Can Street Heat Reverse Defeat? Mexican Presidential Election Coverage

By Matt Pascarella

From the July 20th Issue of The Indypendentjuly6casadecamp1

MEXICO CITY—It was July 2, election night, a little before 11pm. While we wait for Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) candidate, to make his victory speech, Luis Carlos Ugalde, the head of the Election Commission (IFE), appears on massive television screens throughout the room and announces that the election is too close to call.

The next president of Mexico, we are told, will not be named until Wednesday, July 5. The room, full of supporters and press, is suddenly quiet – all one can hear are whispers of “miércoles?”

After a few minutes Lopez Obrador appears and tells the crowd, “We know we won. We are up by 500,000 votes.”

Nearly a half-hour later, the National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderón appears on TV, and announces, “There is not the slightest doubt that we have won the election.”

No one realized it at the time, but the stage was being set for a fight that will continue into August – and could even stretch into September.

Two days after the IFE announce the preliminary results, showing Felipe Calderón ahead of Obrador by a meager 0.6 percent. On that same day I met with an Election Commission representative who admitted nearly 3 million ballots from 11,184 polling places had yet to be counted. She wouldn’t say if these ballots would be included in the official count, but was “confident those votes wouldn’t change the outcome.”

The following day, July 5, the Electoral Commission began the official count, not a vote-by-vote count, but rather, an accounting of tally sheets attached to every ballot box.

In the morning, representatives of the PRD gathered at a news conference and asserted that irregularities had taken place throughout the election process. Members of the press pushed the PRD to label it “fraud” but they refused to take that direction, deciding instead to stick to the legal route and play out the process.

Taxi drivers and others I spoke with on the street that day told me they were frustrated the PRD was not calling for mass mobilizations because, as the security guard at my hotel told me, “Calderón is trying to steal it … Everyone knows the PAN committed fraud and we need to do something about it.”

Early in the morning on July 6, the Election Commission announced the results of their tally sheet count: Felipe Calderón was now ahead of Lopez Obrador by only 0.5 percent.

Based on this count, many reporters declared Felipe Calderón the new president of Mexico. Yet, what most failed to mention is that the Election Commission is not the body responsible for officially announcing the next president.

Rather, it is the Electoral Tribunal that will make an official announcement after addressing complaints filed by each party. The Electoral Tribunal, a supposedly nonpartisan, independent body, has the responsibility to examine statements brought to them before making a final decision. It will have to consider issues cited in the PRD’s complaint such as:

• Why hundreds of thousands of ballots have yet to be included in any count;

• Why ballots have been found, literally, in the trash;

• Why there was a massive amount of “dropoff,” i.e., where people showed up to vote but did not cast a vote for president;

• Why, on Election Day, poll workers in places like Querétaro and Salamanca were caught on video stuffing ballot boxes and changing tally sheets.

• The use and role of public expenditures on Calderón’s campaign;

• The pro-Calderón intervention of current president Vicente Fox (a member of PAN), which is illegal according to the Electoral Commission’s rules.

Overall, the PRD is citing irregularities in more than 30 percent of the precincts throughout the country.

Based on an optimistic reading of the IFE’s track record in previous smaller elections where it demanded recounts and exposed cases of fraud, the Electoral Tribunal may, indeed, call for further investigation, demand a vote-by-vote count, or even annul the election. But Obrador and his supporters don’t seem to be taking any chances.

Obrador’s constituency includes the indigenous, poor, grassroots movements, businessmen and even former members of the PRI – the party that controlled Mexico for some 70 years. In 1994 he ran for governor of Tabasco but lost after a battle revolving around his opponent’s supposed illegal use of public monies. In 2000 Obrador was elected mayor of Mexico City and quickly became known for policies benefiting the poor. Even last year, Obrador had to fight to get on the ballot. Ultimately, it was his supporters’ willingness to mobilize that secured his spot in the election.

On Saturday July 8, six days following the election, nearly half a million people gathered in Mexico City’s Zócalo, one of the largest squares in the world, for an “informative assembly” organized by the PRD. People of all ages, from as far away as Tabasco, waited for Obrador to address them chanting, “Vota por vota, casilla por casilla.” (“Vote by vote, polling place by polling place.”)

Obrador announced a nationwide mobilization to begin that Wednesday. The crowd, waving the yellow flags of the PRD and holding signs claiming fraud, shouted in response, “No está solo” (”you are not alone”). Obrador called for calm and asked that his supporters not shut down roads (which would cripple the Mexican economy) that, ultimately, they would win together through the government’s own institutions. The next week people began marching from every state in Mexico and an estimated 1.1 million people converged in the Zocalo on July 16 for another mass meeting. Further mobilizations to pressure the Electoral Tribunal were called.

