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Suspending Disbelief Over July 2 Mexican Election

Hopes High for Opposition Victory in Groundbreaking Presidential Race, But Skepticism Over Fair Ballot Abounds

* Presidential race too close to call

* Accusations of fraud linger; PAN will protest any PRI victory

* NAFTA relationship grants Mexico's ruling party with impunity from any strong condemnation from Washington

All eyes are on Mexico for Sunday's presidential election, which could either turn out to be the most democratic and transparent race in 71 years of single-party domination, or a Mexican version of Fujimori's electoral skullduggery in Peru a few weeks ago.

With opinion polls banned (per Mexican law) as of a week before election day, the most recent results, on average, put leading opposition candidate Vicente Fox of the center-right National Action Party (PAN), and the choice of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) Francisco Labastida Ochoa, neck and neck. Trailing at a distant third was Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), with an all-important twenty percent of registered voters still undecided.

In addition to the presidency, all 128 Senate seats and all 500 Chamber of Deputies positions are being contested.

High stakes and dirty politics
No one can predict the outcome of this historic race, but politically speaking, everything is on the line. In an atmosphere ripe for change, the July 2 election will test the legitimacy of a newly reformed electoral system, the stability of the Mexican economy (notorious for its election year jitters), the sense of fair play of the presidential contenders and the future of democracy in Mexico.

As the decision comes down to the wire, candidates have pulled out all the stops in last minute efforts to swing the undecided vote their way. The latest reports have the PRI--well practiced at voter manipulation - bending and breaking the rules of the game, practicing intimidation, mudslinging and bribery, in a last minute effort to cling to power in the changing political tide.

Just as they ignored the blatantly rigged election of current President Ernesto Zedillo, U.S. officials, anxious to protect this country's political and economic investment in its NAFTA junior partner, is prepared to cover for the wayward ruling party through thick and thin.

This year, however, Washington would not lament a PAN victory, given Fox's free trade economic inclinations he learned as a Coca-Cola executive. The PRI, taking its lesson from the international inaction over Peru, knows that if it claims victory, even after an evidently fraudulent race, party leaders can expect zero interference.

Modeling Fujimori and his pretense of cooperation with U.S. policy making, the PRI is smugly confident that, due to the impunity it draws from NAFTA and Washington's need to believe in Mexico's cooperation in the drug war, it can fudge on crucial democratic principles and still label a severely tainted win as a legitimate election victory.

Reform and regulation
Although starting from a very modest base, it is likely that the July 2 elections will be the most democratic that Mexico has seen yet. Since the scandal-plagued 1988 balloting and the equally flawed tally of 1994, the government has spent some $1.2 billion bolstering the electoral system in an attempt to ensure that this vote be conducted without irregularity. State of the art computer counters and the use of voter identification cards should help ballots to be accurately tallied. Most crucially, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) has been separated from the Ministry of the Interior. Independent and non-partisan for the first time, the IFE is charged with the daunting task of overseeing that all aspects of the election are truly fair.

While pulling off major electoral fraud would be difficult if not practically impossible, some claim the ruling PRI still exerts undue influence in the IFE. Over 80,000 officials, putatively selected at random from voter registration lists, and now undergoing mandatory training procedures, will work the 115,000 polling places nationwide. Confidence in the IFE at the federal level is relatively high, but as the responsibility for the implementation of electoral regulations filters down to the state and local levels, more and more opportunity for fraud presents itself. Governors can still influence the staffing of electoral commissions in several states, and, in Nuevo León, the newspaper El Norte reported that $100 can purchase a false birth certificate and fake name with which to acquire a fraudulent voter ID.

The enforcement arm of the IFE, the Special Prosecutor for Electoral Crimes (FEPADE), already has won for itself the reputation of being an inefficient institution that lacks the staff, funds and teeth with which to investigate and duly punish instances of electoral fraud. Due to the void created by FEPADE's weak performance, a myriad of sketchy electoral practices have gone unchecked by the IFE in its mandate of overseeing the campaign.

The PRI political machine
After 71 years of political domination, the PRI has saturated every facet of Mexican society with its presence and has become practically synonymous with the government. By definition, any challenger must face the PRI Goliath on an uneven playing field, where the odds of any contest are heavily weighted in the incumbent's favor.

The 2000 campaign has demonstrated once again the PRI's dependence on a home court advantage, and the resistance of many of its self-serving functionaries to reform. Labastida initially followed the advice of his hired U.S. electoral advisers, who advocated a softer campaigning style and the isolation of the most notoriously corrupt members of the party. But with Fox steadily gaining in the polls, Labastida abandoned this progressive reformist strategy. In a final push for victory, he reincorporated the old guard and authored an anti-Fox media attack and vote-buying blitz in the age-old style of political grandstanding that the PRI has relied on to win seven decades of consecutive elections.

