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Our Lady’s Victory?

Catholic and pro-life vote key to Mexican election outcome

BY ALEJANDRO BERMÚDEZ

Latin America Correspondent

July 23 - August 5, 2006 Issue | Posted 7/23/06 at 10:00 AM

 

MEXICO CITY — Carlos Fuentes has no doubt who deserves credit for the outcome of Mexico’s July 2 presidential election.

Fuentes, arguably Mexico’s most influential living writer, attributes the win by the more pro-life candidate, Felipe Calderón, to the Virgin Mary.

As recently as April, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftwing former mayor of Mexico City, was leading Calderón by 20 percentage points in opinion polls. What erased that seemingly insurmountable gap?

“Catholicism was an incredibly important factor to push Calderón toward victory,” leftist writer Fuentes explained July 10 in the Reforma daily newspaper. “His victory is the victory of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of Mexico. She is the only true reality in Mexico. She is the only one in whom people believe.”

Added Fuentes, “The poorest Mexicans, natural voters of López, trust mostly in the Virgin. To the extent that Calderón was able to present himself as the Catholic candidate, he won.”

The outcome of the closest election in Mexico’s history — whose final result could be decided by Mexico’s courts as late as Sept. 6 — was completely unexpected earlier this year. And according to many observers, the Catholic and pro-life vote turned the tide against López, known in Mexico by his initials, AMLO.

In April, all polling organizations agreed that López, the candidate of the leftist coalition Por el Bien de Todos (For the Good of All) was leading by 20 points over Calderón, the candidate of outgoing President Vicente Fox’s conservative National Action Party (PAN).

The polls also showed that Roberto Madrazo from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled Mexico for 71 years before Fox’s victory in 2000, was trailing in a distant third place.

But things started to change dramatically in May, when López’ support plunged. Since then, both candidates ran neck-and-neck in the polls.

The election itself was so close that Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute did not issue final results until July 6, declaring that Calderón had won the presidency by a razor-thin 236,000 votes out of more than 40 million votes cast. Calderon won 35.88% of the popular vote, compared to 35.31% for Lopez and 22.26% for Madrazo.

The Bishops’ Role

Lopez’ supporters blamed the outcome on the intervention of Mexico’s Catholic hierarchy.

“The Catholic bishops have used all their power and influence, all kind of tricks and traps to prevent the victory of AMLO, a man who would guarantee a true separation between church and state,” claimed Edgar Gonzalez Ruiz, a political commentator who has written a book about an alleged “conservative conspiracy” that links the Catholic hierarchy and pro-life groups in Latin America with the Bush administration.

“The narrow victory of Calderón has nothing to do with Catholic bishops and a lot to do with bringing out the vote in a country that has traditionally a 60% abstention from voting,” countered Norma Domínguez, a political analyst of the non-profit organization Análisis Electoral.

Church spokesmen also dismissed the charges of political favoritism.

“The bishops have always acted within the boundaries of their rights and restrictions,” said Father Mario Angel Flores, a columnist for the Archdiocese of Mexico City’s weekly newspaper Desde la Fe. “They have insisted on two main points: that Catholic should go out and vote, and that they should vote according to their Catholic identity.”

In fact, a few days before the national elections, Cardinal Norberto Rivera of Mexico City said Catholics should “resist the temptation to stay home.”

“We must vote and give our support to the person, the party, or the national program that is best for our country, according to our Catholic principles and values,” he said.

But last December, Cardinal Rivera distanced himself from Calderón’s candidacy when asked by journalists if the National Action Party was his favorite party.

“I would rather vote for the PRI. … At least during their years in power, the ‘morning-after pill’ was not legal and abortion was never discussed,” responded Cardinal Rivera, in reference to the fact that the National Action Party-controlled government legalized the use and distribution of so-called “emergency contraception.”

Issues

Some bishops promoted guides for Catholic voters, but such guides all stated that the Church does not favor individual parties or candidates but is concerned instead with issues.

Among those issues are the same ones that have figured prominently in recent political and cultural debates north of the border — abortion, euthanasia and same-sex unions.

Lopez, 52, is a populist who favors more spending on social programs. Legalizing abortion and same-sex unions were part of his electoral program, although he publicly downplayed those positions by saying he would hold referenda on the issues.

Calderón, 43, a Harvard-educated economist who favors free-market and free-trade policies, is a proclaimed Catholic opposed to legalizing any form of abortion.

According to Carlos Polo, president of the Latin American branch of the pro-life Population Research Institute, “the Mexican bishops certainly remained neutral in terms of political parties, but for pro-life and pro-family leaders a political option was needed. And it was clear: López Obrador was the devil, and Calderón, even if not bold enough, was the only alternative.”

Polo said that the abstention rate among voters declined from 60% to 40% as a result of the political activism of pro-lifers.

“I believe political involvement [of pro-lifers] provided the narrow difference that has brought Calderón to the presidency,” he said.

Despite Calderón’s narrow margin of victory, unlike Fox he has substantial support in both the Senate and the Congress, where the National Action Party has become the largest single party and will enjoy greater influence than in the previous legislature.

A pro-life congressman-elect from the National Action Party, who spoke to the Register on condition of anonymity, admitted that his party has been “weak to say the least” in defending moral issues during Fox’s presidency.

“But I think this time we will see a difference and a greater involvement,” the legislator said. “Most of my colleagues are not familiar with life and family issues, unfortunately. But most of them have a personal education that would make them naturally favor the cause of life and family.”

Chavez a Loser

López has appealed Calderón’s victory to the Federal Electoral Tribunal, which has until Aug. 23 to review the challenge and until Sept. 6 to certify a winner.

But most analysts believe that Calderón will be confirmed as Mexico’s next president, as international monitors said they were satisfied the balloting was fair.

On July 6, the Mexican Bishops’ Conference issued a statement noting Calderón’s victory.

“We rejoice in the fact that, once more, Mexico has taken a great step in its democratic walk,” the bishops said. “Now, society must undertake an effort of reconciliation among the different political options.”

The bishops’ statement concluded by asking Mexicans to “recognize the winner” and to “get ready to cooperate with the new government for the good of our country.”

According to Polo, if Calderón’s victory is confirmed as expected, there will be another loser in the region: Venezuela’s leftist President Hugo Chavez, who is trying to build an alliance of populist Latin American governments against the United States.

“A common feature of these populist governments is that they are at odds with the Catholic Church and the protection of life from its conception to its natural end,” Polo said. “It is good to know that Mexico will not play on Chavez’ side.”

Alejandro Bermúdez
is based in Lima, Peru.