San Simón, Mexico – “We’re going to win,” said Alfredo Gonzalez from underneath a shade tree at this town’s only polling place on July 2, election day. Like many pulling for a leftist candidate to win Mexico’s presidency, he’d been waiting a long time for this.
Three tense days later, Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) released this news: right-wing presidential candidate Felipe Calderón from the ruling PAN party received 243,934 more votes than leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador in a 42-million-vote race. The difference amounted to 0.58 percent of the total, or fewer than 2 votes per polling place.
Obrador denounced the count and the election before the independent IFE was through counting ballots. Many of his followers jumped to one conclusion: “There was fraud,” says Gonzalez, 46, a field hand who supports five children on a salary of $9.50 per day. “This was all set up from the top.”
The anomalies appeared for the most part after voting was finished. A computerized preliminary count posted online was riddled with errors. Polling places were entered several times, votes at some polling places exceeded the number of ballots issued and vote totals did not match official numbers that poll workers had taken home. The count ended with a less than 1 percentage point lead for Calderón – but IFE left out 2.5 million votes without telling the public.
In addition, voters in some areas complained that polling stations had run out of ballots. Newspapers published photos of official tally sheets and ballots allegedly found in garbage dumps. Mathematicians have alleged “cyber fraud”; Mexicans vote on paper ballots, but two Mexican Autonomous University professors who analyzed the final count said they believe IFE applied a computer algorithm to manipulate numbers. Some 900,000 votes were nullified because voters marked ballots incorrectly.
After 70 years of fraudulent elections, it may be easier for many to imagine that things are back to normal than to believe that their candidate lost a fair election by a hair.
But the election did not have to be this close. Obrador’s simple campaign message, “For the Good of All, First the Poor,” seemed an easy sell in a country where half the population earns the same or less than Alfredo Gonzalez. But Calderón led a fierce attack against Obrador, calling the populist a “danger to Mexico.”
And while Harvard-educated Calderón was getting advice from Dick Morris and using imported marketing expertise, Obrador stubbornly insisted on making key campaign decisions himself, refusing to run TV and radio spots and skipping televised debates.
Then, in a speech accusing President Fox of meddling in the election, Obrador told Fox to “shut up,” calling him a “chachalaca,” a type of squawking bird. The comment ended up – where else? – in Calderón commercials.
Political scientist Denise Dresser wrote this month in Proceso magazine that López Obrador “insisted on seeming dangerous.” She wrote, “It was his election to lose, and he lost it.”
As analysts ponder how the votes fell, some are pointing fingers at Mexico’s fractured left. Patricia Mercado, a veteran feminist and labor activist who focused on issues no other candidate would touch – gay rights, abortion, domestic violence – picked up 1.1 million votes. Her Alternativa Party sheltered leftists uncomfortable with Obrador or the people running his campaign, who included ex-PRI operatives who built their careers opposing democratic reforms.
“Obrador with his pride and arrogance and his feeling that he’s a Messiah” made no attempts to unify the left, says Alvaro Ochoa Serrano, a historian at the Colegio de Michoacán.
But the biggest bloc of voters were those who stayed home – more than 40 percent. Four million more Mexicans turned out for this race than voted in the watershed election in 2000, when Fox beat the PRI. But the possibility of fraud – especially within IFE, the most trusted institution in Mexican society – could change that trend. “I know many people who say they will never vote again,” says Gonzalez.
Mexico’s election laws and independent election commission are regarded as among the best in the Americas. International observers from the European Union and Global Exchange gave the election an overall good bill of health. But Global Exchange has now come out in support of recounting the 42 million ballots “because of the close result and the multiple inconsistencies alleged.”
Obrador has submitted a 900-page legal challenge to the election and is calling for a massive manual re-count of votes. Mexico’s Federal Election Tribunal must consider Obrador’s challenge before declaring an official winner, or nullifying the vote. They have until Sept. 6 to do so.
In the meantime, Obrador will do what he does best: call people to the streets.