The old dinosaurios, political bosses favoring caudillo-style politics particularly when dealing with the rural poor, have preyed on these isolated, undereducated voters, who are largely ignorant of their democratic rights.

Tainted PRI officials encourage the common public assumption that the continuation of poverty programs and development projects is dependent on the re-election of the PRI. According to surveys conducted by the Dallas Morning News and the watchdog group, Alianza Cívica, 47 percent of citizens that receive federal assistance believe that these funds will cease if the PRI loses the presidency.

Compra y coacción, vote-buying and coercion, has a long and deep-rooted history in PRI politics, but the competition of the 2000 election has upped the ante as the watchful eye of the IFE necessitates that the practice is carried out under at least a guise of legitimacy. At boisterous rallies in the form of circuses, pop concerts, or even a Mother's Day strip show, local bosses have distributed sewing machines, TVs, bicycles and farm tools to the desperate in exchange for commitments to vote PRI on election day. Though ruling-party authorities deny such accusations, repeated reports confirm that at some if not all of these events, voter names and registration numbers are taken, with all who enter signing under the fine print confirming their status as a "coordinator of political activism for the PRI." Few know what they have signed, only that by cooperating they are now eligible to receive handouts which otherwise are officially claimed to be part of public programs, but sedulously withheld from the needy until they can serve the PRI's private interest by coercing votes at election time.

Despite Labastida's insistent claims that he will battle corruption, many, such as well-respected political analysts Lorenzo Meyer and Carlos Monsivais, believe that this style of campaigning is intrinsic to the PRI's ethos and can only be cleansed by extirpating the party from power.

The Mexican newspaper, Reforma, recently opened a special line for readers to call and report instances of vote coercion, and 590 cases were reported on Thursday alone.

According to PAN representative, Elodira Gutiérrez, the PRI has spent thousands of millions of dollars on freebies that could influence as many as 7.3 million of the nation's 58.7 million voters, an extremely significant percentage in such a tight race.

Suspicions of information tampering
Though the professed de-regulation of the press by the government was a crucial democratic step, it has been a slow and stubborn process, which is still in formation.

There are still solid concerns and some evidence that the PRI is continuing its ancient tradition of manipulating the media through the medium of bribes and cajolery.

For instance, in the night of the May 26th televised debate between Labastida, Fox, and Cardenas, Fox was declared the winner by 59 percent of the respondents. The next morning, however, almost all the major newspapers reported Labastida as the victor, citing telephone pollsters either unheard of, or mainly known as PRI loyalists.

Most recently, long-time PRI pollster Maria de las Heras, released controversial findings which placed Fox a full ten percentage points ahead of Labastida - sharply contrasting with the much more modest lead portrayed by the other pollsters - leaving many to ask why, if this poll is as accurate as it is reported to be, other polls have shown the margin to be so slim.

Critics claim the PRI has used intimidation tactics to suppress unfavorable results, and that poll results are systematically skewed overall because many voters personally fear the repercussions of openly acknowledging that they intend to vote against the ruling party. In the past few weeks, especially in the more isolated southern provinces, press coverage has become increasingly imbalanced. Reforma reports that 50 percent of total electoral radio coverage is now dedicated to the PRI, more than that of all the other leading opposition candidates combined.

A small-scale uproar also occurred when the Ministry of the Interior at first failed to support the IFE's claim that the institute has the right to utilize free time made available for state use by television and radio facilities. The media owners had blocked its efforts to take advantage of these time periods to educate voters about their rights. Instead of backing the IFE as the institute expected, the government sided with the owners, effectively delaying for weeks a valuable campaign tool to be used against electoral fraud.

The next sexenio
If one of the losing candidates chooses to contest the election results, or if the IFE deems the process invalid, the resulting uncertainty could throw Mexico into upheaval. PRI representatives have offered assurances that if the presidency falls to the opposition in Sunday's ballot, they will accept the results, citing prior instances at the legislative and gubernatorial levels where losing PRI incumbents have gracefully exited office or permitted themselves to be removed.

On the other side, the PAN has let it be known that, in the case of a narrow Labastida victory, Fox's supporters will peacefully protest the results as a loss for Mexican democracy and will use all available legal channels to fight what they claim would be a fraudulent win. At a recent Washington roundtable discussion, experts cited a statistic indicating that sixty percent of Mexicans do not believe the PRI could win an election without using fraudulent tactics. The opposition certainly shares that sentiment. Fox and Cárdenas have set aside their bitter ideological dispute long enough to launch a combined effort to detect and publicize any instances of fraud. Fox says the goal here is to address any "loose ends" left open by the IFE. A declaration of PRI victory will undoubtedly lead to a fine-toothed examination of the entire electoral process, which could be extended for the next six months in an effort to void the December first inauguration of another PRI sexenio, Mexico's six-year presidential term. With so much at stake, tensions are high.

