Mexico: Calderón Hasn't Won

It's already become fashionable to compare Mexico's 2006 vote with the impasse that followed Florida's contested race in 2000. There are many differences, but one stands out: there's no Al Gore in this race. Liberal Andrés Manuel López Obrador, of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), is not going down without a fight. Millions of frustrated Mexicans who had pinned their hopes on "AMLO" will have his back.

The media have been dutiful stenographers for the Calderón campaign and reported that López Obrador's call for massive (but peaceful) protests demanding a fair count is somehow bad for Mexican democracy. Millions of frustrated Americans, having seen spineless capitulation from Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 would no doubt disagree.

Crucial to the mainstream narrative is that conservative candidate Felipe Calderón has won the election -- that the National Action Party (PAN) candidate took it in a squeaker. Yes, there are reports of "irregularities," we're told, but the vote was clean and López Obrador's protests only prove that he's a sore loser who simply won't accept the outcome of a close loss. (Sound familiar?)

That narrative is wrong for one simple reason: nobody has won Mexico's presidential election. Regardless of what the New York Times or Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) claim, the results aren't in. Under Mexican law, only the Federal Electoral Tribunal, know by its Spanish acronym TRIFE, can say who will serve as Mexico's next president.

As Robert Parsons, an expert on elections at American University, points out, Mexico's electoral institutions -- considered among the best in the world -- have gotten far ahead of its political culture. Most Mexicans expect attempts to game the system after almost a century of hijacked votes. Mexico's complex election laws and multilayered electoral institutions are designed not only to prevent fraud, but to detect and reverse it.

At the end of that road is the TRIFE. The TRIFE's seven magistrates -- nominated by the Supreme Court and confirmed by a two-thirds majority in the Senate -- are respected legal scholars who serve long terms and are relatively insulated from outside pressure. Lorenzo Meyer, a prominent historian who supports López Obrador, told the Associated Press: "The magistrates are serious people. They come from academic and legal backgrounds. I can't imagine them distorting their decision because of pressure from a party."

López Obrador's PRD, which is somewhat of an "outsider" party, has accused the vaunted IFE of "bias" in its decisions, but Manuel Camacho, a top campaign aide to AMLO, told the AP that "the PRD has confidence in the TRIFE."

López Obrador and his supporters claim there were irregularities at 40,000 of the country's 130,000 polling places. Calderón got a razor-thin margin in last Wednesday's official tally of the actas -- the summary sheets prepared at each polling place (the actual ballots were only counted when there was a discrepancy with the actas) -- of less than 250,000 votes out of over 41 million votes cast. López Obrador has called for a complete ballot-by-ballot recount.

This week, the PRD will submit official complaints to the TRIFE, which has the authority to give AMLO his recount, overturn the results in any of Mexico's 30 states and even annul the whole enchilada nationwide and order a new vote (an unlikely scenario). The magistrates will evaluate and rule on each claim before making a final decision on a winner. The process is expected to drag on for weeks; the TRIFE has until August 31 to complete its deliberations and isn't required to make a final judgment until the first week of September.

Although the TRIFE magistrates come from a judiciary dominated by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that controlled Mexican government for generations, they've made decisions in the past that have gone against both PRI and PAN. The tribunal threw out PRI's victory in the 2000 Tabasco state governor's race because of official interference and ordered a new vote. David Koop of the AP notes that the TRIFE removed a state electoral board that was stacked with PRI members in Yucatan in 2000; in 2003 it killed a PRI victory in Colima state because the outgoing governor had stuck his nose in the race; that year it also upheld a $91 million fine against the PRI for misuse of public funds in 2000; in 2004 it fined PAN $34 million for financial shenanigans in the same race, and last year the tribunal ordered PAN to repeat a primary election in the state of Mexico because it had violated party rules.

The magistrates will have quite a bit of grist for the mill. The strongest evidence that parties as yet unknown -- using methods that are not yet clear -- tried to deliver the election to Calderón on a silver plate comes from the preliminary tally on July 2. That process, known as the PREP, is based on reports compiled at polling places. It gave Calderón a lead of about 1 percent -- enough to go to the media and declare victory. If the margin had been decisive, the TRIFE might have declared a winner based on the PREP alone, without an official count of the actas.

That night, the IFE declared that the canvas had represented over 98 percent of all votes, but after pressure from the PRD and the media, it conceded that over 2.5 million votes weren't included in the PREP. Mexican bloggers are reporting that grassroots PRD activists gathered dozens of photographs of actas posted outside polling places that didn't match up with the PREP reports; the missing votes came from López Obrador's column.

Physicist Jorge López at the University of Texas, El Paso conducted a statistical analysis of the PREP results and found that, as the results came in, the candidates' totals tracked almost perfectly with one another. One would expect that as results from each party's geographic strongholds were counted, their percentage of the total would rise and their opponent's would fall. 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 bell-shaped curve). Dr. López 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."

But the PREP isn't the official result of the balloting (it's a crime punishable by imprisonment to file a false acta, but not to send in a false PREP report). The TRIFE will be looking at the actual votes.

So far, at least three reports of completed ballots found trashed in dumpsters have been splashed across the front pages of major Mexican newspapers. Independent foreign observers have reported seeing vote-buying firsthand, along with votes being counted without representatives from all major parties present, a violation of Mexican law.

Ted Lewis, head of the Global Exchange observer mission, told El Universal that his team and its Mexican partner, Alianza Cívica, conducted a statistical analysis of the results and found "that the number of votes for Congress in various instances exceeded the number of votes for the presidency in states where López Obrador reportedly won, while the opposite was true in states where Calderón was the victor."

While stopping short of charging outright fraud in the race, Lewis said: "We're really quite disturbed. We didn't expect to see this level of irregularity."

The TRIFE will have to sort through all of this. Mexico's nascent democracy hangs on the perceived impartiality of their rulings.

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