In the days since Joe Biden cemented victory, congratulations have poured in from around the world, with American allies and rivals acknowledging the result of the election, even as Donald Trump has refused to concede and peddled baseless claims of voter fraud.
Not every world leader has recognized Biden as U.S. president-elect, though.
“I can’t congratulate one candidate or the other. I want to wait until the electoral process is over,” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said on November 7, the day Biden’s victory was confirmed. López Obrador doubled down in the days after, saying his government does not “favor any party in the United States … Why should we act recklessly? Why don’t we just wait?”
American politicians and Mexican media have lambasted López Obrador over the position: Democrats in Congress called it a grave mistake (“a stunning diplomatic failure,” said Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas, who is vying to lead the House Foreign Relations Committee), political commentators in Mexico pronounced it a serious blow to the country’s future standing with the Biden administration, and the American press has been quick to tie López Obrador’s actions to his coziness with Trump—and highlight Mexico sharing a stance with Brazil, Russia, and North Korea, all of which have yet to recognize Biden’s win.
López Obrador has continued to dig in, pinning his decision on the Mexican constitution’s foreign-policy principles of nonintervention and national sovereignty, and declaring that his country is not a “colony” or a “wimp” that nations can bully. But his most telling justification came when he drew parallels to a previous controversial election: his own narrow 2006 loss to Felipe Calderón in a hotly contested vote, one in which foreign governments, including the U.S., recognized Calderón as Mexico’s president-elect before López Obrador had conceded. The legacy of that vote doesn’t just continue to affect Mexican politics—it offers lessons for American democracy as well.
López Obrador’s remarks in recent days—which notably have not made mention of his own efforts to delegitimize the results of presidential elections he lost—point to a pattern of authoritarian and populist leaders refusing to concede power when votes don’t go their way. Ruling politicians in Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua, Turkey, and Ukraine have tried to undermine other branches of government to consolidate power and dispatch with electoral challengers.
The Mexican leader’s subsequent success, however, also highlights a deeper challenge for the loser in an election: Crying foul, whether or not there is evidence of fraud or illegitimacy, may erode a country’s democracy by calling into question the very processes through which its leaders are chosen, but it nevertheless confers a short-term tactical advantage by galvanizing supporters and drawing in resources for future campaigns.
“There is, clearly, likely from López Obrador himself, that sense of I know what it’s like to be in a situation where I want to challenge electoral results, and that the U.S. president also should have that right be respected, and we will respect that,” Maureen Meyer, the director for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America, a research organization, told me.
In Mexico’s 2006 presidential election, the country’s most controversial since it became a modern democracy in 2000, López Obrador—who had built up popular support while serving as Mexico City’s mayor and from sparring with then-President Vicente Fox Quesada—rode populist momentum to emerge as the favorite to take the presidency.
As the campaign neared its end, however, López Obrador’s railing against the political elite veered into more conspiratorial thinking, and he raised the specter of electoral fraud and election rigging. When the votes were counted, Mexico’s federal election commission initially found the race too close to call, before eventually naming Calderón the winner a few days later—by a margin of just 0.58 percent. López Obrador demanded a recount, organized a massive sit-in of the capital’s main promenade and public square, and called the whole process “old-school fraud.”
After initially saying that he would respect the election commission’s review of the vote, López Obrador rejected its conclusion that he had lost and accelerated a campaign to delegitimize Calderón, his new government, and the institutions holding Mexico’s young democracy together. Despite losing, López Obrador declared himself Mexico’s “legitimate president,” derided the courts and electoral authorities in public speeches, appointed his own “cabinet,” and ultimately held his own inauguration in Mexico City—with significant popular support through it all. His allies in the Mexican legislature rejected Calderón’s legitimacy, and Calderón’s own inauguration lasted just five minutes. Calderón’s party members had to occupy the dais of the Mexican Congress to ensure that he could even enter the chamber and be sworn in, and he was rushed out of the building afterward to avoid the sporadic brawls that were breaking out at the time. Even after he was officially ensconced in office, Calderón never fully gained a political mandate: López Obrador and a coalition of opposition parties succeeded in obstructing many of his early initiatives, hamstringing the new president.
Refusing to concede an election leaves serious and lasting damage to a nation’s ability to believe in the integrity of its electoral process, erodes trust in its institutions, and disempowers reformers, Arturo Sarukhán, the Mexican ambassador to the U.S. during Calderón’s presidency, told me. “The first collateral damage [from López Obrador’s refusal to concede] was the electoral authority, and the second one was the credibility of the media,” he said. “You see some similarities between what happened … in Mexico and what has happened these past four years in the United States, and what could happen in the following months, particularly as Trump continues to say the current election has been stolen from him.”
In 2012, López Obrador again ran for president. This time, he lost by a larger margin, but went on to organize new protests, and again refused to concede. Afterward, he blamed political elites, the media, former presidents, and voter fraud for his loss. “Being out there as a shadow for so long, continuing to undermine institutions, challenging the integrity of the processes—it did do some damage” to Mexico’s democracy, Antonio Garza, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico under George W. Bush, told me about López Obrador. “You have to ask yourself, if Trump does the same thing—and this is the start of it right now, in terms of challenging the elections—if he maintains that presence, and still has the ability to bend officeholders to his will once he’s out of government … how much more institutional deterioration we’ll see in the United States.”
López Obrador represents a warning, and, in a similar fashion, so do other Latin American countries: Leaders such as Juan Orlando Hernández in Honduras, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua have shown how an incumbent can hold fast to power, while Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, and Guatemala are examples of places where political elites can manufacture impeachments or disqualify candidates from running for office. (Of course, the U.S. itself has long played a major role in undermining elections across the region.)
Latin America illustrates “what happens when you don’t have the right systems in place, and you don’t have citizens’ trust or politicians’ trust in their own systems, and how destabilizing that can be on the population,” Meyer said.
There are ways to fix all of this. One easy solution? Facilitate the work of international observers in the U.S., who can lend nonpartisan legitimacy to elections and recounts and publicize their findings. Other, longer-term changes include reforms to encourage universal voter participation—whether in person or by mail—and efforts to make elections more transparent by educating the public about how states run them. The United States’ lack of a central election authority or uniform way to run voting also presents larger challenges, contributing to questions and confusion about vote tallies and election results.
But even if systems are changed, if populations are more informed and more trusting about how votes are counted, and faith in institutions is restored, a core tenet of elections will remain: Losers have to admit that they lost. That was not the case in Mexico in 2006, and it is not the case in the U.S. today.
And in this way, too, López Obrador’s experience highlights the tensions inherent in the implicit requirement of democracies that losers concede: He didn’t admit defeat, and, in the end, he was more successful for it.
His two unsuccessful campaigns for president, and his insistence both times that victory had been wrongfully taken from him, sowed the seeds for a third and eventually successful bid. In 2018, capitalizing on disillusionment that the Mexican people felt toward the political establishment—fueled in no small part by López Obrador’s own complaints—he finally won. This time, he was even able to relitigate the 2006 election by running against Calderón’s wife and his rival party’s new leader, Ricardo Anaya.
In López Obrador’s case, refusing to concede didn’t doom his political career. Instead, his obstinacy helped him triumph.