WHEN THE Al Gore-George W. Bush stalemate occurred in 2000, a number of Mexican friends called me and, jokingly, suggested that maybe the United States needed to take some lessons on democracy from Mexico. After all, the nation had just elected, in a transparent election, its first opposition candidate, Vicente Fox. Now Mexico finds itself at a similar impasse. Can it survive it as peacefully as Americans did, but without half of the country going into psychological depression?
For now, none of my Mexican friends are announcing that they'd sell everything and move to the United States, the way thousands of disenfranchised American democrats threatened to move to Canada if George W. Bush took office. Not that my friends will be welcomed here with open arms; unfortunately, they know quite well that the United States is going through one of its acutely un-Mexican periods.
In any case, for them -- and for millions of others inside and outside Mexico -- it is obvious that the loser in the contested presidential elections isn't a particular candidate or a political party. Nor is it the young but untested democracy, which came to be barely six years ago. The loser is the country as a whole. A fracture the size of the Sonoran Desert has become evident between northern and southern Mexican states, between the rich and the poor, between those looking at the United States as a role model and those preferring to see Mexico as an integral part of Latin America.
The country has more than 100 million people, with another 30-plus million living north of the Rio Grande. Roughly 1 out of every 2 Mexicans went to the polls last Sunday. The majority of voters split their loyalty between Felipe Calderón, the Harvard-trained conservative of the ruling party National Action Party, or PAN, as well as Fox's hand-picked successor, and the left-wing former major of Mexico City, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD.
Calderón has a stiff personality, just like Gore. He is pro-business and since the beginning he's been the White House's choice. López Obrador, by contrast, is a demagogue. Although secular, he perceives himself as a messianic figure capable of solving the nation's problems magically. The Bush administration has polarized world diplomacy and it is clear that López Obrador's attractiveness has resulted in part from his on-and-off relationship to other current Latin American leftist leaders, such as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Bolivia's Evo Morales, and Argentina's Néstor Kirchner. To people south of the border, the bullying by Washington of those unsupportive of its war on terror and its desire to impose democracy as a solution to local problems has gone far beyond what's acceptable.
The electoral commission, as well as hundreds of foreign observers, declared the presidential election to be impeccable. López Obrador and his supporters aren't so sure. Approximately three million votes were not counted the first time around. Moreover, some sealed boxes that were reopened by the commission had discrepancies that did not favor López Obrador but did favor the candidate coming as a distant third in the race, Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolution Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for more than 70 years.
Even though before the election all candidates signed a binding document accepting the results as long as they were clean, López Obrador is challenging the outcome. Who could blame him? Years ago his party lost another presidential election in an overt fraud when Carlos Salinas de Gortari was declared the winner even though the PRD's candidate, Cuauthémoc Cárdenas, was clearly the winner. The question isn't only if and to what extent López Obrador will mobilize his base but who could govern a country so polarized at its core. The schism was already apparent when NAFTA was signed in 1994. The division has now been exacerbated. The policies of Salinas de Gortari, Ernesto Zedillo, and Fox haven't lived up to the challenge. Mexico's economy has expanded its base but more than a third of the population lives in poverty.
Calderón is likely to continue with the same policies of the Fox administration. It is clear that millions of Mexicans want change. López Obrador won't go down in history as a lame duck. He'll put up a fight. But even if López Obrador ends up unseating Calderón -- hopefully, with little violence -- Mexico will need more than a miracle to cure its broken heart.
For now my Mexican friends aren't making any jokes.
Ilan Stavans is a professor of of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His book ``The Disappearance: A Novella and Stories" will be out in August.