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Elections Central American Style

If politicians in New Zealand have difficulty getting people to vote for them, spare a thought for Mexican politicians who have to give away TV's, tool sets, and washing machines. And observers say it's the cleanest election ever. John Howard reports.

It used to be that a candidate in Mexico could draw a crowd by serving sandwiches and soft drink. But as the electorate becomes more sophisticated - and political races become more competitive - the price of getting votes is rising.

Over the past few weeks Mexican candidates have given away all manner of goods and delighted crowds with pop concerts, circusus, and yep, even strippers - male and female of course - no sex discrimination here.

Jose Woldenberg, head of the independent institute running the July 2 elections for president, governors, the legislature and local offices, has said reports of vote-buying are exaggerated.

But that doesn't mean candidates are not trying.

Across Mexico, politicians are wooing voters with gifts. Some gift-giving appears legal, such as when candidates act on their own initiative and with their own money. Other practices are more dubious, such as when government officials hand out gifts purchased with taxpayers money.

Most of the accusations are against the Insitutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which has been known for vote-buying throughout its 71 year history.

"Unfortunately, there is a sector of the population that defines its vote by the question: 'What are they giving me?" said Rogelio Hermosillo, director of the watchdog group Alianza Civica.

One of the more creative attempts to buy votes can be found in the industrial suburbs of Mexico City, where the ruling mayoral candidate has been picking up the tab for a circus since April.

Already, 160,000 people have come to the big top to see lions, jaguars, trapeze artists and clowns - with a campaign speech by candidate Guillermo Gonzalez during the intermission.

Gonzalez says when he was young his mother had no money to take him to the circus so he decided to give something to the poor children. Oh really!!!

He said he had already travelled around the city handing out toys - and then he had the bright idea of sponsoring a circus.

Another innovative idea comes from the town of Chimalhuacan where, on Mother's Day, the ruling party brought out a group of dancers called the "Sexy Boys."

The dancers stipped down to boxer shorts that spelled out "Vote for the PRI," then to G-strings, then to nothing at all.

"This is a present from the heart, for the fun of the little mothers out there," PRI activist Guadalupe Buendia is said to have told the crowd.

The national PRI later reprimanded the event's organisers for bad taste.

At Gonzalez's circus, clowns give away television sets, dining room furniture and tool boxes.

In Yucatan state, candidates have given away thousands of bicycles, washing machines and sewing machines in poor villages. All part of the state credit scheme where recipients are supposed to pay for them, but enforcement is lax.

Throughout the PRI vote buy-up, young women in party vests work the lines of people asking every person for their name, address and voter registration number.

Most people sign on the dotted line, below the fine print designating them as "coordinator of political activism" for the PRI political party. Some people were indignant when they learned what they had signed but others couldn't care less.

Manuel Jimenez, a 33-year-old policeman, said he simply made up a name and number. "They can't buy me with this, I'll take all the advertisements and everything, but how will they know who I vote for?"

New Zealand has penalties for this type of behaviour but do those penalties cover someone who signs a political party form which instantly makes them a "coordinator of political activism?" I hope so.


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