.

Lopez Obrador is, and therefore ignores the advances Mexico has made. The PRI’s last president, Ernesto Zedillo, was a progressive man who built up a world-class independent electoral institution that set the conditions for his party to lose its first presidential election. And Zedillo conceded the results of the 2000 vote the night of the election (he personally was not on the ballot, as there is no re-election in Mexico). Zedillo now teaches globalization and economics at Yale, but he should teach a seminar on losing well, and the course could cover such other notable cases as Mikhail Gorbachev and South Africa’s F.W. de Klerk.

The formidable campaign run by Peña Nieto, the mobilizing power of many PRI governors, and the discontent of many voters with President Calderón’s record on job creation and security can explain the PRI’s victory. But the reason we now face the return of the PRI rather than a move to the left may well be Lopez Obrador’s reaction in 2006. He kept his party’s base this time around, but his self-absorbed anti-democratic antics kept too many moderate independents from embracing him. Ironically, the PRI appeared to many of these people as the safer, more democratic alternative.

No democracy is perfect, and Mexico’s certainly isn’t. But the Federal Electoral Institute, IFE, the country’s election overseer, is an impartial referee, and citizens of any number of countries would envy the public financing, equal-time broadcasting requirement, and free airtime for commercials granted Lopez Obrador and the other candidates in Mexico. Lopez Obrador disputes the results by pointing to instances where people were encouraged and pressured to vote for the PRI, and no doubt some of these cases may have involved improper or illegal behavior. But to pretend that the overall election was illegitimate or rigged, or that he would have won but for some improprieties, goes too far.

Had Lopez Obrador conceded gracefully in 2006, no amount of PRI campaign tactics or resources would have prevented him from doing far better this time around. Imagine if in 2006 Lopez Obrador had said something like, “for the sake of the unity of our people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession … I know that many of my supporters are disappointed, I am too. But our disappointment must be overcome … Now the political struggle is over and we turn again to the unending struggle for the common good of all Americans.” OK, make that “Mexicans” instead of “Americans,” but Al Gore’s words from the year 2000 would have fit the bill.

It is tragic, both for Lopez Obrador and for Mexico, that he has been unable to take the high road and the long view. Hopefully in coming days he will alter his tune. Otherwise, Mexico will continue to lack a vital feature of other major Latin American democracies: a modern, democratic left. One that knows how to lose, and can thus be trusted to win.

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