Evidence of Election Fraud Grows in MÃ©xico
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A month after more than 41 million Mexicans went to the polls to elect their next president, the country is still awaiting a result. A preliminary count of polling station tally sheets put conservative Felipe CalderÃ³n of the National Action Party (PAN) ahead with a slight lead over left-populist Andres Manuel LÃ³pez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD). Both candidates have claimed victory, with LÃ³pez Obrador and his supporters holding vigils and protests across the country and calling for a vote-by-vote recount.
That hasn't kept a consensus from emerging in the commercial media that CalderÃ³n won by a small margin in a squeaky-clean election. In a hyperbolic editorial on July 30 -- one that bordered on the ridiculous -- the Washington Post accused LÃ³pez Obrador, known as AMLO to his supporters, of taking "a lesson from Joseph Stalin" and launching an "anti-democracy campaign" by demanding a manual recount and urging his supporters to take to the streets in peaceful protests. Calling the vote "a success story and a model for other nations," the editors concluded that it's "difficult to overstate the irresponsibility of Mr. LÃ³pez Obrador's actions."
Days after the election, the New York Times irresponsibly declared candidate CalderÃ³n the winner, even though no victor had been declared under Mexican law, and just this week, in an article about LÃ³pez Obrador's protests, the Times reported that LÃ³pez Obrador had "escalated his campaign to undo official results."
But there are no "official" results and probably won't be until after Sept. 1. Under Mexican law, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) is charged with running the elections and counting the vote. But only the country's Election Tribunal, known by its Mexican nickname as the "TRIFE," has the power to declare a victor (See here for background on the TRIFE). They have until Sept. 6 to rule on the election.
It appears that the U.S. media has become so enamored with the construct of the "anti-democratic" left in Latin America -- the ubiquitous "fiery populists" (a term that has described everyone from the centrist Lula da Silva to Hugo ChÃ¡vez) -- that they are incapable of fulfilling their basic mandate to inform their readers when it comes to the political landscape south of the border. It's nothing short of journalistic malpractice.
But back in the real world, a growing body of credible evidence from mainstream Mexican journalists, independent election observers and respected scholars indicates that an attempt was made to deliver the presidency to CalderÃ³n. It includes a pattern of irregularities at the polls, interference by the ruling party and some very suspicious statistical patterns in the "official" results.
The TRIFE is now sifting through 900 pages of formal complaints lodged by LÃ³pez Obrador. Their ruling on those challenges will indicate how well MÃ©xico's electoral process holds up in a closely fought and highly polarized race.
Growing evidence of irregularities and fraud
MÃ©xico has a history of the party in power's using its clout to tip the election in its favor, and strict laws prohibiting ruling party interference were enacted in the 1990s. Election law prevented Vicente Fox, the outgoing PAN president, from making public statements of a partisan or political nature. But he overstepped this line many times in the 2006 campaign, including dozens of speeches reinforcing candidate Felipe CalderÃ³n's basic message that LÃ³pez Obrador was a "danger to MÃ©xico." In a well-publicized speech, candidate LÃ³pez Obrador responded, "With all respect, Mr. President, shut up. You sound like a chattering bird." Fox continued with these speeches until election authorities and public commentators warned Fox he was violating election laws.
The Fox administration also ran public service announcements touting government programs and services and promoting the vote. PAN saturated the television airwaves with "swift-boat" style attack ads against LÃ³pez Obrador, comparing him to Venezuela's Hugo ChÃ¡vez and calling him a "danger to MÃ©xico." Election authorities eventually ordered these commercials off the air on the grounds that they were untrue and maligned the candidate's character, but critics believe they moved too slowly.
Under Mexican law, ruling party interference is a serious charge and grounds for annulling an election. In the last ten years, the same Electoral Tribunal judges that are reviewing AMLO's complaints annulled governors' races in Tabasco and Colima, based on ruling party interference. The Institutional Revolution Party (PRI), which ruled MÃ©xico for seven decades before the system was reformed in the 1990s, made vote buying and voter coercion into a high art form, and there is strong evidence that they were up to their old tricks in the 2006 election. With PRI governors in 17 of MÃ©xico's 31 states, election observers documented a significant number of examples of voters being offered money or receiving food or building materials in exchange for their PRI vote. In a country where half the citizens live in poverty and rely on different forms of government assistance, voters are often told that their public assistance is dependent on voting for the party in power. There are examples of PAN using similar practices, especially a well-documented case of funds diverted from a San Luis Potosi building program into PAN electoral races.
