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Fraud and Loathing on the Campaign Trail in Chiapas

Mexico’s Electoral Institutions Suffer Another Self-Inflicted Wound as Sunday’s Gubernatorial Vote, Marred by Fraud on Both Sides, Is Too Close to Call


By Al Giordano
Reporting from Chiapas with the Other Journalism with the Other Campaign

August 21, 2006

With 94.08 percent of the precincts reporting (according to the preliminary results of the Chiapas State Electoral Institute), the candidate of the center-left Democratic Revolution Party (PRD, in its Spanish initials) leads the coalition candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and National Action Party (PAN) by only 2,300 votes (0.2 percent of more than 1.1 million votes cast). Amidst evidence of vote buying and fraud on both sides, Mexico’s electoral institutions and political system appear unlikely to be able to establish a credible result, plunging the country into its second post-electoral crisis in seven weeks.

The big winner on Sunday was abstention. A majority of Chiapas voters simply declined to participate (voter turnout on Sunday was below 45 percent). Most of the estimated 400,000 indigenous citizen-adherents to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN, in its Spanish initials) here in Mexico’s poorest state of Chiapas refused to vote in a process increasingly considered a simulation of democracy.

The Chiapas results also show the slippery slide of Mexico’s main political parties away from any shred of principle or ideology, mere vehicles for factional disputes over the power and money that comes with political office. The PRD’s “center-left” candidate, Juan Sabines, was, until this year, a longtime politician of the PRI. In fact, he sought to be the PRI’s candidate until Chiapas Governor Pablo Salazar cut a deal for him to be the PRD nominee. The PRI candidate, José Antonio Aguilar, up against the significant power of the state government, then had to forge an alliance with President Vicente Fox’s PAN party and other smaller parties to be able to compete in the race.

The Chiapas vote occurred seven weeks after Mexico’s still-unsettled presidential election, in which the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) has attempted to declare PAN candidate Felipe Calderón the winner as supporters of PRD candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador have taken downtown Mexico City to demand a full recount. A partial recount by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (known as the Trife) has revealed a pattern of ballot stuffing and vote theft that legally should cause the annulment of results from more than 7,000 precincts, an order that would invert the official result and make López Obrador the victor. However, the Trife’s reluctance to order a full recount earlier this month was widely viewed as a signal that it will endorse the national electoral fraud and impose Calderón. A third option is that the court could annul the election, Congress would choose an interim president, and new elections would be called within 18 months. The court must rule by September 6, but the week ahead could bring partial rulings that point to the conclusion the Trife is likely to make, possibly sparking a national wave of civil disobedience and resistance unlike in any prior historic moment.

Added to this already explosive situation, the post-electoral mess in Chiapas – a state already occupied by more than 60,000 federal army troops that surround Zapatista communities in the jungle and the highlands – and the yet-to-be announced Zapatista response, the uncertainty coming out of the Chiapas elections opens a particularly sensitive wound in the national zeitgeist.

The Whirlpool of Fraud

By 11 a.m. on Monday, a television news program has reported that one side won the Chiapas state election as the radio reports that a different side won. The official preliminary tally makes liars out of both of them. It’s too close to call. More than 240 precincts display inconsistencies, according to the State Electoral Institute, 89 of them coming from the capital city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the electoral stronghold of the PRD candidate Sabines, where the largest bloc of precincts have failed to report the tallies. Opponents accuse electoral officials there of holding back the results in order to tamper with them. Only this time, the accusations of vote rigging come from the PRI and the PAN, and are waged against the PRD, in direct inverse of what is occurring in the national presidential turmoil.

There are no electoral heroes here in Chiapas. The PRD Candidate, Juan Sabines, was, until switching parties, the mayor of the state capital Tuxtla Gutiérrez, son of a former PRI governor, nephew of the late “Poet of the State” Jaime Sabines, and in addition to the backing of Governor Salazar (formerly of the PRI, then the PAN, now PRD), he also counts with the political machine of right-wing former PRI governor Roberto Albores Guillen, who is expected to be Sabines’ right-hand in the government if he obtains it. And Sabines’ slight lead is tainted by the brute force used by the state government now in power to buy votes – with taxpayer dollars, preying upon the pain and poverty of the public – and use of the same electoral fraud tactics used by Fox and his National Action Party (PAN in its Spanish initials) nationwide in the July 2 presidential elections.