Depending on what happens, Obrador may face two options: Admit defeat or step outside the political institutions altogether, capitalizing on his popular support, to pressure the system. Right now he is balancing between continuing down the legal route and proceeding with mobilizations aimed at pressuring the Electoral Tribunal. If he decides to go outside the system, it could cause political, social and economic paralysis, which, in turn, would mean he would likely have to sacrifice broader support. But he may have to do just that.

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MattMatt Pascarella is a freelance reporter and an award-winning researcher and producer for investigative journalist Greg Palast.< You can view his reports at MattPascarella.blogspot.com or at www.GregPalast.com

If you are interested in Central and South American politics and its effect on the rest of the world, look for more dispatches from The Gringos Project.

You can also see here for photos from Mexico´s 2006 Presidential Election.


KPFT's Sunday Monitor Interviews Matt Pascarella

July 16, 2006

Matt Pascarella discusses the Mexican Election with Pokey Andersen of KPFT's Sunday talk-show, The Monitor.

Listen here

Why Democrats Don't Count - Lessons from the Un-Gore of Mexico

14 July 2006

Watch the report I worked on for Democracy Now!"Florida Con Salsa"

The Exit polls said he won, but the "official" tally took his victory away. His supporters found they were scrubbed off voter rolls. Violence and intimidation kept even more of his voters away from the polls. Hundreds of thousands of ballots supposedly showed no choice for president -- like ballots with hanging chads.

And the officials in charge of this suspect election refused to re-count those votes in public. Everyone knew full well a fair count would certainly change the outcome.

You've heard this story before: Gore 2000. Kerry 2004.

But Lopez Obrador 2006 is made out of very different stuff than the scarecrow candidates who, oddly, call themselves "Democrats."

Read the full story


Dispatches from Mexico. Part 2 - Election Day.

2 July 2006
By John Buffalo Mailer and Matt Pascarella

[Mexico City]

PRD press center, Hotel Marquis, Mexico City. 6:48pm.
AMLO Doll Lopez Obrador still has yet to make his appearance. The woman standing next to us quietly conifdes that she is hoping PAN will win. As she tells us this, a little boy stands in front of three cameras waving an AMLO doll. After hours of waiting, with no sign of the progressive candidate, we make our way through the entrance of the hotel and approach a barricade of security guards. We flash our PRD press credentials and the officers wave us inside.

Upon reaching the main press room on the second floor of the hotel, we see the initial PRD exit poll data. AMLO is up by 3% but there is still 2 hours to go before the official announcement from IFE, the electoral commission. At 10:14pm the PAN party President states, ¨There are some polls favorable to Obrador and some polls favorable to Calderon.¨ Yet he does not cite PAN´s own exit poll data, suggesting to many a lefty journalist that PAN´s own polls show Obrador ahead.

Reports are coming in that the main square in Mexico City, the Zocalo (Obrador´s strongest front), is packed and the celebration party has already begun. But, still, no one knows for sure, and won´t for another 45 minutes. Immediately following IFE´s announcement, Obrador will address the massive press corp gathered in this room. We´re all exhausted and everyone wants him to come out, declare victory, and finish his speech so we can go to the party in the Zocalo.

We had started the day at 7am. Over coffee with John Gibler in the hotel restaurant, we received confirmation that the previous night´s meeting of La Otra Campaña was a disappointment to many of the supporters of the Zapatistas. This was a sentiment we shared, as the majority of the evening seemed to consist of soap box speeches and people talking over each other in a docile chaos. We then tried to hunt down an internet café to post the previous day´s blog. We had no luck, as most of Mexico City was shut down for the election.

Ciudad Universitaria, the modest neighborhood where Obrador would cast his vote. 9:22 am.
Arriving minutes before Obrador dropped his ballot into the transparent box, Indelible AssMatt made his way to the center of the cluster-fuck of photo journalists and television cameras positioned outside, hoping to catch the money shot. John stayed back with the rest of the print media and questioned for a moment whether he needed to hop in and pull his buddy out of the near stampede that resulted from too much press on too narrow a street. Before he could make up his mind, Matt was shoved onto the white Volkswagen Beatle parked just outside the polling site, leaving an indelible print of his ass on the hood. The chaos subsided and Obrador walked down the street to cheers from the crowd gathered on the sidewalks.

Las Aguilas, the upper middle-class neighborhood where Calderon cast his vote. 10:34 am.
In stark contrast to Obrador´s spot, the people lining up to vote had fresh nose jobs, designer clothes, and a vast appreciation for Starbucks. We were taken by surprise when suddenly Calderon appeared, walking down the sidewalk with his family. cald&daughterbaldrop We had assumed he would show up with his standard caravan of SUVs in spite of the fact that his house was only one block away. He opted to enter the voting booth two times, once for the federal ballot and a second time for the state and local – granting himself the opportunity to pose for the press twice. It was on this second round that his cheers were combatted by the chants of the dozen protestors who had appeared on bicycles. ¨Libre a los presos de Atenco!¨ (Free the prisoners of Attenco!) they shouted.

