Published by The Guardian
Irregularities Reveal Mexico's Election Far from Fair
With Peña Nieto's election marred by media bias and voter fraud,
Mexico's ailing economy is hobbled by democratic deficit
by Mark Weisbrot
THE MEDIA REWRITES history every day, and in so doing, it often
impedes our understanding of the present. Mexico's presidential
election of a week ago is a case in point. Press reports tell us that
Felipe Calderón, the outgoing president from the PAN (National Action
party), "won the 2006 election by a narrow margin".
Enrique Peña Nieto moved to reassure the student movement, saying: 'I
understand your complaints.' (Photograph: Guillermo Arias/Xinhua
But this is not quite true, and without knowing what actually happened
in 2006, it is perhaps more difficult to understand the widespread
skepticism of the Mexican people toward the results of the current
election. The official results show Institutional Revolutionary party
(PRI) candidate Enrique Peña Nieto winning 38.2% of the vote, to 31.6%
for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, of the party of the Democratic
Revolution (PRD) and 25.4% for Josefina Vázquez Mota of the PAN. It
does not help that the current election has been marred by widespread
reports of vote-buying. From the Washington Post:
"'It was neither a clean nor fair election,' said Eduardo Huchim of
the Civic Alliance, a Mexican watchdog group funded by the United
Nations Development Program.
"'This was bribery on a vast scale,' said Huchim, a former [Federal
Electoral Institute] official. 'It was perhaps the biggest operation
of vote-buying and coercion in the country's history.'"
It may not have been enough to swing the presidential race, but for
those who know what actually happened in 2006, the voters' lack of
faith in the results is completely understandable. The official margin
of difference between Calderón and López Obrador of the PRD, who was
also the PRD's nominee in the 2006 election, was 0.58%. But there were
The most prominent, which was largely ignored in the international
press, was the "adding-up" problem at the majority of polling places.
According to Mexico's electoral procedures, each polling station gets
a fixed number of blank ballots. After the vote, the number of
remaining blank ballots plus the number of ballots cast are supposed
to add up to the original blank ballots. For nearly half of polling
places, this did not happen.
But it got worse than that: because of public pressure, the Mexican
electoral authorities did two partial recounts of the vote. The second
one was done for a huge sample: they recounted 9% of the ballots. But
without offering any explanation, the electoral authorities refused to
release the results of the recount to the public.
From 9-13 August 2006, the Mexican electoral authorities posted
thousands of pages of results on the web ,which included the recounted
ballot totals. It was then possible, with hundreds of hours of work,
to piece together what happened in the recount and compare it to the
previous results. At the Center for Economic and Policy Research
(CEPR), we did this for a large random sample (14.4%) of the recounted
ballots. Among these ballots, Calderón's margin of victory
This may explain why the electoral authorities never told the public
what the recount showed, and why the authorities refused to do a full
recount – which would have been appropriate for such a close election
with so many irregularities. A full recount could easily have reversed
the result, or found the election to be completely indeterminate.
At that time, I was struck by the lack of interest in the media as to
either the "adding-up" problem, or the results of the recount. Both of
these results were readily available on the web. Although it was
laborious to tally the recount data, any news organization with a
modicum of resources could have done the work. But none was
López Obrador made the mistake of claiming that the 2006 election was
stolen without demanding that the recount results be released –
possibly, because he didn't trust that these would be any more
accurate than the original count. He did call attention to the
adding-up problem, but the media ignored this and mostly portrayed him
as a sore loser.
Both the 2006 and 2012 elections were manipulated in other ways. A
study from the University of Texas shows that there was significant
media bias against López Obrador in 2006, and that it was much more
than enough to swing a close election. About 95% of broadcast TV is
controlled by just two companies, Televisa and Azteca, and their
hostility toward the PRD has been documented.
In the current presidential campaign, the media duopoly ran into
criticism for not broadcasting nationally the first presidential
debate on 6 May. After student protesters were dismissed in the media
as outside agitators, a protest movement against the TV media was
launched – called "Yosoy#132" ("I am #132"), after 131 of the initial
protesters produced a viral video showing their student IDs (that is,
to indicate that they were genuine students).
John Ackerman rightly criticized President Obama for congratulating
Peña Nieto as the winner before the official results were in. This was
similar to the Bush administration's efforts to aid Calderón in 2006,
which began immediately after the vote. The Calderón campaign to
establish his "victory" as a fait accompli was modeled after the Bush
team's successful exploitation of its "home field advantage" in
Florida in 2000, as chronicled in Jeffrey Toobin's excellent book, Too
Close to Call.
As I have noted previously, it is not because Mexico has a rightwing
electorate that it has gone against the trend of the last 14 years in
Latin America. One country after another (Brazil, Venezuela,
Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay, Honduras, El Salvador,
Nicaragua and others) has elected and re-elected left governments in
response to Latin America's worst long-term economic failure in more
than a century (1980-2000). Although the rest of the region has done
better over the past decade, Mexico has not.
Some have pointed out that the other left presidents in the Americas
also faced hostile, biased media, and nonetheless won. This has
certainly been true in all of the above-named countries; some, such as
Bolivia, have even worse media bias than Mexico. But Mexico is, as the
saying goes, "so far from God and so close to the United States".
It is one thing to portray a leader of Ecuador or Bolivia as "another
Hugo Chávez", as the media campaigns there and elsewhere did. These
candidates mostly laughed it off. But when the media in Mexico does
the same to López Obrador – as it has been doing since 2006 – it has
another meaning. Mexico shares a 2,000-mile border with the United
States and sends 80% of its non-oil exports north. Not to mention the
12 million Mexicans living in the United States.
Mexico's rightwing media are in a stronger position to boost an
effective scare campaign. From Greece to Ireland to Mexico, that is
how the elite maintains its grip on power in failing economies – not
by offering hope, however tenuous, of a better future, but by
spreading the fear that any attempt at a positive alternative will
So long as Mexico's right controls the TV media – and can get some
extra insurance by manipulating the electoral process as needed –
Mexico will have a very limited form of democracy and will also fall
far short of its economic potential.
Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy
Research (CEPR), in Washington, DC. He is also president of Just
Foreign Policy. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security:
The Phony Crisis. E-mail Mark: email@example.com