Calderón Wins in Mexico

Conservative, technocratic KSG alum takes Mexican presidency amid electoral crisis

Kennedy School graduate Felipé Calderón Hinojosa was elected president of Mexico on Sunday, dispatching the leftist former mayor of Mexico City, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, after a tight race that was too-close-to-call until the official count was finished yesterday.

Calderón, a former energy minister and the candidate of outgoing President Vicente Fox’s ruling National Action Party, focused his campaign on reviving the Mexican economy, promising to increase foreign investment, reduce tax rates, further liberalize trade, and maintain tight monetary policy.

In stark contrast, López Obrador, the candidate of the Revolutionary Democratic Party, promised to increase social spending through a massive public works project that he said would create jobs.

Though preliminary results had shown Calderón leading by 400,000 votes, or about one percent, the official count yesterday, with 100 percent of the electoral districts reporting, gave him a margin of 234,000 votes out of 41 million cast. The Federal Election Institute reported that Calderón received 35.9 percent of the vote to López Obrador’s 35.3 percent. López Obrador has declared that he will protest the results and had demanded a recount in the electoral courts.

Sunday’s vote marked Mexico’s first presidential election since 2000, when Vicente Fox broke the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) 70-year stranglehold on the nation’s politics. The race was a key moment in Mexican history, as the nation’s still-nascent electoral institutions presided over an election decided by less than one half of one percent of the vote.

If the results stand, Calderón will serve one six-year term at the helm of the world’s twelfth-largest economy.

LIFTING ALL BOATS

Calderón attended a mid-career program at the Kennedy School, graduating with a master’s degree in public administration in 2000. But even before coming to Harvard, he was already a high-ranking politician in Mexico, serving as national president of his party from 1996 to 1999.

Professors at the Kennedy School—including one of his former instructors and a scholar of Mexican politics—praised Calderón for his intelligence and knowledge of international economics.

Harpel Professor of Capital Formation and Growth Jeffrey A. Frankel, who taught Calderón in the late 1990s, said that he was impressed by “the determination and success with which [Calderón] set out to master the subject of international finance.”

“The specific courses he took here were rigorous quantitative classes—classes that almost nobody who has been away from solving problem sets and taking tests for ten years while working in high-powered jobs does well in,” Frankel said. “Usually they drop out of the course in the middle and switch to something less technical.”

But Calderón, he said, “not only finished, but succeeded brilliantly.”

‘OPORTUNIDAD’ FOR REFORM

Kennedy Visiting Professor in Latin American Studies Alejandro Poire—a scholar of Mexican politics who is teaching an undergraduate course on the subject in the fall—said that this election’s emphasis on economic policy was not surprising because “every single poll taken shows that employment is what people care about.”

He also said that even though Lopez Obrador drew most of his support from the poor and working classes, “there is a very good argument for Calderón’s approach” to helping the poor because inflation and sluggish economic growth often hurt the poor the most. This notion was seconded by Frankel, who said that “what Mexico’s poor most need now is what the rest of the country needs too: strong and sustainable economic growth.”

Poire also noted that Calderón is not against spending on social programs, only that he is “more likely to support targeted social programs.” Both professors singled out Fox’s successful “Oportunidades” welfare program as the sort of program that Calderón would support.

The professors also said they believed that Calderón would be able to enact more of his economic reform agenda unlike Fox, whose plans were consistently blocked by the Mexican Congress.

“Thanks to Calderón’s coattails, PAN won the largest share of the legislature in [its] history with 40 percent of the House and a little more of the Senate,” Poire said. And by forming a coalition government with key posts going to PRI modernizers, he added, Calderón should be able to push through his legislative reforms.

MEXICAN SWIFT BOATING?

The underlying debate on economics aside, the campaign was tarred by sharp negative attacks, including suggestions by the Calderón campaign that Lopez Obrador is another incarnation of Venezuelan President Hugo R. Chávez, the left-wing former general who has become one of the U.S.’s strongest opponents in Latin America.

Poire—who served on a panel studying the election with Dillon Professor of International Affairs Jorge I. Dominguez—said that Lopez Obrador’s credentials on democracy were “ambiguous” because as mayor of Mexico City he at times ignored the mandates of the local legislature, challenged the authority of the Mexican Supreme Court, and obstructed the operations of the renowned international anti-graft organization, Transparency International. But he hastened to add that comparing Lopez Obrador to Chavez is unfair—the former was not a military general, did not stage a coup, and, in fact, came up through the ranks of the PRI.

Having written widely on the influence of money in Mexican elections, Poire also noted that under the current financing system—where both parties have access to a great deal of money from the public purse to spend on attack advertisements—campaigns chock full of such ads would become commonplace.

But despite the often ugly nature of the campaign, Frankel said that “Harvard should take tremendous pride in [Calderón’s] success.”

“[It’s] not just because he coincidentally earned a degree from here [that] we can claim credit for him, [it’s] because Mexico is one of those countries where a highly competent ‘technocrat’ can get elected president,” Frankel said. “And to the extent Kennedy School was able to contribute to his skill base, this is exactly the sort of thing we try to do all the time and that we hope pays off.”

“I think it has really paid off in Felipe Calderón,” he added.

—Staff writer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at pbhayani@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Claire M. Guehenno can be reached at guehenno@fas.harvard.edu.