Vote-Buying Efforts Remain Time-Honored as Mexicans Reap Gifts

When it comes to accepting campaign gifts, Rogelio Garcia is an equal-opportunity voter.

The unemployed Mexican chauffeur went shopping at his local Soriana supermarket in the capital last week with gift cards worth 2,300 pesos ($170) he says were given to him by the campaign of incoming President Enrique Pena Nieto. He said he also received handouts from supporters of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the runner-up, who accused Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, of buying the July 1 election.

“I’ll take giveaways wherever I can get them,” said Garcia, standing outside one of two Soriana supermarkets in Mexico City that were closed due to safety concerns on July 3 and July 4 after throngs of shoppers rushed to spend gift cards supplied by the PRI, according to its opponents.

Like Garcia, poor Mexicans who make up about half of the population have grown to expect gifts come election season. While Lopez Obrador may have a tough time proving that fraud by Pena Nieto’s side swung the election, given the 3.3-million-vote margin, the charges illustrate one of the challenges facing Mexico’s young democracy, said Andrew Selee at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Twelve years after one-party rule ended, parties have convinced some voters their support should go to the highest bidder, he said.

“Politicians are preying on peoples’ needs in a way that demeans the quality of their vote,” said Selee, director of the Washington-based center’s Mexico Institute. “It’s always a problem when people see their vote as a tool to get concrete benefits and not as a way of setting long-term policy.”

Undermining Democracy

While Mexico’s democracy has strengthened since Pena Nieto’s party began opening up electoral politics to competition in the 1990s after ruling alone for six decades, the continued buying of votes by the nation’s dominant parties undermines that progress, said Duncan Wood, a professor of international relations at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. At the local level, it also raises the specter of drug gangs elevating candidates who are soft on crime, setting back the nation’s crackdown on the cartels, Selee said.

Lopez Obrador, 58, who lost to Pena Nieto by more than six percentage points, has accused the PRI of buying millions of votes using tactics that included giving away bank cards from Monex Grupo Financiero SA and gift certificates from Organizacion Soriana SAB. He said yesterday he’s filing a legal challenge to invalidate the election results, which he called unconstitutional. The electoral tribunal, which has final authority over voting results, has until Sept. 6 to decide on the case and announce the president elect.

Video Footage

Pena Nieto’s opponents have helped make their case by posting videos on the Internet that they say show the PRI exchanging gifts for support.

One video that’s received more than 1.25 million views on YouTube shows people clustered in a courtyard festooned with PRI banners, listening to an organizer explain how they’ll be compensated if they promote Pena Nieto. The video ends abruptly after the unknown cameraman is spotted filming and is escorted away by someone who appears to be a campaign organizer.

Near-daily accusations by Lopez Obrador haven’t affected investors’ optimism in Mexico’s economy. The extra yield investors demand to own Mexican dollar debt instead of U.S. Treasuries has fallen 13 basis points since the election to 189, compared to a decline of 8 points to 366 for emerging markets globally, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s EMBI Global Index.

Mexico’s benchmark IPC stock index has climbed 8.6 percent this year, reaching a record on July 3, while the peso’s 3.7 percent advance is the most among 16 major currencies tracked by Bloomberg.

No Qualms

Garcia said he lives outside the capital in a working-class suburb of Mexico state, which was governed until 2011 by Pena Nieto. He said he has no qualms about taking gifts from political parties, and that offerings from the PRI and groceries, pens and a tote bag given by Lopez Obrador’s Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, didn’t sway his decision when he pulled the curtain closed on the voting booth. Garcia declined to say for whom he voted.

“The woman said she came on behalf of the PRI,” Garcia said, recalling when he accepted the gift card in his home. “People said, ‘Don’t take it,’ but why not? I voted for whomever I wanted in the end.”

Being Framed?

The PRI has denied the vote-buying allegations. Pena Nieto, 45, said on July 10 that his party is being “framed.” In this year’s election “there was no vote buying and there was complete equality,” Aurelio Nuno, a spokesman for Pena Nieto’s campaign, said in an e-mailed response to a request for comment.

Lopez Obrador had thousands of supporters camp for weeks in Mexico City’s main square in 2006 to protest what he alleged was President Felipe Calderon’s stealing of the election.

Veronica Juarez, a PRD spokeswoman, said by phone that while her party hands out t-shirts and baseball caps at rallies, it doesn’t distribute groceries or money.

Mexico’s attorney general is investigating the PRI, as well as Soriana and Monex. Both companies have denied any involvement in the distribution of the cards.

The alleged attempts to buy votes are a vestige of Mexico’s authoritarian past, when the PRI maintained its grip on power by promising peasants everything from food to bags of cement to patch up shacks, said Wood.

“It’s a lot more common in rural areas where people are not as educated on free and fair elections,” Wood said.

Uphill Battle

Lopez Obrador faces an uphill battle in trying to prove that whatever vote-buying did occur is enough to invalidate the results. While under Mexican electoral law offers of cash and gifts are illegal when a party asks for a vote in return, such practices aren’t listed in the constitution as a valid reason for voiding an election.

While the ruling National Action Party, whose candidate finished third, isn’t seeking to overturn the results, outgoing President Calderon has called for a full investigation. His party also wants authorities to probe whether the PRI exceeded campaign spending limits and used local government budgets to boost candidates.

Allegations of vote-buying aren’t restricted to Mexico. It’s a commonly alleged practice throughout Latin America, from rural areas in northeastern Brazil dominated for generations by land-owning families to the industrial suburbs of Buenos Aires that have helped the Peronist Party carry eight out of 10 Argentine presidential elections it was allowed to compete in since its creation in 1946.

In Mexico, the PRI’s “extensive” network of gift giving has helped it remain the largest party by membership and state governorships even after it lost the presidency in 2000, Selee said.

Drug Violence

Electoral payola may also be exploited by the nation’s drug cartels, especially in local races, he added.

“There is no doubt that the need to pay off patronage networks at election time has helped drug traffickers and other criminal organizations buy favor with politicians,” Selee said.

The persistence of the time-honored practice shouldn’t obscure the progress Mexico’s democracy has made in the past two decades, Wood said.

The nation has come a long way since 1988, when PRI candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari beat Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who founded Lopez Obrador’s party. Then-President Miguel de la Madrid later acknowledged that the vote was rigged.

In response to public outcry, the Federal Electoral Institute, an independent agency that oversees elections, was created under Salinas.

Subtle Canvassing

Gone, mostly, are the days when parties would pay cash to voters to physically hand over their ballots, Wood said. As a result, some canvassers have taken a more subtle tack.

Gerardo Leon said he and his wife were given a Soriana card worth 100 pesos to attend a PRI rally in Mexico state and asked to go to the polls, although he was never told which candidate to support. Like Garcia, he didn’t provide his age.

“All parties do this,” Leon said in an interview outside the same closed Soriana supermarket where Garcia stood. Leon begged a reporter not to write a story that may hurt the chances of lower-income families receiving pre-election gifts. “This isn’t news,” he said.

While offering gifts for votes may violate electoral law, the presence of international observers makes it difficult for parties to know how Mexicans cast ballots that are secret, said Robert A. Pastor, a national security adviser for Latin America during the presidency of Jimmy Carter and now a professor at American University in Washington.

“It’s a sign that their ballot is worth something,” said Pastor, who has served as an observer for five Mexican elections as well as ones in Nicaragua, Liberia and China. Mexico has left behind the days when presidents handpicked their successors, and while vote-buying is unethical, Pastor said the effort parties make to connect with voters is “not a bad thing in a country in a democratic transition.”

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