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.