45 minutes outside Mexico City, the town of San Salvador Atenco. 12:48 pm. As soon as we step out of the car, the demonstration in the central plaza catches our attention and Matt starts snapping shots of a little girl leading a chant as a number of the town people drop pieces of paper, symbolic of their voter registration, into a ballot box engulfed in flames at the center of the circle. Girl in Attenco burning voter card.

Standing out from the crowd, a somber local holds a machete upright, his face wrapped in a mask made of gauze. Because we´ve caught the tail end of this portion of the demonstration and because we are two of the few members of the international press that has shown up today in Atenco, they burn some more for our cameras.

The red paint splattered all over the plaza, a reminder of the bloodshed that occured here only a few months ago when 3,000 federales reclaimed the town from (for lack of a better word) the “rebels” who had seized it in retribution for removing flower sellers from their traditional market place to pave the way for a new Wal-Mart. The events of that day are still unclear. However, we do know, according to the Mexican government´s own Human Rights Division, that most of the women who were arrested in Atenco were brutually raped by the authorities. Many are still being held. What is also clear is that the driver we´ve hired to take us here, Benito, is antsy to leave because of the relatively low rate we have negotiated with him. He doesn´t want to spend all day with us.

PRD press center. 11pm.

IFE makes the official announcement that the election is too close to call. The new president of Mexico, we´re told, will not be named until Wednesday, July 5th. Miercoles.
¨Miercoles?¨ is all Matt can hear under the breath of the shocked Obrador supporters around him at the foot of the stage where Obrador will soon address the room. There is an eerie silence as hundreds from the international press corps look around, not quite sure of what to think, do, or what this will mean. Lopez Obrador addressing press following IFE announcement. A few minutes later Obrador enters the room from a side door and walks up to the podium. He makes a five minute statement in which he says, ¨We know we won – we are up by 500,000 votes,¨ hinting that should the IFE proclaim Calderon the winner on Wednesday, he may claim fraud.

As we´re walking out, we see Calderon making his statement on a TV in the hotel bar. ¨There is not the slightest doubt that we have won the election.¨

Zocalo. 12:17am.
Navigating the packed streets, trying not to go deaf from the blaring unison of car horns honking in support of Obrador, Matt takes pictures of people from all generations as they wave yellow PRD flags, celebrating what they see as a clear victory for Obrador. We are pleased to find the square has not erupted into a riot, but instead has the feel of a block party, sandwiched between the presidential palace and the grand cathedral – two of the most beautiful buildings we´ve seen since arriving in Mexico City.
Supporters of Obrador at the Zocalo

¨It is important that you, the international press, are here. Our national press isn´t. They are not showing us in the streets,¨ a middle-aged woman tells Matt after grabbing his press credentials and examining them closely. It´s true. As we look around, we can find little more than a small handfull of independent international journalists. Zero national press.

Another woman tells us, ¨We don´t want a repeat of the fraud that happened in the election of ´88,¨ a worried look on her face, as if this may be inevitable. The consensus among most of the people we speak to in the Zocalo is that Obrador has won and that now they must fight to prove it. One man suggested violence, another a general strike, but most were unsure of what will take place between now and Wednesday.

¨The U.S. is definitely behind this!¨ shouts a drunken man who bears an uncanny resemblance to a Mexican Charles Bukowski and seems to have an unfocused rage in his eyes, directed (for lack of a better target) at us. ¨Someone must do something about it!¨ We are reminded not only of the poor image our own country has abroad, and the fact that this six-year-old version of Mexican multi-party democracy could still fall apart, but also, of the fragile nature inherant in all democracies. Reminded of the reality that if it is not tended to diligently and constantly, democracy can be taken away from the people right in front of their eyes. The next three days in Mexico will be its latest test.

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Buffalo John Buffalo Mailer is a playwright, actor, and Editor At Large for Stop Smiling Magazine. He is the author of Hello Herman, and co-author of The Big Empty.

Matt Matt Pascarella is an award-winning reseracher and producer for investigative journalist Greg Palast. You can view his reports at www.GregPalast.com

If you are interested in Central and South American politics and its effect on the rest of the world, look for more dispatches from The Gringos Project.

You can also see here for photos from Mexico´s 2006 Presidential Election.

Dispatches from Mexico City. Part 1 - The Day Before Election Day.