The Mexican electoral system has come a long way in two decades in implementing anti-fraud systems. But there are still several ways that results can be tampered with on election day. LÃ³pez Obrador's campaign and hundreds of independent election observers documented several hundred cases of "old fashioned" election-day fraud in making their case for a recount.
Here's how the system was supposed to work. On July 2, Mexicans voted at over 130,000 different polling stations, casting separate ballots for president, senator and federal deputy. Each political party was encouraged to have registered poll watchers at every polling station to observe the voting process and count at the end of the day. As international and Mexican election observers noted, however, problems emerged when there weren't enough independent and party observers to go around. In regions where one party was dominant, this created opportunities for vote shaving, ballot stuffing, lost ballots and other forms of fraud.
The PRD's strongest case for a recount comes from the fact that ballots in almost one-third of the country were not counted in the presence of independent observers. One analysis of IFE results found that there were 2,366 polling places where only a PAN observer was present. In these districts, CalderÃ³n beat LÃ³pez Obrador by a whopping 71-21 margin.
Other elements of PRD's legal challenge include documentation of several ballot boxes found in dumps in the PRD stronghold of MÃ©xico City. They also point to evidence such as the nonpartisan Civic Alliance's report documenting 17 polling sites in PAN-dominated Nuevo LeÃ³n, Michoacan and QuerÃ©taro, where the number of votes cast vastly exceeded the number of registered voters at a site.
Reports by international and domestic election observers affiliated with the Civic Alliance and Global Exchange stop short of claiming fraud in the elections. They laud the dedication of most poll workers they monitored and the preparations for the vote in most of the polling places, as well as the orderly and peaceful process overall. But the cumulative evidence is damning in such a closely contested race.
In the weeks after the election, PRD observers again sounded the alarm as sealed ballot packets were being illegally opened at IFE district offices in several PAN-dominated regions. PRD officials accused IFE officials of possibly tampering with ballots or attempting to cover up fraud in the event of a recount. The TRIFE ordered these offices to stop opening vote packets.
While the LÃ³pez Obrador campaign has not made major charges of "cyber fraud," there is an emerging controversy over the IFE's role in reporting who was ahead in the vote count. For the 2006 election, the IFE had developed a sophisticated system to provide preliminary results called the PREP. Relying on results being phoned in from a sample of precincts, the IFE could compile a credible picture of the vote. If the PREP showed one candidate with a clear majority, the system would have allowed Mexicans to go to sleep on election night knowing who their next president would be. But because of the razor close results, the PREP proved to be an inadequate measure.
Now research is emerging to suggest that the PREP results were cooked to create the appearance of a CalderÃ³n victory. Physicist Jorge LÃ³pez at the University of Texas, El Paso, conducted a statistical analysis of the PREP results and found that, as the results came in, the differential between the candidates' totals remained almost constant. One would expect that, as results from each party's geographic strongholds were counted, the gap between their totals would rise and would fall. In such a tight election, one would even expect the lead to change back and forth as the count progressed. None of that happened. The results of a third candidate, Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), fluctuated as expected.
He also noted that there was very little deviation between the actual results as they came in and the average results; in a normal, natural distribution, one would expect significant differences between the two (it should look something like a squashed bell-shaped curve). Dr. LÃ³pez concluded the pattern was "a clear indication that the data was manufactured by an algorithm and does not stand a chance at passing as data originated at the actual voting."
Luis Mochan, a physicist at the Universidad Nacional AutÃ³noma de MÃ©xico, did similar work. He noted that the PREP data was posted after the first 10,000 reports had been processed, and looked at whether those first 10,000 reports were consistent with the statistical trends for the rest of the day. When he plotted the data backwards, CalderÃ³n's vote total originated at zero, as is normal, but LÃ³pez Obrador began the day 126,000 votes in the hole.
Mochan and LÃ³pez both point out that the CalderÃ³n began the day building a large percentage lead -- seven points -- that decreased steadily throughout the day. The large early lead would have been handy from a psychological and political perspective, allowing CalderÃ³n to claim that he led all day long, but the results had to end in a close result given that polls conducted a week before the tally showed a statistical dead heat.
