Mexican Election in Limbo

Election Day started across Mexico on Sunday with thousands of poll workers assembling cardboard ballot boxes at over 130,489 polling stations. But the day ended in uncertainty, as the head of Mexico's Federal Election Institute, Luis Ugalde, went on national television to declare that the presidency was too close to call.

President Fox joined Ugalde in calling on all candidates to patiently await the official vote count, which they expect to have by Wednesday.

The scenario of a razor-close election is everybody's nightmare. Each campaign had hoped for a decisive victory by Sunday night so that voting irregularities and scattered examples of voter coercion wouldn't become the focus of voting results. One thing is for certain: Roberto Madrazo, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Part (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 71 years until the 2000 election of Vicente Fox, is in third place.

The next president of Mexico will either be Felipe Calderon, candidate of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) or Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). Both candidates addressed rallies shortly after the electoral commission, each declaring confidence in their victory.

Tens of thousands of supporters of Lopez Obrador gathered in a chilly rain on the central plaza in Mexico City. "According to our information, we have won the presidency," Lopez Obrador declared to his supporters. "Smile," he concluded, paraphrasing his campaign bumpersticker. "We have already won."

The New York Times reported today that there is an "electoral crisis" in Mexico and rising anxiety, especially if Lopez Obrador and his followers believe they lose the election because of fraud. The Times called Lopez Obrador a "firebrand leftist" and repeated candidate Calderon's characterization of his opponent as having an "authoritarian streak."

Lopez Obrador has said he will honor the results of a fair election, even if he loses by one vote. But if history is any lesson, Lopez Obrador is no Al Gore. He won't walk away from a stolen election without a protest. His political rise has been characterized by having to respond to dirty tricks. And if anyone is justified in being a "firebrand" about stolen elections, it is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

A mysterious crash

In 1988, Lopez Obrador was a leading organizer in the presidential campaign of leftist candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. Early on election night, Mexico's own electoral system showed Cardenas with a substantial lead over PRI candidate Carlos Salinas. Then there was a mysterious computer crash, and the country woke up the next morning to an announcement that Salinas was the victor. Lopez Obrador led a voter rights movement in protest, with marches, sit-ins, civil disobedience and road blockades in his home state of Tabasco. He persisted in his protests, and in 1991 led a voter rights protest march from Tabasco to Mexico City.

In 1994, Lopez Obrador was inspired by the Cardenas campaign to run for governor of oil-rich coastal Tabasco, where he had grown up as the son of a shopkeeper. His opponent was none other than Roberto Madrazo, whom he is now facing in this presidential bid. Madrazo claimed victory in an election characterized by widespread fraud, including crude examples of PRI vote-buying.

Lopez Obrador's followers occupied the governor's mansion, and once again Lopez Obrador took to the streets, again leading a march to Mexico City to have the election annulled. President Ernesto Zedillo, who had just been elected president on a pledge of electoral reform, was embarrassed by his fellow party member Madrazo's fraud. He tried to intervene by offering Madrazo a cushy federal job, clearing the way for Lopez Obrador to assume the governorship. Madrazo rebuffed him, and protests continued for years.

In April 2005, the other major parties, PAN and PRI, conspired to knock Lopez Obrador off the presidential ballot, charging that as mayor of Mexico City he had ignored a court order. Only after millions of Mexicans took to the streets did President Fox's prosecutors back down and drop the charges.

A clean vote?

In the coming days, hundreds of civil society organizations and independent vote-monitoring organizations will issue their reports about the cleanliness of the voting process and election. These will influence the emotional climate into which the election results will be announced. But the Mexican electoral system has come a long way since 1988 and even 2000. The independent Federal Election Institute is well-resourced and politically independent, and by all accounts ran a fairly clean election.

While the situation could appropriately be characterized as an electoral crisis, there are several positive signs. For two presidential elections, the people of Mexico have rejected the PRI, a party that still holds 17 of the country's 31 governorships and has a powerful infrastructure of supporters in every region of the country. And the fact that there is a close election, the closest in this country's history, reflects progress in Mexico's transition to democracy. If there are protests in the coming days, it's because Mexicans demand nothing less than a fair election.

