Mexico's Change Election

A woman votes in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas in a polling station that reminds voters that "The vote is free and secret." (Photo: Jeff Abbott)

Mexico's Change Election

The view from small-town polling stations on Election Day shows a corrupted democracy that bottom-up activists hope AMLO can start fixing from the top-down.

Mexico's populist president-elect, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, commonly known by his initials, AMLO, swept the July 1 presidential election, winning in state after state where the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) had long dominated politics at every level.

The election, a mandate for Lopez Obrador's MORENA (National Regeneration Movement) party, represented a powerful public backlash against years of corruption, violence, and growing inequality in Mexico. MORENA won control of Congress and made inroads in state and local governments throughout the country. The MORENA candidate for mayor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, won by a large margin, and, in the biggest elections in Mexican history, with thousands of state, local, and legislative offices up for grabs, MORENA won at least four governorships, including in Chiapas, where "the AMLO effect" helped propel a MORENA ally to victory.

An adoring crowd of thousands greeted Lopez Obrador in Mexico City's zocalo, celebrating the election results and chanting the MORENA slogan, "Together we will make history!"

Activists who worked to bring about Sunday's dramatic election results hope that the historic change will include an end to a climate of violence and corruption that has fed a sense of cynicism and hopelessness here.

I spent election day travelling through small towns in the state of Puebla with a team of foreign election observers, watching for signs of fraud at the polls.

Among the irregularities we witnessed were a truck with the PRI logo on the side idling outside one polling place, drawing groups of citizens aside, apparently handing out something to voters, contrary to Mexican election laws. The truck sped away when the yellow-vest-wearing election observers arrived.

At other polling places, municipal officials accompanied voters right to the voting booth, and even cast their ballots for them in voting boxes, also in violation of official protocol. As one young man took an elderly woman's ballots from her hands and deposited them, the voter herself left the building, not bothering to look back as her votes in national, state and municipal elections were cast for her.

"Here, every single person is paid to vote," MORENA activist Araceli Bautista Gutierrez told us when we arrived in Santa Clara Ocoyucan, Puebla, near her hometown of San Bernardino Chalchihuapan.

Bautista Gutierrez became politically active in 2014 after a thirteen-year-old boy in her community was killed in a clash between local protesters and state troops. Then-governor Rafael Moreno Valle sent in the troops to break up the protest by citizens who felt the state was usurping local power, using a new law that, among other measures, dissolved some municipal offices.

Bribery, intimidation, and fraud, and violence are commonplace in local elections here.

A MORENA candidate for Congress was found dead in his car in nearby Santa Clara Ocoyucan shortly before Sunday's vote, becoming the 130th candidate murdered in Mexico in this election cycle.

A Facebook video prepared by a clean-elections group in Puebla, Mexico before the July 1 election appealed to voters who are accustomed to selling their votes, asking that, in the privacy of the voting booth, they place a large "V" for "vendido," or "sold," on their ballots, to show that their votes had been purchased and were not legitimate--part of an effort to track corruption in the electoral process.

"What they are doing at the local level will be a model for the next round of national elections."

"You need the money," the video voice-over declared. "But when you sell your vote you don't have to sell your soul." It showed a shady-looking man in sunglasses standing outside a polling place and offering 500 pesos (about $25) to voters, and handing out pre-marked ballots. After voters accepted the cash and cast the pre-marked ballots, they emerged from the voting booth and gave the shady-looking man their unused, blank ballots.

Voters could accept the cash, and even take a picture of their ballots, if they needed to in order to take the bribe, the video explained, showing a voter taking a cellphone photo of the ballot, and then marking it with a "V" afterwards.

Even as the PRI seemed to accept the inevitability of a Lopez Obrador victory in the presidential election, at the local level, it was clear that the same old patterns of intimidation and fraud were deployed to ensure that those in power stayed in power.

"What they are doing at the local level will be a model for the next round of national elections," David Alvarado, an organizer from citizens group AHORA Atlixco, told our team of international observers.

The most dramatic example of election irregularities I personally observed on Election Day was at the polling place set up inside the Emiliano Zapata public school in the town of Santa Clara Ocoyucan. There, a young mother, Rosa Gomez Cabrera, emerged from the voting booth and complained loudly to local election officials that she had not been given the ballots to vote for governor of Puebla nor for the president of the municipality. Voters were marking six separate ballots for six separate offices--at the federal, state, and local levels--and depositing them in six boxes just outside the voting booth.

The local official in charge of handing out the ballots shook her head firmly. "I gave you six," she said.

"You can search my purse! I only have four," Gomez Cabrera yelled, becoming agitated.

The municipal official refused to back down, and said she could not give Gomez Cabrera two more ballots, because it would mess up the count.

"Then nullify these and give me another six!" Gomez Cabrera demanded, waving the four ballots in her hand.

The official refused. "That's not possible," she said, folding her arms. In the standoff, a crowd gathered outside the door. Glancing nervously at the foreign observer in the room, another local official intervened. "This is now becoming an incident," she said. "You're going to have to nullify those votes and let her vote again."

The official handing out the ballots finally backed down.


But the drama was not over. A man in a white t-shirt barged into the room from outside, waving a letter he claimed proved that he was an election official from the state and stood over the local official glaring down at her, "This is fraud!" he yelled, "They grab some of the ballots beforehand and give them out outside, already filled out!"

"This is now becoming an incident. You're going to have to nullify those votes and let her vote again."

"Let's have calm," another local official pleaded, as various members of the municipal government and the representatives of political parties who were present to observe the elections began to shout from different corners of the room. "Please, let's let the voting continue." Outside, the crowd was pressed against the glass.

After she finally received her six new ballots and cast them, Gomez Cabrera emerged from the polling place and was surrounded by local citizens and our team of observers. "They've been doing this all day," one voter told the foreign observers. "Especially with the older women who can't read. They only give them three ballots instead of six."

"You see what a difference it makes to have you here," Bautista Gutierrez told the team of observers as we walked away to visit another polling place. "Every time we arrive they suddenly start cleaning things up."

The nearly farcical lack of order, the locals hanging around inside the polling places keeping an eye on voters, creating a slight aura of menace, and the anxiousness of the voters themselves cast a pall over election day in many of the rural towns we visited.

One polling place was, contrary to elections protocol, held in the courtyard of a private home.

The day after the election, the governorship of Puebla was still being contested. Martha Erika Alonso de Moreno Valle, wife of Rafael Moreno Valle, the governor who ordered the attack on citizens in one of the towns we visited, and who has been implicated in a vote-buying scheme, and her opponent, Miguel Barbosa Huerta, were both alleging fraud.

In one of the polling places in Ocoyucan that we visited, ballot boxes disappeared, and the results were unknown the day after the polls closed. A group of armed men had burst into the polling place late at night, firing guns and burning some of the ballot boxes.

"The hope is that, as Lopez Obrador says, there can be a change from the top, like steps, coming from the higher level to the lower level," said Bautista Gutierrez.

If Lopez Obrador's victory at the national level is, in large part, a victory by a bottom-up grassroots movement, the same activists who helped him win hope that he will be able to clean up Mexican politics at the top. In doing so, he can help end a cycle of corruption that has poisoned democracy from the highest offices down to the very humblest local level.

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