Drama Down South: Rallying in Mexico City, Echoes of 2000

A week ago last Saturday, the day before Mexico’s Presidential election, I was in Mexico City’s central district, crushed by thousands of people waving yellow flags and parading toward the city’s giant plaza. Young activists, middle-aged couples and squat old women in shawls shouted “Obrador! Obrador!” An S.U.V. squeezed through the crowd. Its door opened and a bushy-haired, cherub-cheeked, middle-aged man stepped out of the backseat. Only 10 feet in front of me, grinning and waving at the now-electrified sea of Chilangos, was the populist front-runner candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Unlike large gatherings in New York that I’ve been to—especially after Sept. 11—this rally was more sanguine than sanguinary; the police gently prodded the crowd, deftly stopping car traffic at one intersection to let the energized mob through, and using a stream of vehicles at another intersection to block the way. There were no portable metal fences penning the participants in, no line of bullying officers arbitrarily blocking no-go areas. After Mr. López Obrador emerged from the S.U.V., he addressed the crowd full of confidence; the polls gave him a slight lead in the election to be held in four days. “We are going to win!” he bellowed into the microphone, his voice booming over the now hundreds of thousands of cheering people.

Victory, it seemed to the crowd, was assured. After all, this was Mexico City, the largest city in the country—one of the largest on earth! If Mr. López Obrador could overwhelmingly carry all these people, how couldn’t he win the election?

I caught the Mexico bug several years ago, when I visited the country during a college break. One trip south led to another, and by the time I moved east to New York from California, I had logged many months south of the border, traveling from the desert north of Baja California, Sonora and Chihuahua states down to the jungles and beaches of Oaxaca and Veracruz.

But what had really excited me was the sprawling capital megalopolis—the Aztecs’ ceremonial pyramid, which juts out of the ground just north of the Zócalo in the city’s geographical, historical and political center; the art galleries of the Condesa and Roma neighborhoods, where stone mansions damaged in the mid-80’s from powerful earthquakes were consequently abandoned by their rich owners and taken over by artists in need of cheap housing; and Coyoacán, an upscale neighborhood that was formerly a small village, subsequently swallowed up by urban sprawl, where Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo once cavorted and where Leon Trotsky, in exile, fell victim to his Stalinist assassin’s ice pick.

Mexico’s history is etched on the stone street corners downtown; avenues and neighborhoods are named after Aztec warriors and revolutionary heroes and martyrs; you can still walk into cantinas where, legend has it, Pancho Villa shot up the ceiling during a drunken fiesta, or an upscale restaurant where Emiliano Zapata and his campesino followers incongruously sat and ate dinner at the counter. The city is a palimpsest—scratch the surface next to an Art Deco office tower and you’ll see the Spanish colonial era; scratch it elsewhere and the plumed head of Quetzalcoatl stares out from between cobblestones. As a bartender told me later that week, with the weight of history hanging heavy on every street corner, “The central district is surreal.”

It’s sometimes said that Mexico is in a state of permanent revolution, and the last couple of Presidential elections have supported that view. After the 1910-20 revolution, power was consolidated by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or P.R.I., which reigned nearly unopposed for 71 years. But in 1988, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas just nearly attained the Presidency after splitting off from the ruling party and creating his own. The P.R.I. was weakened, and two elections and 12 years later, the ironically named center-right P.A.N. (the National Action Party; pan means “bread” in Spanish—a populist, left-wing symbol, if any at all) ascended to power with Vicente Fox.

Now, people whom I talked to around town were guardedly confident that Mr. López Obrador (of another party, the P.R.D.) would be elected. The Friday night before the election, in a second-story club in the bohemian Roma Norte neighborhood, I spoke with a photographer, Rubén, and his computer-programmer girlfriend, Rebecca.

“We want López Obrador to win, of course,” Rubén told me as a three-piece tango band played in the smoky room. Cigarette smoke filled the air, and couples sat languorously at tables piled with empty wine bottles and heaping ashtrays. “But sometimes he plays up class differences a little too much, and that scares people off.”

Indeed, Mr. López Obrador’s opponent, Felipe Calderón of the P.A.N., had accused him of being a politician in the same vein as leftist anti-American firebrand Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. But Mr. López Obrador employed more conciliatory rhetoric. At his pre-election rally, he emphasized the need to help Mexico’s poor but said that he would not increase spending dramatically.

Other Chilangos weren’t interested in the election at all. At the Café el Centro, not far from the Zócalo, I spoke to an advertising businessman named Manuel briefly about it. “I do not care for politics at all,” Manuel told me as he puffed cigarette after cigarette. “Sports, yes. Do you like football?”

On Election Night, the Federal Election Institute had guaranteed that a winner would be declared by 11 p.m. I had been struck down by food poisoning the night before, when, ironically enough, I had gone to a restaurant in the upscale Polanco neighborhood—two overpriced tacos from a glorified taco shop next to a Fendi and Hermès store incapacitated me for the next 12 hours. It was like eating from Chinatown street vendors all week, but getting stricken after a burger at Balthazar. Perhaps it was the lack of beer; federal law had decreed that there would be no alcohol sales the day before the election. Sober voters apparently make sober decisions.

But I managed to drag myself down to the Zócalo around 10:30 p.m. to read the crowd, and from the look of it, Mr. López Obrador was coasting to victory. The yellow flags, which days before had read “Smile! We Are Going to Win!”, now read “Smile! We Won!” A salsa band played on the giant stage, and people were hugging and laughing, assured of victory.

By the appointed hour, a large video screen was filled with the studious profile of the president of the Federal Election Institute. After a rambling, self-congratulatory 10-minute rundown of the mechanics and safeguards of the electoral process, he said the results of the election were too close to call. The crowd, nevertheless, continued to grow and kept chanting Mr. López Obrador’s name. It was becoming a victory party, although no victory was evident. Clutching my stomach, I made my way back to my hotel and climbed into bed. All night, I could hear people chanting, cars honking and fireworks exploding as the party raged outside my window.

For the next three days, the city returned back to normal. The polls showed Mr. Calderón as having a slight lead, and he quickly proclaimed victory over Mr. López Obrador. But a certain matter of three million missing votes became an embarrassment for the Federal Election Institute after Mr. López Obrador called attention to them. The margin of victory narrowed, but I, unfortunately, was due to fly home.

On my last night in the city, I went to a mescal bar in Condesa, a neighborhood not unlike Chelsea: full of galleries, cafés, artists and fashionistas—and their hangers-on—but minus the large discotheques. My bartender, Hector, was skeptical about the results of the election. “You know those three million votes they ‘found’?” he asked. I nodded. “Doesn’t that seem a little suspicious?” Yeah, I agreed, about as suspicious as Florida in 2000. He filled my glass with another large pour of mescal and clinked it with his glass of water. “ Salud.”

The next day, posters for Mr. López Obrador still hung in store and taxi windows. Store workers scrubbed the stone sidewalks, Indian women sat next to the street with hands outstretched to passersby, and businessmen hurried by. A street-vendor woman blew into the coal chamber of her taco stand, heating the grill for her first customer. A man in a yellow shirt stopped at a lamppost and hung a poster for an upcoming pro–López Obrador rally.

I flew home and scoured the papers for news of that rally. While the one I was in was peaceful and optimistic, I wonder how the mood has now changed. Reports are trickling in of more fraud than originally thought: discarded ballot boxes found in the dump, videotapes of P.A.N. workers stuffing votes. The official election results are tight—a difference of only 244,000 votes. That’s about the same number of people surrounding Mr. López Obrador when I stood there, slack-jawed and amazed, as the populist politico stood confident in his impending victory and waved at us all.