Postcard from…Mexico

Electoral observer training in Guanajuato

Electoral observer training in Guanajuato

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), the candidate of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), lost Mexico’s presidency by only .56 of a percentage point in 2006. Fraud was widely suspected. Until recently, the media had anointed Enrique Pena Nieto, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), as the certain winner in the July 1 election.

In the past month a student movement has arisen that has cast doubt on this electoral outcome. Dubbed “#YoSoy132,” the movement has protested what it sees as persistent electoral fraud, media bias, and corruption, continued violence and oppression, lack of open access to information, and freedom of expression. It further claims that the PRI is responsible for these ills.

The PRI held the Mexican Presidency from 1929 until 2000, imposing a one-party Soviet-inspired state that became known for authoritarian restrictions on speech and religion– and a history of rigged elections. In 2000, following economic instability, and in an election designed and monitored by the UN, the PRI lost the presidency to the center-right National Action Party (PAN).

During the past 12 years, the PRI has retrenched its base and party machine, as well as its control of many of the Mexican states. Mexico’s Federal Electoral Authority, the IFE, as is true of many other federal agencies, remains a weak organization, with insufficient funds and powers to enact its mandates. Allegations of internal corruption and incompetence are frequent.

In 2006, the Mexican Supreme Court accepted the ruling of Mexico’s electoral court that there had been substantive irregularities in over 9 percent of polling places, but failed to hold this sufficient to annul the election. Ballot boxes were discovered with seals broken, tally sheets in a triple-check system failed to match, ballot boxes had been left under single individuals’ watch, and chains of custody had not been observed.

Structural inadequacies, as well as a lack of independence, dominate and hamstring many institutions. A rule meant to stop corruption requires IFE personnel to turn over every six years, preventing the accumulation of key technical experience with elections. The agency is known for its sexism and lack of meritocracy. Little separation of powers leaves federal institutions difficult to distinguish from each other and from the party functionaries who run them.

To host the first presidential debate, the IFE chose a former Playboy model clad in a teardrop dress whose exposure might have been censored on U.S. television. Mexico’s broadcast media duopoly failed to air the debate in prime time. As yet more proof of the PRI’s collusion with the media, leaders of the student movement have cited new evidence that Pena Nieto paid Televisa, the largest network in Mexico’s broadcast duopoly, for positive news reports and smear campaigns against opponents.

Hoping to prevent fraud at the polls, Obrador’s movement signed up over 2.5 million poll observers. To monitor approximately 143,000 polling places, the PRD has trained 500,000 people in electoral procedures. According to senior party staff, many incidents and disputes are expected, and it remains unclear whether this plan can prevent fraud.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Kenneth Thomas is an IT consultant and entrepreneur providing technical assistance to the AMLO campaign. He is on leave from a graduate program in rhetoric at UC Berkeley.