For example, in the Northern Chiapas district of Pueblo Nuevo Solistahuacan, the first precincts reporting last night claimed voter turnout of 96 percent (highly unlikely in light of the less than 45 percent turnout statewide). The entire district claims more than 60 percent turnout. And, lo and behold, the governor’s candidate, Sabines, is tallied to be winning by more than ten percent with 51.47 percent versus 41.70 percent for PRI-PAN candidate Aguilar. What was done to the PRD in the presidential contest in more than 4,000 PAN strongholds, mainly in Northern Mexico – ballot boxes impregnated with extra votes for the official candidate – seems likely to have now been adopted as a strategy by the PRD in the South.

An indication of the absolute cynicism of PRD candidate Juan Sabines came on Monday when he told reporters that he will disassociate himself from the national protest movement against electoral fraud, now that he believes he will win the Chiapas vote. But beyond the bizarre triumphalism by a candidate who enjoys the slightest advantage in a vote count not yet finished, Sabines’ words betray his fear of what comes next: “Chiapas is not for demonstrations. Chiapas deserves a climate of unity. It would be incongruent on my part to ask that there not be demonstrations against me but that I will participate in others.” And with those words, he betrayed his most popular backer: Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

The confusion invites national dyslexia. The same “center-left” party that is victim of a gargantuan fraud nationwide is now accused of authoring one in Chiapas. The political right (the PAN), and the institutional right (the PRI) oppose the civil resistance against the presidential race fraud but now may turn to such tactics in Chiapas: sit-ins, blockades, and chants for a recount “vote by vote, precinct by precinct.” Up in Mexico City, each side pushes in one direction. Down in Chiapas, those same forces push in opposite directions. The waters of public opinion thus move in a veritable whirlpool of discontent. Each of the major parties loses credibility in the process. Those, like the Zapatistas, who have firmly maintained that the electoral system is illegitimate, will receive the credibility that those above mishandle. There is not a novelist on earth that could invent a scenario as tumultuous as the real history unfolding out of Chiapas today.

And the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s pending decisions on the presidential contest are now severely complicated by the scenario unfolding in conflict-torn Chiapas. Despite so much rhetoric about a court that weighs only institutional and legal concerns, political reality now puts the court in an even more difficult situation: If it endorses the fraud nationwide, but annuls the fraud in Chiapas, it ends up supporting the PAN in both cases. If it breaks the fraud nationwide, but defends it in Chiapas, it ends up supporting the PRD in both cases. Endorsing the fraud in both instances is a path fraught with peril. There is no Solomonic decision available when weighing the two big post-electoral conflicts together. In any case, the presidential decision comes first, and that will determine whether the Electoral Tribunal still has any credibility at all to rule on the Chiapas election, in a state where rebel forces and autonomous municipalities are most organized to fill the power vacuum up above.

How much uglier can it get? The failure of electoral politics under capitalism is now laid bare, anew, in the very state from where its first post Cold War resistance to said global capitalism emerged… with the legendary indigenous armed insurrection of 1994.

And if the post-electoral conflict in Chiapas escalates, this time the state will not stand alone: The largely indigenous and nearby states of Oaxaca and Guerrero are at the same precipice, but so is evidently Mexico City, and so is its surrounding state of Mexico, home to a town called Atenco (together, they contain one out of every four Mexicans). And then there are the “sleeper states.” Impoverished and repressed Veracruz, Puebla and Morelos are similarly at the threshold of revolt. And what of that Peninsula that juts out into the Caribbean? Campeche, Quintana Roo, and (believe it or not) Yucatán are hotter than a chile habanero right now. And what of the Border? What of 35 million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans on the Other Side? And what of human beings everywhere, who can see what is happening here? Electoral fraud plunges Mexico’s political system into a more severe crisis each day.

The Smoking Audiotape

And yet, it would be impossible to place the blame for the fraudulent election in Chiapas on just one side of the dispute. Repeating the whirlpool effect, as the state government of Salazar cooks the books on behalf of one side, the national political party of Vicente Fox, the PAN, and its party boss Manuel Espino, was caught this week, red-handed, violating electoral law, on audiotape. A recording of his telephone conversation with the PRI boss in Chiapas, Victor Hugo Islas – a tape that was played on Saturday by López Obrador on the Mexico City Zocalo and released to the press – revealed the national PAN and state PRI bosses conspired to pump money into the PRI-PAN campaign in Chiapas after the deadline, last week, when all political campaigning, under law, must have already stopped.

And, as every Mexican citizen knows, that money was for one thing only: buying votes and voter credentials.

The audiotape can be listened to online at the daily La Jornada website. The transcript, in the original Spanish, too.

