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A Mexican demagogue rises again.

THE GREAT THEORIST Leszek Kolakowski once told the following parable: Two girls are racing in a park. The one behind cries at the top of her lungs, “I’m winning! I’m winning!” Suddenly, the girl in the lead quits the race and sobs into her mother’s arms: “There’s no way to beat her. She always wins.” 

Before the 2006 Mexican presidential elections, the candidate of the left, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, cried, “I’m winning, I’m winning.” When he lost by the narrow margin of 0.56 percent, not only did he refuse to accept the results; he announced that he had been the victim of (unsubstantiated) fraud, proclaimed victory, declared “to hell with institutions,” occupied the Paseo de la Reforma (Mexico City’s main thoroughfare) for six weeks, anointed himself “Mexico’s legitimate president,” and appointed a parallel Cabinet.

López Obrador has, in the past, publicly compared himself to Jesus Christ. For the last six years, he has embarked on a self-styled “evangelical mission,” visiting every one of Mexico’s 2,438 municipalities. At each stop, he collected signatures for his civil society organization, an outfit called morena, which is short for the Movement of National Renewal—a name that evokes the “Virgen Morena,” the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s most important religious symbol. He never doubted that he would once again be the candidate of the left. It is true that, in this past campaign, he toned down his rhetoric, trumpeting a message of reconciliation and promising a “Republic of Love.” But he never stopped exclaiming, “I’m winning! I’m winning!” even though surveys consistently placed him in a distant second.

Last month, López Obrador lost the election by more than 6.5 percent, not a small margin. He was defeated by Enrique Peña Nieto, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who received 3.2 million more votes. It would seem a clear-cut outcome, but concessions of defeat are inimical to López Obrador’s temperament. Once again, he is crying fraud. He has appealed to the judicial authorities (the Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judiciary) to have the elections annulled. The tribunal has until September 6 to issue its ruling, which cannot be appealed. But the possibility of López Obrador’s triumphing seems remote. According to electoral laws, the principal trigger for annulling a vote is the presence of proven irregularities in 25 percent of the country’s 143,132 polling places. Since there’s no evidence to justify that case, López Obrador’s lawyers haven’t made it. They claim instead that the coverage of the private TV networks favored Peña Nieto and that PRI illegally financed its campaign and bought votes.

Even as the country awaits the tribunal’s ruling, mass protests are already in the streets: A sector of society (especially students in Mexico City) is riled by the perception of fraud. Social networks are abuzz with talk like, “If there is imposition, there will be a revolution.” That so many young people feel so aggrieved—so unwilling to accept the election’s inarguable conclusion--shows the cost López Obrador has already imposed on Mexican democracy. There are other signs of looming ugliness: some of López Obrador’s supporters have blamed electoral fraud on a “Jewish conspiracy,” a break with Mexican political culture. 

It’s theoretically possible, though remote, that López Obrador will accept the verdict. Good sense might prevail (especially among the moderate left, which now occupies the mayoralty of the Federal District and two governorships). His own comrades might persuade him to accept the ruling; he would resume leadership of morena and dedicate himself to impeding energy and labor reform. As the next election approaches, the left might opt for a moderate candidate capable of attracting the middle class that López Obrador has permanently alienated. 

That is, however, a scenario inconsistent with López Obrador’s history and tendencies. It is true that he has shown a measure of rhetorical restraint in recent weeks, at least by his own standards. But his advisers openly discuss his desire to unleash a mass protest movement. Arturo Núñez—his principal legal adviser, a serious politician, and the governor-elect of the state of Tabasco—once told me that López Obrador has said, “It’s not the electoral process that moves this country forward; it’s mass protests.” The object lesson of Bolivia is clearly on his brain—where public pressure forced a sitting president to resign, paving the way for Evo Morales. 

But returning to Kolakowski’s story, who is that girl in the lead? She is democracy itself, of course. Many times she has been tempted to give up the race, and López Obrador’s voice is both strident and menacing. We must hope that she doesn’t now abandon the course. 

This essay was translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer. 

This article appeared in the August 23, 2012, issue of the magazine