Ballot tricks haunt Mexican vote

Challenger Gabino Cué says he will contest the results of Oaxaca's Sunday election, which observers say was flawed.

The new democratic Mexico looks a lot like the old undemocratic one.

During Sunday's gubernatorial election in the state of Oaxaca, election monitors witnessed decidedly questionable scenes: a voting booth with not one but three sets of legs visible at the bottom - two sets probably belonging to a member of the sitting governor's party; and overt handouts of everything from tamales to hard cash in exchange for votes.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. The clean election of President Vicente Fox four years ago, ending seven decades of one-party rule, heralded a more transparent Mexican electoral process. But while the days of stealing and burning ballot boxes may be a thing of the past, observers are worried about the state of democracy here, with electoral shenanigans still part of everyday politics in the Mexican countryside.

"An incredible amount of money is spent on these elections, and there is no control over it," says Sergio Aguayo, a political analyst at The College of Mèxico. "The party with the enormous political apparatus in place, along with an incredible excess of cash, came out winning."

So far, official returns show Ulises Ruiz, former Senator and candidate for the the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), to be the winner by a nose. However his opponent, Gabino Cué, a member of Mr. Fox's conservative National Action Party (PAN), says he was robbed of more than 50,000 votes and will mount a legal battle. Cué has three days to contest the results, which were to be made official Wednesday.

"The attempted fraud in Oaxaca will not prosper," Luis Felipe Bravo Mena, the PAN's national leader, told reporters. Mr. Ruiz says he won squarely.

Should the PRI secure victory here, the party could have a strong base from which to retake the presidency in 2006. Many Mexicans are frustrated with Fox's inability to deliver on promises to strengthen the economy and fight crime. So the battle for control of the southern state, long a PRI bastion, was expected to be rough. Days before the election, clashes between local political groups left one man dead.

The damning reports of electoral sins delivered by some of the record 2,000 election observers who blanketed Oaxaca over the weekend may strengthen Mr. Cué's claim. Although election monitors charge all parties with engaging in bad electoral practices, most of their complaints are directed at the PRI for resorting to its old tricks.

'Pregnant' ballot boxes

The day before the vote, Enrique Davis, who headed a team of election observers, went over favorite electoral capers with a group of volunteers. Watch for the "pregnant" ballot box, prestuffed with votes, and goodie bags that can include cash in exchange for votes, Mr. Davis said. He also red-flagged the illegal but time-tested "Operación Tamal," when villagers are treated to the corn-husked staple and then taken to vote for the meal's underwriter.

The observers, armed with cameras and notebooks, spotted numerous flaws. In remote towns, PRI supporters offered villagers $10 if they crammed into the back of a pickup truck with the intention of voting for the PRI. In Oaxaca, $10 is enough to supply a family with two weeks of food. Free tortillas wrapped in PRI propaganda were offered to customers at one shop in Oaxaca's colonial capital. In other areas, bags of cement stamped with the PRI logo were openly distributed.

Observers reported returns from booths that exceeded the number of registered voters.

As she hung around the small town of Miahuatlán, election observer Fabiola Ramírez, a graduate student in politics in Mexico City, shook her head as she spotted a booth with not two but six legs sticking out below the curtain. This was a common sight throughout the state.

"People are not aware of their rights," Ms. Ramírez says. "They're still vulnerable."

Along with more visible fraud, Davis worries about more covert vote-fixing methods, such as altering tallies. At the federal level, Mexico's creation of the autonomous elections governing body, the Federal Election Institute, made the 2000 presidential results more difficult to falsify. However, significant electoral oversight at the state level is still missing. "There's room for sophisticated fraud," says Davis.

Observers do not have the power to intervene; they can only compile reports, which are then sent to state and federal election officials and to outside groups like the United Nations.

Davis and other observers acknowledge that the elections in Oaxaca and other states this year show improvements over past elections. But they also say there is a long way to go until Mexico can boast clean elections at all levels of government.

Plenty of PRI fans

Still, not everyone is outraged. Septuagenarian Carmen Carrera, a mother of 12, sells candy in front of Miahuatlán's colonial church. She is not convinced that switching out the PRI for another party is the way to go. She says a PAN representative came to her house earlier this year offering supplies to reinforce her rickety roof.

"They never came back," she says. "I'm with the PRI. At least they deliver the goods."

Oaxaca city resident Roberto Vásquez stops short of chiding people for selling their votes. "A lot of people here are poor, extremely poor," he says. "Do you think somebody with barely enough to eat is going to turn down 100 pesos in exchange for a vote?"

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