1 July 2006
By John Buffalo Mailer and Matt Pascarella

Mexico City -- As a gringo, the first thing you learn upon arriving in Mexico City is that you do not take unauthorized taxis. In 2003, Mexico had the second-highest number of kidnappings in the world, with some 3,000 reported cases. The second thing you learn is that all the studying in the world will give you at best a cursory understanding of this country’s electoral politics.

Here, on the eve of what could be considered only Mexico’s 2nd multi-party democratic election in the last seventy years, feelings run unbelievably strong on all sides. With the fact that 94.5% of all eligible Mexican citizens are registered to vote, one gets the sense that the newfound democracy the country has created over the last six years is taken with more sobriety than we tend to give it in America. Aside from holding the election on a Sunday, a law is in place called La Seca which forbids the consumption of alcohol during the day before and the day of the election.

The top two candidates are reminiscent of what you would find back in the States.

Lopez Obrador addressing press following IFE announcement.There is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador better known to the locals as AMLO. He represents the PRD, the Party of the Democratic Revolution. AMLO is openly a leftist, the former Mayor of Mexico City, and is running, according to locals we’ve talked to, “on a promise of hope.”

Felipe Calderon and his familyOn the other side, you have Felipe Calderon Hinojosa, the former minister of energy under the current president, Vincente Fox. Calderon could be considered the typical favorite of the elite in any country – he was educated at Harvard and a lot of his rhetoric revolves around more neo-liberal economic themes.

After the Calderon campaign hired foreign advisors, an attack campaign was launched against Obrador – the likes of which has never been seen in Mexico. The ads, blasted over the airwaves, were evocative of American style electioneering and appeared very similar to the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry during the 2004 Presidential election in the United States. One of the ads went so far as to compare AMLO to Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela. There were also ads saying that if AMLO were elected people would lose their homes. Eventually, it was taken too far and the federal election commission, IFE, had to step in.

Call it the typical fight, promises versus fear.

This somewhat American approach to winning an election seemed to work. For months Obrador led the polls with double digits. But following the negative ad campaign, a change in polling methodology, and other factors including AMLO’s audacious decision to forgo the first round of debates with Calderon – his numbers steadily dropped. Now, only hours before the voting booths open, he is just a few percentage points ahead of his opponent.

Needless to say, back in the U.S. President Bush is likely to support Calderon, while, not surprisingly, President Chavez, an outspoken critic of Bush, has come down on the side of Obrador. It is in this microcosm that the larger question of which way world politics will swing in the new Millennium is being fought.

Will more candidates with the promise of a new form of Social Democracy start convincing the majority of poor people that another world is possible if they partake in their civic duty of voting? Or will the dominant capitalist democracy of which the 20th century has largely been defined by, continue to reign? Either way, which system fulfills the role of government best? Assuming of course, that one can agree the role of government is to make sure the people who pay taxes are able to live in relative peace and prosperity.

We arrived in Mexico City late last night. As the plane was landing, we asked the fairly conservative Mexican woman sitting next to us which candidate she preferred in the election. Her answer was solemn and obvious, “Felipe.” When asked why, her response was, “Because Obrador is a crazy man, just like Chavez.”

In truth, the support from Chavez was neither wanted nor did much to help Obrador’s campaign. And given the fact that many of his advisers worked under Salinas, one of the men accredited with catalyzing support of NAFTA, Obrador is hardly a radical Leftist. But, all things considered, he is understood as a populist and one of the main tenets of his campaign was reaching both the urban and rural poor.

Outside the airport, probably because we are white, we were whisked to the front of the very long taxi line before realizing what was happening, and quickly found ourselves at the Hotel Isabel, where some of the more hard-core journalists who cover Mexico and South America are staying. Among them was John Gibler, who has been traveling with the Zapatistas throughout Mexico for the past six months. If one is truly looking for a radical voice in this election, John has his finger on the vocal chord. Running an un-official campaign, called La Otra Campaňa (The Other Campaign), Sub-Commandant Marcos and the Zapitista movement is using this election not as a way to gain office, but as a platform to promote what are considered by many to be radical ideas and possibilities for how a society could be governed.

Tonight, we go to a rally of The Other Campaign, to hang with the Zapatistas and continue to search for a deeper understanding and sense of which way the wind is blowing.

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Buffalo John Buffalo Mailer is a playwright, actor, and Editor At Large for Stop Smiling Magazine. He is the author of Hello Herman, and co-author of The Big Empty.

Matt Matt Pascarella is an award-winning reseracher and producer for investigative journalist Greg Palast. You can view his reports at www.GregPalast.com

If you are interested in Central and South American politics and its effect on the rest of the world, look for more dispatches from The Gringos Project.

You can also see here for photos from Mexico´s 2006 Presidential Election.