Mexico’s rocky road to democracy

Mexicans still don’t know who their new president is, almost a month after the presidential election on July 2 . Runner-up, Andres Lopez Obredor is demanding a vote recount, citing irregularities, and considering Mexico’s long history of electoral fraud, his claim might not be the cries of a sore loser.

The Federal Electoral Institute calculated that Obredor, the leftist candidate, lost to Felipe Colderon of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, by less than one per cent. Julia Murphy, a University of Calgary anthropology professor, witnessed the Mexican political drama unfold first-hand as an electoral observer.

According to Mexican law, the Federal Electoral Institute’s announcement that Calderon had more votes does not mean he is the elected president. Only the judicial branch of government can proclaim the next president, and it has not done so yet.

“Felipe Calderon is acting like he’s elected but he’s not,” Murphy said. “Clearly with any election this close, where so much is at stake, everybody should respect the time and space necessary for a fully constitutional resolution to the election. With Calderon behaving as though he’s president-elect, and by saying Obredor’s behaviour is destabilizing the country, it’s not helping.”

In Mexico, there is a whole rhetoric to describe various types of voter fraud, said Murphy. But the 1988 elections, which were widely believed to be fraudulent, signaled a turning point for Mexican democracy. Many electoral institutes were created after ’88, a year Murphy described as a wake up call for the country.

But, Obredor’s complaints of electoral fraud warn that Mexico might not have shed its old habits after all.

Murphy was critical of party representatives at polling stations, calling them “intrusive” and their behaviour “inappropriate.”

Other examples followed: in the state of Oaxaca, the polling station was inside the town hall where voters could be susceptible to pressure from others while casting their ballots.

In another part of Mexico, her team saw evidence of the use of public security forces in favour of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which has autocratically ruled Mexico for more than 70 years. Murphy said police and a helicopter were there as an act of intimidation, calling it collusion between PRI and the state.

“When we showed up, there was some funny business going on,” said Murphy.

As people came out of the polling station, PRI representatives gave them 100 pesos and a t-shirt, she explained.

“It’s ingrained in the PRI,” Murphy said, citing the practice of buying votes and pressuring voters.

There was also concern about the diversion of state funds. Alianza Civica, a non-government organization, carried out a study of the six month period leading up to the election. It found the temporary employment program was used to buy votes and pressure people to vote for the PAN party, the ruling party Calderon represents. AC interviewed the beneficiaries of the programs and found 92 per cent of the sample didn’t know where they could make a complaint when they were coerced for votes.

Many say that if Obrador’s claims of fraud in the presidential elections are true, his populist politics will be a blow to Mexico’s electoral system and the democratizing process, but Murphy is much more cautious.

“Mexico has made huge advancements, especially in the development of electoral institutions,” she said, adding that more improvements to the democratic system are still necessary.

Murphy’s team is asking for a vote recount. September 6 is the last day to announce the next Mexican president, who will assume power in December.

This was Murphy’s first time monitoring an election. She was one of two Canadians part of a 24-member delegation sent by San Francisco’s Global Exchange. They joined 13,600 Mexican electoral observers.

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