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Mexico divided.

The cast of characters in Mexico's disputed presidential election comes straight out of a telenovela. There's Felipe Calderon of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), who, with his spectacles, graying hair, and wonkish manner, lacks the spirited energy of his rival, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Lopez Obrador, of the leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), plays the populist underdog, a role he relishes. The traitor is none other than the sitting president, Vicente Fox, a man who even fellow PAN members say failed them.

There's Calderon's inconvenient brother-in-law, Diego Hildebrando Zavala, who secured government contracts for organizing the electoral roll, a list that the PAN had managed to connect with recipients of government assistance programs for possible targeted political work. Zavala, who amassed a fortune through government contracts while Calderon was energy minister, owns the company that wrote the vote-counting software used by the government. A common sign at PRD events read: "Felipe, don't give me a job. Make me your brother-in-law."

There's even a femme fatale, Elba Esther Gordillo, the powerful leader of the national teachers' union, who was booted out of the PRI (Party of the Institutional Revolution) after the PRD released tape-recorded phone calls of her trying to wheel and deal with other parties on election day. Gordillo says she was acting as a private citizen when she made those calls. Her only interest, she says, is the education of Mexico's children.

And then there's the Greek chorus known as "the people." As in "the people" want a recount of the votes. "The people" want political stability. Why doesn't Lopez Obrador just concede the election, for the good of "the people"? "The people" are tired of fraud. "The people," 60 percent of which, according to the conservative newspaper La Reforma, think the votes were counted correctly the first time, when Calderon was apparently the winner by a slim margin.

"For me, it's like Florida in 2000," says Juan Ugalde Cochea. Ugalde and his neighbors had gathered outside the twelfth federal voting district office in central Mexico City. It was July 5, three days after the elections. The final vote tally was not yet in and already people were talking about fraud. The Federal Electoral Institute, known by its Spanish acronym IFE, and its citizen electoral workers began collecting the voter tally sheets that morning. "The IFE better understand that fraud can't be committed," said this Ugalde, who noted he was from "the clean Ugaldes," so I wouldn't think he was related to the beleaguered head of the IFE, Luis Carlos Ugalde.

It did seem like Florida in 2000. Lopez Obrador held the lead in a majority of exit polls, just as Al Gore did in Florida. But both Felipe Calderon and George Bush won the official vote.

And, like Florida, there was an incredibly high number of annulled votes. The IFE declared nearly one million votes null. That's more than three times the margin of victory, 243,934 votes. The IFE resisted a hand count of these null votes, just as Katherine Harris did.

But unlike Gore in 2000, Lopez Obrador, commonly referred to by his initials AMLO, refused to concede the election and decided to take to the streets. On July 8, six days after the election, 300,000 PRD supporters rallied at the Zocalo, the political heart of Mexico City. There I spoke to Francisco Aceveda, an economist from Mexico City. "I'm here so they will respect my vote," he said. "We are not going to allow another abuse of our rights."

This sentiment was echoed by Lourdes, a middle-aged woman who sells newspapers near the Paseo de la Reforma. "If they put Calderon in power by fraud, I am not going to go along."

A week later, July 16, after allegations of fraud began to make front-page news, the PRD organized a "March for Democracy" that ended in the Zocalo. Police estimated 1.1 million people squeezed into the square and the surrounding streets. On July 30, 2.4 million Lopez Obrador supporters marched again, making it the largest political demonstration ever in Mexican history. "Lopez Obrador is a representative of the people," said Iliana Monte Ruiz, adding it's not just Lopez Obrador's decision about how far to go.

Since August 1, thousands of people have set up a protest camp in the downtown, complete with music, movies, art installations, a merry-go-round, and a wrestling ring. A few days later, the federal electoral court decided to recount only 9 percent of the ballots. But AMLO and his supporters demanded a full recount of the votes and vowed the demonstrations wouldn't stop until that happened.

Mexico has its own history of fraudulent elections. The PRI, which ruled the country until Vicente Fox was elected in 2000, bought votes and stuffed ballot boxes for seventy years. Writer Mario Vargas Llosa called the regime the "the perfect dictatorship."

Many PRD supporters told me they were afraid this year's election could be a repeat of the 1988 election, which they believed the PRI stole. On that election night, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the leftwing candidate, was leading the race until computers suffered a meltdown. When the computer tally resumed a few days later, the victory went to Carlos Salinas de Gotari, the PRI candidate. In 1991, the government destroyed the ballots, which were never recounted.

"It's 1988 reloaded," Primativo Rodriguez, a longtime PRD member and current government employee, told me ten days after the election.

But 2006 was different. "Cardenas wasn't an organizer of the streets," Rodriguez said. "Lopez Obrador has the ability to move people."

It is this ability to move people that vexes AMLO's critics. At the PAN headquarters victory celebration on July 6, Marcela Tiarripa Pino, an elegantly dressed grandmother with jet black hair, told me that she was so worried Lopez Obrador would win, she prayed the rosary. "He does a lot of these marches. That's his method," she said. "He does not have arguments, but he moves the poor. He moves the people who don't think. Calderon moves the people who think. And we won."