Battling the PRI machine

In the rural hamlet of San Pedro Mixtepec, located in the southern state of Oaxaca, several men swept the central plaza to tidy up for Election Day. Four women in traditional Zapotec shawls, one with a sleeping baby on her back, unpacked voting supplies sent by federal authorities.

Election observer and voting rights activist Crispin Fabian votes in his hometown of San Pedro Mixtepec. Photo by Chuck Collins.

"This is new for us," said Xichel Vasquez, speaking Spanish as her second language after Zapotec. "Little by little, we are protecting our right to a fair election." They were anticipating a large turnout from the village's 600 eligible voters. The polls opened a half hour late, with a ringing of the church bells and an announcement made on the village's public address system.

"Our region has voted PRI because there was no alternative, and when there was a choice, they stole the election," said Crispin Fabian who grew up in San Pedro and has watched the impact of local PRI government corruption. "If our village didn't vote PRI, we wouldn't get our road fixed."

Fabian now lives in Oaxaca City, but he was back in his village to vote, visit his parents and work as nonpartisan election observer with the Oaxaca Citizen Forum, a civic group that trained 163 election observers around the state. "Many of the safeguards set up here are the result of tricks the PRI used to win elections," said Fabian. Many people voted twice and there were PRI officials standing around making sure they voted the right way."

At the beginning of the day, election observers and official party representatives inspected the ballot boxes to ensure they were empty. The ballot boxes are literally transparent, with plastic windows. "In the old days, the ballot boxes would begin the day already pregnant with ballots for the PRI," observed Fabian.

An unauthorized PRI activist takes names of voters. Election observers saw him tell illiterate voters to 'mark red,' the colors of the PRI. Photo by Chuck Collins.

Each voter presented a photo identification, which was matched to a voter list with a copy of the ID. "After someone votes, they get their card stamped and a indelible ink stamp on their finger," said Fabian, holding up his purple thumb.

There are some tricks, however, that are hard to prevent. After interviewing dozens of people in the village, including several on video, Fabian had disturbing news. "The PRI people were here yesterday," he said with disgust in his voice. "They were offering 100 pesos to people for a vote for PRI."

A shocking situation

Down the road, in the village of San Agustin Mixtepec, election observers found an even more shocking situation. There was a long line of voters and several PRI officials without credentials standing by the voting booth talking to voters and writing down their names. "There are no representatives of other parties here," said Adelaide Chen, a labor organizer from Los Angeles and an official election observer affiliated with the U.S-based Global Exchange. "There is clear evidence of coercion," she said, pointing to three PRI officials sitting in chairs watching the voters, mostly women in traditional dress. Chen and another Global Exchange election observer, Sue Severin, spent the rest of the day at the polling area to document abuses. Global Exchange will issue a report on Wednesday.

Representatives of the Federal Election Committee and election observers count ballots in Central Plaza, Miahuatlan, Oaxaca. Photo by Chuck Collins.

This reporter photographed and filmed PRI leaders showing voters where to mark ballots and writing their names on an informal list. "The poll workers are inexperienced," observed Fabian. "In a small village, it is hard to stand up to the local PRI politicians. They control the food subsidies, jobs and health programs."

After 6 p.m., the polls closed. In the regional city of Miahuatlan, the vote was counted on the main plaza with hundreds of onlookers. Gathered around a small wooden table, representatives of the Federal Election Institute and political parties counted the votes together out loud. In a region where the PRI has dominated, the results were surprising.

PRI candidate Roberto Madrazo only received 173 votes. The conservative PAN party of Felipe Calderon is not strong in Oaxaca, but he still beat Madrazo with 193 votes. The PRD candidate Lopez Obrador garnered a whopping 501 votes.

"Here in the city, the vote is more transparent," observed Fabian after a long day of visiting polls in seven villages. "The problem with the PRI is the rural villages. But we're making progress."

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