Mochan also notes gross discrepancies in the number of votes processed late in the evening: "At the end of the plot, we find intervals with more than 1,200 votes per [voting] booth. I understand that no booth was to receive more than 750 votes. Even more worrisome, some data points indicate a negative number of votes per booth."
Mochan notes that these statistical anomalies aren't definitive proof of anything. But economist James Galbraith, reviewing Mochan's data, speculated about a likely scenario that would fit the discrepancies seen that night:
Felipe CalderÃ³n started the night with an advantage in total votes, a gift from the authorities.
As the count progressed, this advantage was maintained by misreporting of the actual results. This enabled CalderÃ³n to claim that he had led through the entire process -- an argument greatly repeated but spurious in any case because it is only the final count that matters.
Toward the end of the count, further adjustments were made to support the appearance of a victory by CalderÃ³n.
Critics suggest that the IFE may have aggressively pushed to swiftly declare CalderÃ³n a victor, obviating the need for a poll-by-poll vote recount.
The U.S. media was also confused on the Wednesday after the vote when the IFE ordered all 300 district offices to review the tally sheets. It was widely reported as a "recount," when in fact very few ballots were actually counted. In some cases, such as when a tally sheet was illegible, the sealed ballot packets where opened and recounted. Almost every time that occurred, observers encountered significant errors in the vote count. In the state of MÃ©xico, one tally sheet recorded 88 votes for LÃ³pez Obrador when the recount of ballots found 188 votes. Whether it was human error or intentional vote shaving, in a tight election race, these examples gain heightened significance.
None of these reports in and of themselves constitute a smoking gun. But the questions they raise need to be answered. There is far more evidence pointing to fraud in the Mexican elections in 2006 than was made publicly available about Ukraine's contested vote in 2004. Comparing the media and political establishment's reactions to the two reveals the transparent dishonesty in backing CalderÃ³n's claim of victory; in 2004 many of the same voices that are now calling LÃ³pez Obrador "undemocratic" were screaming that the Ukrainian tally had to be annulled and only a new election would assure democracy in the former Soviet satellite. In both instances, the candidate who declared victory was friendly towards a powerful neighboring state; in 2004 that state was Russia, and two years later it's the United States. Forget about threatening MÃ©xico's fragile democratic institutions -- that makes all the difference to the editorial boards of the New York Times and the Washington Post .
According to the Mexican daily La Jornada , over two million supporters of LÃ³pez Obrador gathered in MÃ©xico City on Sunday, July 30, the largest public demonstration in MÃ©xico's history. Millions of voices chanted "vote by vote, poll by poll," calling on the Electoral Tribunal to order a recount. A poll released this week found that Mexicans, by a 20-point margin (48-28), want a vote-by-vote count. LÃ³pez Obrador has said he will call off protests when the Tribunal agrees to a recount and will honor its final decision.
As for the charge in the U.S. media that LÃ³pez Obrador is undermining democracy and the rule of law by calling on his supporters to protest, we believe that the rights of peaceful assembly and free speech are important democratic tenets. Public protests have played a historic part in MÃ©xico's three decade-long transition to democracy.
President and PAN leader Vicente Fox called for direct action when he believed he was victimized by electoral fraud in his race for the governorship of Guanajuato in 1991. Fox called on thousands of supporters to take to the streets and block highways, and the results were eventually overturned. Asked before the 2000 presidential election if he would do the same thing if he suspected fraud, he didn't hesitate to say "we will be very alert to any irregularities, and we will submit the appropriate legal accusations that are necessary. If there is any instability [as a result of those accusations], it will be due to whatever they have done fraudulently to avoid recognizing our victory."
While CalderÃ³n has opposed a ballot-by-ballot recount, even some of his staunchest supporters have argued that the process would assure Mexicans' faith in their electoral authorities and strengthen the country's young democracy. In a race where over 64 percent of Mexicans voted against him, CalderÃ³n, if he should prove victorious, will need all the legitimacy he can muster.
As MÃ©xico awaits the rulings of the electoral tribunal, tensions are high. The campaign -- often dirty -- and the close results have polarized the country. Given the context, the U.S. media's water-carrying for CalderÃ³n's campaign is anything but helpful. The fact that there have been no "official" results is not open to dispute, and until AMLO's allegations have been investigated, there is no way that anyone can say who will come out ahead.
Chuck Collins is the co-author of " Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Economic Inequality and Insecurity " (New Press). He is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and lives in Oaxaca, MÃ©xico. Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.