Mexico’s Presidential Election Could Get Really Dirty

  • Ballot watchdogs get major funding haircut before July vote
  • Violence, fraud, hacking and illicit cash are among the risks

Mexico’s elections have often had a dark side. Candidates have been killed, illicit cash has flowed, and vote counts have been mysteriously interrupted. So when analysts say next year’s presidential race could be one of the dirtiest ever, it’s worth paying attention. The bar is high.

The official campaign hasn’t even begun yet, but Mexico’s ruling PRI has already been slammed by election watchdogs. The party has Mexico’s best-oiled political machine, and it’s also deeply unpopular -- a dangerous combination. A recent survey showed the PRI candidate, former Finance Minister Jose Antonio Meade, in third place with just 16 percent support.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador

Photographer: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg

Then there’s the early frontrunner, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. A fiery leftist, he’s been openly campaigning for years, in apparent defiance of laws that stipulate a strict electoral timetable. He’s run twice before, and has a reputation for not losing quietly.

Meanwhile, the country is suffering the worst wave of violence this century. That could transform the clashes that are a feature of campaigns into something more dangerous -- especially if the vote is close and contentious, as it’s widely expected to be.

‘Bigger Than Ever’

“This could be the worst election since democratic races were born,” said Jesus Cantu, a political scientist at the Tecnologico de Monterrey. “If we look at what the federal government and political parties have already done, as well as some electoral authorities, we have no reason to be optimistic.”

Jose Antonio Meade

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The task of ensuring a smooth vote falls to regulators who are underfunded. And in October, President Enrique Pena Nieto fired the top electoral prosecutor after he spoke to the media about an ongoing bribery investigation -- which concerned the previous presidential vote.

The position was just filled by Hector Marcos Diaz. But the previous prosecutor’s firing just as he was investigating Pena Nieto’s previous election campaign weakens the watchdog’s ability to crack down on vote-buying, according to Kenneth Greene, who researches Mexican elections at the University of Texas at Austin.

The practice will likely be “bigger than ever in 2018,” says Greene. His polling has found that 21 percent of respondents had been approached with an offer to buy their vote. Of those willing to name a party that made the offer, 78 percent said it was a PRI representative.

The independence of the new prosecutor may not even be the watchdog’s biggest concern. Congress just slashed its budget by 300 million pesos ($16 million) -- the largest cut in the agency’s history, right before the largest election in the nation’s history.

‘Less Severe’

Lopez Obrador’s early lead, combined with his past, is one reason why credible institutions will be key in 2018. Amlo, as he’s known, was edged out by Felipe Calderon in 2006 by a margin of less than one percentage point. He claimed fraud. His supporters camped out in Mexico City’s business district for months, often bringing life to a standstill.

Felipe Calderon

Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

Another headache for the vote watchdog is the special court that has to approve its decisions, and has been proving stubborn.

Regulators have been trying to go after political parties for flouting financial rules during last June’s local ballots. The election institute says that more than a quarter of the money spent in Mexico State, the nation’s largest, came from unregistered sources.

And in Coahuila state, the agency found unreported funding was so high that it pushed the PRI’s campaign spending above legal limits -- grounds for annulling the vote (which the PRI won). But the regulator’s audit was twice overturned by Mexico’s highest electoral court.

“Part of the concern we have in the national electoral institute is that some criteria of the court tends to relax or make less severe the auditing process,” said Lorenzo Cordova, the institute’s top official.

Media Spending

Another advantage the PRI gains from incumbent status is its ability to advertise out of the public purse. After spending double its publicity budget last year, Pena Nieto’s administration has proven savvy at using the media to keep in front of viewers’ eyeballs.

All political parties are buying media, sometimes with cash under the table, according to Luis Carlos Ugalde, a former head of the vote regulator. But the PRI -- which holds the presidency and the largest number of state governorships -- can commandeer more resources, he said.

Ricardo Anaya

Photographer: Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg

Besides Lopez Obrador and Meade, there’s one more major contender. Ricardo Anaya of the National Action Party, or PAN, is presenting himself as the clean-hands candidate, vowing to stamp out corruption. But his party isn’t without fault.

The electoral institute has investigated various accusations of improper campaigning against Rafael Moreno Valle, one of the PAN’s leading politicians and a former governor of Puebla state. The probes have mostly cleared him of any wrongdoing, though a publicity agency has been fined twice for placing promotional material on his behalf.

Violence is another risk. October was the deadliest month for homicides this century, exceeding the peak of the last decade’s drug war. Analysts say in-fighting between crime groups has escalated after key leaders were arrested. Lopez Obrador suggested this month that an amnesty for cartel leaders was a possibility.

‘Tapping the Computers’

Mexican politics has turned violent before. In 1994, Luis Donaldo Colosio, the PRI candidate picked by outgoing President Carlos Salinas to succeed him, was assassinated about three months before voting. In 2010, the PRI’s gubernatorial candidate in Tamaulipas was assassinated, allegedly on the orders of a drug cartel.

Jose Woldenberg, a former electoral regulator, says the vote probably won’t exacerbate the violence. With both houses of Congress up for grabs, and local contests in 30 states “no one will win everything and no one will lose everything,” he said. “This will help cushion the blow of post-electoral conflicts.”

Other experts are less sanguine. Hacking of the Mexican electoral system, either by the ruling PRI or by a foreign government such as Russia, is a significant risk, says Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute in Houston.

“I don’t think the PRI is above manipulating the election, not just by buying votes in the streets but tapping into the computers,” Payan said. The PRI didn’t immediately comment.

Payan points to a famous precedent: the election of 1988. It was almost the end of seven decades of uninterrupted PRI rule. Instead, Salinas won. Government officials admitted after leaving power that on election day, as the vote count began to show opposition candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in front, it was shut down -- with an announcement that “the system crashed.”

That phrase became a rallying cry against electoral fraud. It remains so today -- especially among Lopez Obrador’s supporters.

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