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Mexico’s turbulent election ride

Sergio Aguayo Quezada
15 May 2006

The spectre of electoral irregularities has reappeared in Mexico and could stain the presidential election of 2 July 2006. The possibilities are so worrisome that Mexico has requested an electoral-observation mission from the European Union. This is an unusual move, given that Mexico belongs to the select Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Its thirty member-states share not only a commitment to a market economy, but to democratic government as well.

Every competitive election unchains passions, especially when there is ideological confrontation. For more than a year, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution / PRD) has been ahead in the opinion polls; in April 2006, conservative Felipe Calderón of the Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party / PAN), to which president Vicente Fox belongs, caught up with him and in May led a poll for the first time.

Calderón now leads López Obrador (the former mayor of Mexico City) in the polls as a result of a reliance on negative campaigning, that malignant virus which corrupts democratic culture by mixing half-truths with bold-faced lies, turning adversaries into enemies. The designers of this dirty game are American advisors who present their million-dollar invoices in the name of "democracy", a term also invoked by conservative Washington to justify its wars of aggression.

Sergio Aguayo Quezada is professor at Mexico's Colegio de Mexico

Also by Sergio Aguayo Quezada in openDemocracy:

"Mexican democracy in peril" (April 2005)

"America's protean left: José Miguel Insulza and the OAS" (July 2005)

"Washington vs Latin American democracy" (November 2005)

"The Americas' new independence"
(March 2006)

"Mexico: a banana republic?"
(19 April 2006)

How to win an election

Negative campaigns cloud the atmosphere because they are connected to other troubling events. In March 2006, senators from the PAN, the Partido Revolucionario Institucionario (Institutional Revolutionary Party / PRI), and the Partido Verde Ecologista de México (Green Party) changed the country's media and communications laws to greatly benefit the two companies that monopolise the market (see "Mexico: a banana republic?", 19 April 2006). Two candidates for the presidency, Calderón and the PRI's Roberto Madrazo, sanctioned the give-away, convinced that the television networks would somehow return the favor. In the coming weeks, we will know the compensation each candidate will receive in exchange for selling his independence to the media giants.

There are increasing signs that the three main parties will embark on a vote-buying spree among the poor; and in Mexico, poverty touches half the population. As a member of the consultative council – an honorary position – of the Secretariat of Social Development, I encouraged an investigation into the ways in which public spending is used during elections (the complete text appears at fundar.org.mx). It was established that before the next election, at least 4 million marginalised people will be visited by someone offering money or gifts (of construction materials, above all) in exchange for their votes. An operation of this scale requires enormous quantities of cash, and that could facilitate the large-scale entrance into presidential elections of increasingly powerful organised crime.

Another way of manipulating the vote is with federal, state and municipal social programmes. In the coming weeks, armies of promoters – mainly women – will travel across poor neighbourhoods, offering registration (or threatening non-registration) for attractive programmes that offer both short- and medium-term benefits. And if the parties indeed carry out these types of activities, the federal programmes controlled by the PAN are particularly important – because they cover the entire country and because President Fox (unable to stand for re-election because of Mexico's single-term limit) is on a frenetic tour to support Calderón and to attack and discredit López Obrador.

It is a shame that, to retain power, the first PAN president ends up doing exactly what his party has condemned time and again since its creation in 1939. The only encouraging sign is that Oportunidades, the most important federal programme (benefiting 25 million people), announced emergency measures to reduce the risk of vote-buying and coercion.

A question of fairness

The vulnerability of the elections is accentuated by the condition of the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE). No one doubts its capacity to organise elections or count votes; many, however, question its moral authority to mediate in a conflictive situation. The credibility deficit started with the disastrous way in which IFE's nine-member directorate was chosen, and has been widening due to its timid reaction to negative campaigning and other excesses.

The fairness of the election is in question, and the most affected candidate so far is López Obrador. If the margin between the winner and loser is very narrow, as is likely, the election could be considered legal but illegitimate. That happened in 1988, when the PRI's Carlos Salinas triumphed as a result of a huge number of irregularities, forging for himself a reputation as the "apostle of electoral fraud".

In that year, the chief losing candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, candidate of the National Democratic Front (Frente Democrático Nacional / FDN), stopped the masses who were willing to take to the streets in protest. His decision was influenced by the weakness and disorganisation of the coalition movement he led. Would the same thing happen after 2 July if a substantial part of the population is convinced that irregularities decided the election? While it is impossible to forecast the future, we cannot dismiss that possibility because of López Obrador's temperament and the strength of the Mexican left in some regions, particularly in Mexico City. We are approaching an election that is already creating tremendous tensions and threatening stability. Mexico is navigating through turbulent waters.

That is why parties, government and electoral authorities agreed to ask the EU for an observation mission – an option that, at the time of writing, was still being evaluated. Independent of the decision that comes out of Brussels, the request for help underlines the fragility of Mexican democratic institutions.

The saddest event in this country of 100 million people, a country crucial to the stability of the Caribbean basin, is that the presidential election is considered fraudulent as a result of the actions of a political right that for decades championed ethics and decency – until it won power and decided to keep it, even if that endangered Mexico's still frail democratic culture.

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