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US ambassador’s support of López Obrador’s past fraud claims could fuel election denial in 2024

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar's personal opinion about alleged electoral fraud in 2006 could embolden President López Obrador to make similar claims in the 2024 Mexican presidential election, political analysts told Courthouse News.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — The endorsement of past election fraud claims by the U.S. ambassador to Mexico could stoke similar allegations in the 2024 presidential election, according to political analysts consulted by Courthouse News.

Ambassador Ken Salazar said he believes the officially debunked claim that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was cheated out of an election win in 2006, despite the U.S. government’s position to the contrary, according to a New York Times article published Tuesday. 

His support could serve to legitimize allegations of election fraud in the presidential election in 2024 in the event that López Obrador’s Morena party does not come out the winner, political analyst José Antonio Crespo told Courthouse News.  

“With or without the ambassador’s declaration, López Obrador is not going to accept a defeat, but if he feels he has the backing of the U.S. government, he will believe he has more legitimacy to say there was fraud again,” said Crespo. 

The belief that the 2006 election was stolen from López Obrador is still widely held by the president’s supporters. Surveys have found that anywhere from 25-35% of the Mexican population thinks López Obrador, and not Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, of the National Action Party (PAN), should have taken the oath of office that year.

“López Obrador continues to remind people, feeding this idea by discrediting the PAN, and most of all Calderón,” said Crespo. 

Calderón narrowly won the 2006 election by a margin of just 0.56%, leading López Obrador to decry fraud in the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), now the National Electoral Institute. After the initial results were announced, he and his supporters protested for 47 days on Paseo de la Reforma Avenue, a major traffic artery in Mexico City, demanding a complete recount “vote by vote, box by box.”

The sit-in cost the surrounding neighborhood billions of pesos in losses and hundreds of employee layoffs. 

Comparing the 2006 election controversy to that in Florida during the 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, Crespo said that while there were indications that there could have been fraud, it was never conclusively demonstrated.

Political analyst Carlos Bravo Regidor also believed that López Obrador will not go quietly in the event that Morena doesn’t win in 2024. 

“And yes, he would certainly be tempted to use Salazar’s endorsement [to legitimize the claim],” he said. 

For its part, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City appeared to distance itself from the ambassador’s personal opinion.

“The U.S. government’s position on the 2006 Mexican presidential election has not changed,” an embassy spokesperson said in a written statement to Courthouse News. 

“Ambassador Salazar has attempted to better understand the many strong opinions in Mexico about both the 2006 election results and the overall electoral system, which is a critical safeguard to fair and free elections," the spokesperson continued. "Our focus is not on something that happened 16 years ago, but on working with the Mexican government to capitalize on the opportunities and addressing challenges of today.”

While much of López Obrador’s behavior — his spirited media presence, his heavy-handedness with critics and the press, inciting his followers to take action — can be compared with that of his conservative populist counterpart in the United States, Donald Trump, decrying election fraud is nothing new in Mexico.

“Lack of trust in elections in Mexico has a longer and more convoluted history than in the United States,” said Bravo, who described the creation of the IFE in 1990 as a “watershed” moment for the country’s long struggle for democracy.

“In 2006, López Obrador lost the election, but he ended up using these sore-loser politics that Trump used as well, and said that the election was stolen from him,” he said. “His supporters sort of revived that old mistrust of elections and mobilized the whole history of that against the novelty of Mexican democracy.”

However, López Obrador has centralized so much of the federal government’s power and brought so many institutions under Morena control during his presidency, that he should not have to resort to the same tactics of decades past if his party loses in 2024, according to Crespo.

The president could use the ample public resources at his disposal for the campaigns of the party’s candidates. Although such use is illegal, López Obrador was found to have done just that during his revocation of mandate vote earlier this year without any legal consequences. 

“Legislators have already done campaigns they’re not legally allowed to do, because they know they’ll go unpunished, as the electoral attorney’s office is in the hands of Morena,” said Crespo. 

In the event that the executive branch’s influence is unable to turn the tide of a Morena loss in 2024, López Obrador now has another powerful resource at his disposal that worries those keeping an eye on his militarization of the country.

“Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval has made it very clear that the Armed Forces unconditionally support the president and his Fourth Transformation project,” said national security expert Erubiel Tirado.

“This implies that before obeying the constitution, before obeying laws, who are they going to obey? President López Obrador, who embodies the nation,” said Tirado. “What might this look like? I don’t know, we can speculate, but it’s worth considering.”

For Crespo, the 47-day sit-in that shut the capital down in 2006 serves as precedent for what could be stronger action in 2024. 

“There wasn’t violence, no deaths, but it was a kind of attempt at a coup, and from within the government, it would be much easier, because Morena has all the resources of the state now,” said Crespo. “I don’t think the military would carry out a coup d’etat, like we’ve seen in other Latin American countries, but neither would it go against López Obrador.”

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