Mexican election far from over


Less than a week since a retabulation of gross vote totals from Mexico’s July 2 ballot gave him a razor-thin margin, Felipe Calderón has begun to lay out plans for a yet-to-be confirmed presidency. But while he is somewhat presumptuously behaving as a president-elect and receiving congratulations from Bush, Harper and Zapatero among others, the president of the U.S. and the prime ministers of Canada and Spain would be well advised to take note of the fact that the election is still far from having witnessed a definitive outcome. The final tally, released last Thursday by Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), has been repeatedly challenged by Calderón’s opponent, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the PRD, who has asserted that the vote was plagued by irregularities and possibly even fraud.

Late Sunday night, the PRD filed a massive brief with the country’s Supreme Electoral Court (TEPJF) which presented evidence of various election-day missteps and misdeeds (often on the part of the IFE itself), and petitioned the judicial body to order a vote-by-vote recount. The TEPJF – the only body officially empowered to declare a winner in the election – has yet to put its stamp on Calderón’s victory, and is unlikely to do so quickly, as it is not legally required to announce a winner until the beginning of September. Given the mounting evidence of electoral malfeasance, an uneventful ratification of a PAN triumph is unlikely to be forthcoming, despite the child-like eagerness of Washington, business leaders, and a friendly media to unwrap their July Fourth present to the Mexican people, in this instance a Calderón presidency.

On Saturday, López Obrador rallied over 250,000 supporters to the Zócalo in Mexico City for an “informative assembly.” The perredista called on the crowd to participate in numerous future civic demonstrations in defence of the vote, yet exhorted it to respect the rights of the citizenry by not disrupting daily life with such actions as highway blockades. If López Obrador repeatedly emphasized that the effort was to be a peaceful one, he was vehement in his assertions that the election had been tainted by wrongdoing. It is becoming increasingly clear that these allegations are not just hot air.

At the meeting, PRD campaign coordinator Jesus Ortega revealed tapes obtained by the party which purportedly pointed to officially sanctioned fraud. The recordings included conversations between the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) governor of Tamaulipas and dissident priista cum Calderón-backer, Elba Ester Gordillo, as well as discussions between the governor and the Secretary of Communications and Transport. While the tapes fell short of explicitly detailing fraud, they suggested that PRI leaders, aware of their party’s freefall, were prepared to privately defect to the PAN, offering Calderón the services of their still-powerful (and frequently fraudulent) electoral machinery in exchange for later political considerations.

Monday morning witnessed further scandal, as López Obrador presented damning videos which apparently showed ballot boxes being stuffed in Queretaro and Guanajuato. The reemergence of such instances of vintage PRI era fraud, however isolated such instances may turn out to have been in this election, has begun to project a tainted public perception of the vote. Such new evidence added to an already lengthy list of PRD complaints about the lack of transparency of the July 2 election, may have produced, in retrospect, a deeply blemished product. The complaints lodged with the TEJPF include further allegations of ballot box tampering and charges about the manner in which some IFE personnel conducted the election and processed the results – these are important claims and deserve the dignity of being heard.

The IFE, which prior to the July 2 vote received high marks for public confidence, has watched its prestige sedulously evaporate in the past week. The Institute’s lauded system of preliminary results, the PREP, came under heavy fire as a series of baffling and unclear decisions seemed to point to pro-Calderón manipulation of the numbers, including the move to exclude nearly three million votes from the initial totals, which gave the panista a considerably larger apparent margin than he ultimately was able to attract.

Even the retabulation of vote totals has come under fire, as the PRD has asserted that the process had been overly hurried and that evidence of purported tampering was not adequately addressed in some cases. IFE president Luis Carlos Ugalde’s smug and self-serving assurances that the results were unimpeachable, are new clashes with the growing evidence that the process was far from perfect and represented an attitude of utmost imprudence, especially considering that the margin was so slender that a difference of two votes per polling place could have swung the election.

Indeed, despite the IFE’s supercilious effort to sell itself as infallible to both Mexican society and the international community, the glimmering reputation that the body sought to create has been revealed to be more myth than fact. The Institute, which had gained considerable renown for its role in promoting a smooth transition and bolstering democracy in the 1997 midterm and 2000 presidential elections, has now lost much of its credibility as an impartial and competent administrator of elections.