Here is an excerpt, translated, from that conversation:

PRI secretary: Attorney Manuel Espino (is on the phone).

PRI Chiapas leader Islas: Boss?

PAN national leader, Espino: What’s up, Victor?

PRI’s Islas: Sorry to bother you. I’m just checking to make sure we are on the same wavelength. Have you sent the one and a half?

PAN’s Espino: I sent one, tomorrow I will see someone who has the other half.

PRI’s Islas: With the other half?

PAN’s Espino: Yes, I’m working on it.

PRI’s Islas: Yes, I know, I know. But is that all you are going to send?

PAN’s Espino: I think so. I have asked some of your and my friends, the (PRI) governor of Durango (Ismael Alfredo Hernández Deras) and he said he was working on it. I also asked (the PRI governor of) Puebla (Mario Marín Torres), and also I asked Enrique (Peña Nieto, PRI governor of the State of Mexico) and he told me that he would. We’re working on it. To whom do I send it?

PRI’s Islas: Yes, I have been collecting some here. I am going to try to make an effort to give them a little more. I have already given one. I told you that, no?

PAN’s Espind: Yes.

PRI’s Isla: Well, I will make another effort. I will give them another help. You’re saying it will be sent tomorrow?

PAN’s Espinoso: Yes.

PRI’s Isla: Thanks.

Most observers believe that the word “one” in this conversation means “one million pesos” (more than $100,000 dollars) and that the “half” represents another half-million pesos that the PRI sought from the national PAN (which, in turn, sought it from three PRI governors in other states). The going rate in impoverished Chiapas on Sunday to purchase a vote or a credential was 100 pesos: This sum of money would thus buy 15,000 votes. And, in the recorded conversation, the PRI leader (who calls the PAN leader “jefe,” or boss) said he had put in an equal amount. Together, those illegal slush funds would buy 30,000 votes in an election so close that official tallies place less than a 3,000 vote difference between the two candidates.

Whirlpool redux: As the state government in Chiapas used taxpayer dollars to buy votes for one side, the national governing party was doing the same for the other side.

On Sunday, operatives for both sides were caught in the act. Twelve political campaigners were arrested on Sunday while seeking to offer money for votes or for campaign workers:

  • In the capital city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, water company owner Hector Borges was arrested for allegedly paying 40 youths 200 pesos apiece to interfere with the election process.
  • In the coastal city of Tonalá, national teachers’ union official (the SNTE, in its Spanish initials) Francisco Torres was arrested with a suitcase of 50,000 pesos in hand plus a list of voters as he was seeking them out. The union – allied with the PRI-PAN candidate in Chiapas and with the PAN nationwide – then held a sit-in at the City Hall and threatened a walkout today, Monday, the first day of the new school year.
  • Also in Tonalá, Carolina Grajales Palacios, sister of a PRI member of Congress, was arrested with eight other supporters of the PRI-PAN candidacy for alleged “electoral crimes.”
  • In the Tzotzil-speaking town of San Juan Chamula, operatives for the PRD ran PAN poll-watchers out of town after they denounced that when the polling place opened there were already marked ballots stuffed in the box.
  • On Friday, four PRD operatives were arrested allegedly for utilizing disaster relief aid (meant to go to victims of Hurricane Stan last year) to buy votes.

Both sides did it. How does an Electoral Tribunal settle a mess like that?

But there is a silver lining to the dark cloud hanging over yet another election day in Mexico in 2006. It is that with all that money flying around being offered in exchange for votes in Chiapas, more than half of the state’s population, although suffering intense poverty, did not take the easy money. That indicates that their abstention from voting was not a matter of apathy (an apathetic, disinterested person would avail him or her self of a chance to make a quick 100 pesos). No. It means that the majority abstention from voting, far from indicating a lack of conscience or principle, constitutes, instead, a widespread rejection of participating in a game that is already fixed.

In sum, it indicates that thirteen years into the indigenous rebellion of Chiapas, the institutions – especially the electoral ones – have lost all credibility and authority. The government, by turning elections into a cynical simulation of false democracy, has lost control. Keep that in mind, kind readers, in the coming days, when the Supreme Electoral Tribunal must rule on the July 2 presidential election result. They might not be listening up above, but Chiapas is thundering again with its silence… a silence that, if past is prologue, will be filled when it speaks through the voice of the rebel spokesman of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and its “Other Campaign,” the only national political force that has not lost its moral weight by participating in the blood sport of Mexican politics: Electoral Fraud. Stay tuned.

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