Traditionally, economic upheaval has accompanied the transition of power in the final year of the sexenio. But the Mexican economy continues to grow at an impressive rate, boasting a serviceable debt and relatively large foreign reserves.

Many economists have ventured that when the nation undergoes political turnover on this occasion, its economic fundamentals will shield it from the previously unavoidable crisis spillovers. Yet a messy $100 billion bank bailout and the possibility of an economic slowdown in the U.S. remain unsettling, as does speculation that President Zedillo's first quarter unbudgeted increase in government spending is an attempt to boost PRI support that might overheat an already pumping Mexican economy.

According to economist Jonathan Heath, "skepticism about the electoral process itself and the transition to a new government has to top the slate of potential triggers of a crisis situation." In the end, inspiring confidence in election results, both domestically and internationally, is absolutely critical if Mexico is to avoid another economic collapse.

The changing face of Mexico
The stage may be set for a narrow PAN victory on Sunday, despite every advantage, both legal and illegal, that the PRI's perpetual incumbency has provided. The opposition's strategy has been simple and, in the final days, appears to be succeeding. Many more Mexicans remember the PAN's slogan, "the change that you need" than that of the PRI, "so the power serves the people."

The modest reforms of the past five years and the hope that the economy has finally gained stability have emboldened the population to risk change. On Sunday, many Mexicans will vote for the opposition by negation, desiring anything but another PRI president. In the choice between Fox and Cárdenas, the PAN campaign hopes that Cárdenas' supporters, once inside the voting booth, will cast their ballots for Fox rather than foster a split vote that would allow for another ruling party victory.

What could tip this race one way or another will be the twenty percent of Mexicans who remain undecided. Knowingly, both parties have dedicated unprecedented efforts to courting fringe groups usually ignored by the Mexican political process. Election 2000 has seen a dramatic shift in voter profiles. Fox has found his strongest supporters among the younger, better educated, urban middle class who say that any improvements they have seen in the quality of their daily lives in recent years have been of their own initiative and despite the PRI. Fox also has put an eight-step offer on the table that would increase the political representation of indigenous peoples, and he appeared at a gay pride rally in Mexico City where he asked for the homosexual community's support. Both candidates have wooed the female population, calculated to represent fifty-two percent of registered voters. No matter which candidate wins, this election has been a victory for minority and women's interests, which have long been obscured under the tyranny of a PRI monopoly.

Another new political player is the Catholic Church, suppressed in politics since the Cristero revolution of the 1920s that was viewed as threatening the young, anticlerical Mexican revolutionary state from which evolved the PRI. Last month, Pope John Paul II canonized Father Tranquilino Ubiarco, a famous martyr for the Cristero cause, in a move that could have serious political ramifications against the PRI. Only legally recognized in 1992, the church has been carefully excluded from politics, and the recent mixing of the two has stirred volatile emotions.

Fox was fined by the IFE last year for hoisting a banner depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe, and last month, 50,000 Catholics marched through Zócalo Square in Mexico City in a symbolic claim for public space. In March, Mexican bishops composed a letter condemning electoral fraud as a serious sin. The Fox campaign, feeding the fire of these charges against the PRI, widely distributed the document, encouraging a widely held belief that the church (though they deny any political involvement) supports the opposition. In return, Fox has promised to maintain the strict federal anti-abortion laws and to allow the church greater influence in education. Today, Mexico's Catholic Church is described by scholars to be a much more stable institution than the one that fostered the bloody crusades of distant memory, and should be counted on to help maintain order in Mexico's unpredictable post-election atmosphere.

The final count down
In these final hours, there is a general sentiment of excitement and expectation among Mexican citizens as well as many political analysts around the world.

No matter which candidate wins on Sunday, true competition in the race could demonstrate great progress in Mexican democracy. No single party is expected to hold a majority in congress, meaning that the traditionally heavy concentration of authority in the executive will be limited by legislative checks, and that members of the different parties will have to learn to work together.

A change in power could dynamically fuel Mexico's forward momentum, achieving the elusive hope held by millions of Mexicans, for an end to seven decades of political, economic, and social power in the hands of one party.

By Jennifer Landsidle, COHA research associate

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-partisan and tax exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the floor of the Senate as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers."

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