History of Fraud Overshadows Mexico Election

Mexico elects its next president July 2. The race is hotly contested between leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and conservative Felipe Calderon. Mexico's electoral system has long been known for fraud, financing irregularities, and the outright buying of votes. While Mexico has improved dramatically under an independent electoral watchdog, shadows of its past remain. Michael O'Boyle reports.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Next Sunday Mexico will elect a new president, the race close between leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and conservative Felipe Calderon.

Mexico's electoral system has been long been known for fraud, financing irregularities and outright vote buying. While Mexico has improved dramatically under an independent electoral authority, shadows of its past remain.

Michael O'Boyle reports from Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF COUNCIL OF ELECTORAL INSTITUTE)

MICHAEL O: The Council of Mexico's Electoral Institute is meeting. It's a little over a week before national elections and the counselors are discussing possible irregularities that could mar the vote. The president of the institute, or IFE, as it is called, assures the nation that these elections will go on without a hitch. Mexico needs a little reassuring right now. For the majority of the 20th century Mexico was ruled by one party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. It was a regime in no small way supported by electoral fraud. Vicente Fox's victory in 2000 ended the PRI's reign, but vestiges of the old system remain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALIANZA CIVICA PRESENTATION)

BOYLE: The non-governmental organization, Alianza Civica, is presenting the results of its most recent study on vote buying. Program Director Beatriz Camacho says Alianza Civica found that seven percent of Mexicans inscribed in welfare programs had been pressured by political parties to vote for them or risk losing the aid.

BEATRIZ CAMACHO: (Through Translator) They will go to people who make less than $1.00 a day. They say I will give you a hand out or include you in a program for your vote. As a vote doesn't mean much to them, it is a fertile ground to pressure people.

BOYLE: Federal welfare programs have been cleaned up under President Vicente Fox, but the scene at the local level is entirely different. Now it's not just the PRI that uses such tactics. Other parties, including Fox's PAN and the leftist PRD, are also accused of abusing the poor and ignorant. Camacho warns that during this next week Mexico will see a last-minute vote-buying spree.

CAMACHO: (Through Translator) We will see payoffs for financing, but we don't know where that financing comes from. We will see considerable increase in pressure on citizens, a constant threat that if you don't vote for a certain party, they will take away the aid.

BOYLE: The independent IFE has been trying to fight such tactics since it was founded in the '90s to replace the PRI's state-controlled electoral system. In its first campaign, it tried to convince skeptical Mexicans that their vote was truly secret and free. Street vendors under brightly colored plastic tarps sprawl along the street's of Mexico City's historic center. Street sellers have long been a target of pressure by political parties. Their stands are technically illegal, but they are allowed to sell as long as they make payments to local gang leaders. These leaders pay off police and negotiate with the local government. It's a cycle of corruption that often turns vendors into political pawns. Leaders force them to show up at political rallies or risk losing their spot.

Thirty-three-year-old Oliver Rivera(ph) has sold jeans on the street since he was 15. He says in the past he voted for whom he was told to, but now he says most Mexicans have wised up.

OLIVER RIVERA: (Through Translator) I think people have realized what's going on. Before, the system was much more closed and they would tell you that they were going to write down your I.D. number and that you had to vote for a certain party. But they were just deceiving us. Now they may be able to make you go to a political rally, but you can vote for who you want.

BOYLE: Parties may keep trying to get the poor to sell their votes, but it's clear that Mexico is no longer a buyer's market. For NPR News, I'm Michael O'Boyle in Mexico City.

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