It's easy to understand why 60 percent of the electorate did not vote for AMLO. His critics say he is a throwback to a populist past and that he would bankrupt the country fulfilling promises to the poor.

AMLO swears he wouldn't bring the country to financial ruin with his plan to increase jobs through his ambitious public works projects, which include the construction of three new oil refineries. And how would he pay for it all? "We'll fight corruption, cut government costs, end fiscal privileges," he said at his last campaign rally. "The rich don't pay taxes, and nor do those close to Los Pinos [the Mexican White House]."

His critics also say AMLO has a "messiah complex" and positions himself as savior of the poor. I got a glimpse of this side of AMLO when he spoke at a public event a few days before the election. He is an engaging speaker and can whip up a crowd. "We are going to change the country," AMLO said. "And we are going to pull Oaxaca out from its abandonment and marginalization." A man in the crowd shouted back, "We need you."

Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes commented after the election that he, unlike Lopez Obrador, thinks the Mexican people are actually conservative. "Or at least the majority of the people who voted are," Fuentes said.

But the PAN, which appeared to get almost 36 percent in this election, got fewer votes compared to 2000. Back then, PAN won with 42 percent. The PRD got the biggest boost, getting more than 35 percent this year, after a third-place showing of 17 percent in 2000. And the Mexican electorate handed the PRI its biggest loss. After getting 38 percent in 2000, the party got only 22 percent in 2006.

It's also easy to understand why Lopez Obrador's supporters want him to be president. "Primero lospobres"--"the poor first"--is his slogan. As Mexico City's mayor, AMLO gave financial support to single mothers and the elderly. As a candidate, he pledged to not privatize the state oil company and the electricity sector. He wants to renegotiate the parts of NAFTA that he says will hurt corn and bean farmers in the coming years. He was outspoken on the campaign trail and declared the next president of Mexico should not be a pelele--an errand boy--of any other nation.

On July 10, AMLO released a video that he said proved the election was stolen from him. In a homemade video shot in Salamanca, Guanajuato, an electoral worker was caught stuffing a ballot box on election day. "This is a return to times we thought had passed," Lopez Obrador said. "It's old-style fraud."

In fact, the stuffed ballot box was for the congressional election, and not for the presidency. The poll worker said he was only putting misplaced ballots in the appropriate ballot box. All of the parties' poll watchers signed off on the act. But the details of the story were not as important as the image.

This particular case paled in comparison to other allegations of fraud. Alianza Civica, a nongovernmental organization, reported voter intimidation, coercion, and outright vote buying. The San Francisco-based human rights organization Global Exchange sent a delegation of people to monitor the pre-election scene and they, too, observed the alleged exchange of goods--ranging from cement to cash benefits--for a vote.

Alianza Civica noted other election-day problems. These included people being allowed to vote who weren't on the electoral rolls, electoral propaganda inside the voting areas, and people working the polling stations without official IFE credentials who were added at the last minute. All of these irregularities cast doubt upon the final vote tallies.

And there were problems leading up to the election. According to Mexican election law, negative campaigning is not allowed. This did not stop a wealthy business group from creating several negative espots attacking Lopez Obrador. One featured a clip of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez talking trash to Mexican President Vicente Fox, and linked Chavez to Lopez Obrador. Chavez has become the latest hobgoblin trotted out by the Latin American rightwing to scare people, perhaps permanently replacing Fidel Castro. In a pre-election interview with the Mexico City newspaper El Universal, Lopez Obrador said he had never met Chavez.

Another commercial showed Lopez Obrador calling Fox a chachalaca, a noisy bird. (Fox had campaigned on behalf of Calderon, another violation of campaign law.) The word chachalaca was slowed down to hilarious effect and made Lopez Obrador look silly, Still another ad stated that if Lopez Obrador won, he would take away people's houses. The overall message of the negative campaign was simple: Lopez Obrador was a danger to Mexico.

Lopez Obrador's own advisers said he did not adequately respond to the negative campaign. And although the espots were deemed illegal by the IFE and eventually yanked off the air, the damage was done. Lopez Obrador's poll numbers, which at one point gave him a ten-point lead over Calderon, dropped precipitously. The last polls released before the election revealed Lopez Obrador and Calderon in a near dead heat.

Soon after election day, the PRD filed an 897-page legal challenge and demanded a complete recount. The party believed that preliminary results and the official results were altered in favor of PAN through fraud both at the precinct level and at the IFE itself. Several university statisticians crunched the official numbers, and released their findings to the press. The numbers, they said, didn't add up. One professor said the last-minute Calderon victory was statistically impossible.

The slim advantage Calderon held did not seem to trouble his supporters. When the IFE announced the official vote tally on July 6, I was at the PAN headquarters, a cavernous building that resembled a law school, with bronze busts scattered about the first floor. I talked to Veronica de La Concha de Salcedo, a director of a nonprofit organization. She thought Calderon's victory was exactly what Mexico needed. "Felipe is an honest man," she said. I asked her how she felt about Calderon's thin margin of victory. She replied, "There are enough votes to win."

Elizabeth DiNovella is the culture editor of The Progressive.
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Title Annotation:elections
Author:DiNovella, Elizabeth
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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