The IFE’s current general council, elected by the Chamber of Deputies in 2003, was effectively imposed by the PRI and PAN, as the PRD lacked sufficient representation to win approval for its nominees. Since then, partisan leanings have been clearly detected in the council members’ votes, with numerous sources – including the prominent Mexico City daily Reforma – highlighting the panista or priista tendencies of various supposedly independent representatives on its panel. Some have alleged that the IFE has a heavy pro-government bias, citing the body’s unhurried attempts to control defamatory PAN television ads comparing López Obrador to Chávez, and its “slap-on-the-wrist” sanctions for such actions. In this episode alone, IFE’s behaviour was far from the image of austere autonomy and rectitude that it sought for itself, and gave the appearance of throwing the election in

This predisposition to rule in favour of the status quo may have been compounded in the days after July second. In June, COHA noted that “In the event of even isolated incidents of contested results in what could be an extremely close election, the IFE would face tremendous pressures to resolve the dispute quickly.” Sadly, this situation did emerge, and Ugalde, spurred perhaps by ambition or hubris, may ultimately have bowed to such pressure: for example, his decision to declare a Calderón victory was seen as usurping the power of the TEPJF, and seemingly went beyond the yardage allocated to him by the rules.

Despite the growing evidence of election day wrongdoing, and with IFE’s authority and credibility waning, there has been a rush among certain sectors to anoint Calderón as Mexico’s next president. This was nothing short of premature. The panista may indeed ultimately be confirmed by the TEPJF (also referred to as the TRIFE), yet this has yet to occur, and there is certain to be a protracted legal battle before such a resolution is attained.

In this unresolved and unsettled context, it is crucial that the media, both Mexican and international, not present the false impression that Calderón’s victory is a fait acompli, plainly inevitable, and that the PRD’s protests are merely sour grapes. Numerous intellectuals and statesmen have affirmed the propriety of López Obrador’s legal strategy, arguing that it is a responsible and perfectly constitutional measure. Unfortunately, when it comes to Mexico, the U.S. press finds it easy enough to turn to such reliable pro-panista warblers, as Enrique Krauze and Jorge Casteñada, the latter a peripatetic ideologue who has become a spin doctor extraordinare for the Calderón campaign, while the former concerns his unwarranted disdain for López Obrador by emitting an illegitimate farrago of concoctions that does the author no great honour.

Not only is it premature to proclaim Calderón victorious, it is also irresponsible: if the media continues to perpetuate this misleading image, to which the aforementioned Calderonistas have mightily contributed in their mythologies in the U.S. media, the country’s citizenry will be ill served. They may also be laying the groundwork for instability in the event of a TEPJF ruling in favour of a recount. All concerned—and this means the entire Mexican political spectrum—must believe in but one god and that must be of obeying the law, eschewing violence, respect in peaceful protest and honour the will of the majority, however it manifests itself.

It is not so much to charge that Calderón’s squalid tactic of inventing a scenario in which Hugo Chávez would run Mexico through the pliable hands of López Obrador came with the encouragement of the International Republican Institute, a U.S. entity that specializes in using National Endowment for Democracy public funds to influence the outcome of elections throughout Latin America, including in recent years: Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela and now Mexico.

Using relatively small amounts of highly targeted funds, IRI’s funds ostensibly go for voter mobilization and other bland-sounding election projects, but in the end, allow Washington to buy the elections. It is likely that later investigative journalists will establish that this is precisely what happened in Mexico, because in every analogous situation elsewhere in the hemisphere, NED funds were slipped to the IRI to abort popular movements like that of López Obrador. In fact, the IRI and the Republican Party have had a long relationship with PAN that goes back at least to Calderón’s father. Republican party funds were given to PAN during its early days, with which workshops were organized and airline tickets were dispersed. At the same time, Washington office spaces and services were provided to PAN on an informal basis to visiting dignitaries. In a sense, with the critical issue of whether Mexico would join with the Banana Republics of Central America in preventing Venezuela from being awarded Argentina’s seat on the UN Security Council, Washington apparently decided that too much was at stake to leave things to chance. Beltway policy makers undoubtedly decided to give a little help to their panista colleague, hoping that he would remember this assistance at the time that the UN Security Council vote was being taken.

The PRD’s decision to protest the official results of the July 2 election through legally defined channels is nothing less than a test of the strength of Mexican democracy. It is no easy task that now confronts the TEPJF, as it must sort through hard evidence and heated rhetoric to make a decision which it will undoubtedly be forced to justify to either the PAN or the PRD, according to the circumstances. Dealing with the uncertainty that will undoubtedly dominate Mexico until that ruling is announced is a formidable task, and one which has been complicated by the IFE’s incessant self-promotion. In the weeks to come, all actors, including the media, must behave in a responsible manner. At this point, the only certainty about the Mexican presidential election of 2006 is that it is far from over.

This analysis was prepared by Council On Hemispheric Affairs Research Fellow Michael Lettieri on July 11th, 2006