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.”
Read: What worries foreign election observers
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.)