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Mexican voters going to the polls in historic elections that have been marred by vote-buying and violence

Mexican voters going to the polls in historic elections that have been marred by vote-buying and violence
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the front-runner in Mexico's presidential election Sunday, waves to supporters during a rally last week in Mexico City. (ALFREDO ESTRELLA / AFP/Getty Images)

A few weeks ago, several political candidates came to Maria Salcedo’s door. They were bearing gifts.

Along with hats and T-shirts featuring the logo of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, they presented her with a large water tank worth about $100. If elected, they said, her working-class neighborhood would no longer suffer from water shortages. By the time they had left, she had promised them her vote.

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Mexicans go to the polls Sunday to elect a new president, 500 seats of the Chamber of Deputies and 128 members of the Senate. There are also thousands of state and municipal positions up for grabs in what officials say is the single biggest election in the nation’s history.

But for all its fanfare — and abundance of attention on the presidential front-runner, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who would be the first leftist leader in Mexico’s modern democracy — the election has also been marred by irregularities and even violence.

Dozens of candidates have been killed in recent months. The ruling party is accused of using government institutions to try to sway the results. Opposition parties warn of possible fraud on election day. And vote-buying has been rampant. According to a recent poll, one-third of those surveyed were offered gifts or promised services by political parties this election season. That translates to about 30 million voters like Salcedo.

While most respondents said the gifts — long standard practice in Mexican elections — did not influence their choice in the polling booth, others said the freebies may have made a difference.

“The water tanks help a lot,” said Salcedo, a 41-year-old homemaker in San Mateo Tlaltenango, on the outskirts of Mexico City. “I’m going to vote for them.”

Mexico has come a long way since the PRI held power uninterrupted for more than 70 years. The party was so efficient at keeping a grip on the presidency and Congress while also maintaining the veneer of democracy that Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa famously called it “the perfect dictatorship.”

The PRI, founded in 1929 in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, was finally voted out of the presidency in 2000, when Vicente Fox and his conservative National Action Party swept into office. The PRI returned to power in 2012, with the election of current president Enrique Pena Nieto — whose administration, which began with high hopes, has been widely viewed as a disappointment.

Many of Pena Nieto’s major initiatives went nowhere, even as corruption and crime soared, fueling an anti-status quo climate that has benefited the populist message of Lopez Obrador, already a twice-defeated presidential contender.

This year’s election demonstrates that Mexico’s democracy is maturing and has created space for a wider spectrum of parties and political actors, said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a professor at CIDE, a public research center in Mexico City. Lopez Obrador’s left-leaning Morena party was formally registered just four years ago but appears poised to win not just the presidency but the largest number of seats in Congress.

But Mexico’s democratic process is still imperfect, as rampant attempts at vote-buying and other election-related scandals make clear.

“This is a democracy with a lot of ifs,” Bravo said. “I think we can be minimally satisfied, but there is a lot of ground to be gained.”

A Lopez Obrador victory could signal a massive shift in Mexican politics. He would take office on Dec. 1 in complete charge of a neophyte political bloc with a pronounced leftist agenda. How it would all play out remains unclear.

Critics say Lopez Obrador’s likely ascension could usher in an era of autocratic, virtual single-party, even single-person rule — an allegation dismissed by Lopez Obrador, who has rejected opposition comparisons of his domineering, sometimes arrogant style to that of Hugo Chavez, the late leftist Venezuelan leader and longtime U.S. antagonist. Lopez Obrador has gone out of his way to present himself as a moderate, though he cites grandiose aims — he regularly labels his possible leadership a “fourth transformation” in Mexican history, after independence, the 19th-century era of President Benito Juarez and the revolution of the early 20th century.

In many ways, this year’s elections have been marred by the same violence and corruption that are pushing many voters toward Lopez Obrador, who has presented himself as a defender of the common man in the face of what he calls “the mafia of power.”

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Among the scandals that have unfolded in recent months are apparent efforts by the PRI to influence the election by politicizing government institutions.

In February, Mexico’s attorney general, a Pena Nieto appointee, announced he was investigating a property deal involving Ricardo Anaya, presidential candidate of the center-right National Action Party, or PAN. The attorney general said Anaya was suspected of laundering money.

Independent investigations into the deal concluded Anaya probably broke no laws when he bought and sold a plot of land in an industrial park in his home state of Queretaro. A group of public intellectuals — not all of whom were Anaya supporters — signed a letter imploring the government to stop politicizing law enforcement.

But the investigation continued, staining Anaya’s image as an anti-corruption crusader. Polls now have him in second place, roughly 25% behind Lopez Obrador.

Another scandal involved Jaime Rodriguez, an independent candidate who many believed posed a threat to Lopez Obrador, who has also sought to portray himself as an anti-establishment outsider. Rodriguez, the former governor of Nuevo Leon, turned in nearly 900,000 signatures to get on the ballot. But national election officials disqualified him after determining that more than half of those signatures were fraudulent.

The country’s election tribunal, which was appointed by the PRI-led Senate, then overturned that decision, allowing Rodriguez back on the ballot.

In some parts of the country, election meddling has had graver consequences. At least 48 candidates have been killed in the last 10 months, according to Mexican newspaper El Universal.

“Criminal hands are acting in a premeditated and despicable manner to decide by means of violence who should or should not be on the electoral ballot,” said Janine Otalora, who heads Mexico’s electoral tribune.

Bravo put it in simpler terms: “Killing is how organized crime votes.”

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And then there is the buying of votes.

University of Texas professor Kenneth Greene, who researches Mexican elections, said voters are regularly offered gifts by political parties, including eyeglasses, construction materials and even washing machines.

“The practice has been increasing over time pretty substantially,” he said.

The government has created several mechanisms to check vote-buying and other illegal election tactics, even creating a special prosecutor for electoral crimes. But violations of those rules are usually punished with fines and in the past have not been considered grounds for annulling elections.

The recent poll by the Mexican organization Citizen Action Against Poverty found that all parties took part in vote-buying, including Morena, Lopez Obrador’s party, which has pledged to stamp out corruption.

Hector Vasconcelos, a Morena party official, said members of the party found to have engaged in such practices would be expelled. That Morena officials had been implicated in vote-buying, he said, is proof of how ingrained corruption is in the electoral system.

“We created this party exactly to avoid this practice,” he said. “But it’s an enormous party and in some places, some people may have old ways of thinking.”

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