Ahead of polls, Mexicans get a different kind of campaign call: 'Don't vote'

Organized efforts to block voting in Sunday's midterm elections as well the worst election-season violence in years could prompt many in parts of the country to stay home.

Jorge Luis Pata/Reuters
Members of the teacher's union CNTE blocked access to the storage and distribution facility of Mexican state-owned oil company Pemex in Oaxaca, Mexico, Thursday. The blockade is part of a plan to boycott the June 7 election and to protest education reforms.

For the past two months of Mexico's election season, Enedina Gonzalez’s telephone has been ringing incessantly. But for every voice pitching a party candidate, Ms. Gonzalez has gotten a call from someone telling her not to vote.

The retired public school teacher in the troubled state of Guerrero says she has never missed an election. “I’m a very democratic person,” she says.

But just days before the June 7 vote to elect nine state governors, 500 federal deputies, and hundreds of mayors and state legislators, Gonzalez boarded a bus to Mexico City, where she’ll sit out this election in a relative’s one-bedroom apartment.

“I’m afraid,” she says, “and I find it very sad.” On her way to catch her bus in the Guerrero capital of Chilpancingo Wednesday, she was delayed by clashes between state police and anti-election demonstrators. “People don’t want to vote because we’re afraid of getting caught up in the violence.” 

Indeed, this weekend Mexicans will be wrapping up what analysts call the most violent election season in more than 15 years.

Upwards of 70 candidates and campaign workers have been attacked, and at least five candidates have been killed. Violent protests have also been on the rise in recent weeks, primarily in a handful of southern states where a dissident teachers’ union has reportedly stolen thousands of ballots and set electoral offices ablaze.

Observers fear that organized campaigns to disrupt voting, along with threats of election day violence, could lead to low turnout in some areas, with people like Gonzalez deciding it's safer not to vote.

“This is very worrying in terms of democracy,” says Javier Oliva Posada, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He expects 95 percent of the voting centers to run smoothly on Sunday, but says the electoral process is threatened by “citizens feeling intimidated.”

'Social' violence the culprit?

Violence is an ongoing challenge in Mexico, where some 70,000 people have died and more than 20,000 have gone missing since 2006 as the country has battled organized criminal groups.

But Luis Carlos Ugalde, a former president of Mexico’s electoral institute and founder of the Integralia consulting firm, says the violence threatening the electoral process does not necessarily stem from those groups. “Organized criminals have never tried to block elections as a strategy,” Mr. Uglade says, unlike Colombia, where for decades that was the aim of guerrilla fighters and organized criminals.

“It’s not that the democratic process produces violence; it’s the context of violence we’re living in as a country fighting organized crime.”

He points instead to “social violence,” largely stemming from a dissident teacher’s union and the families and classmates of the 43 teacher’s college students that disappeared at the hands of corrupt politicians, local police, and a criminal gang in Guerrero last fall.

The government appeared to try to head off electoral boycotts last week when it announced it would suspend a key part of the nation’s education reform, long protested by the dissident teacher’s union, The National Coordinator of Educational Workers. But union members haven’t backed down.

Protesters briefly shut down the airport in Oaxaca, and earlier in the week took control over 11 state election offices there, local media report. Four highways were blocked by demonstrators in the state of Michoacán on Wednesday as well, and a clash between protesters and police on a Guerrero highway left at least six injured.

“There is a risk of not holding elections [in some states], which would be the first time in modern history,” Ugalde says. “It would be a very bad symbol for our democratic process.”

The National Electoral Institute (INE) says it is prepared to install all voting centers across the nation – including special voting stations for individuals who can't return home to cast their ballots – but it’s now up to local and federal officials to ensure conditions are safe for citizens to actually vote.

In some parts of the country, particularly states with tight gubernatorial races like Nuevo Leon, voter turnout could be slightly higher. However, “lots of elections could be too close to call," which could lead to post-electoral clashes, Ugalde warns.

Alternative voting centers

But to say that organized crime isn’t stymieing the election may be an oversimplification.

An estimated 290,000 Mexicans have been displaced from their communities due to violence, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. 

Displaced residents are eligible to vote in special INE polling stations, something that should benefit residents of Guerrero, which is estimated to have the largest portion of the nation’s displaced population. Over the past year, at least two communities have been expelled from their homes there, says Manuel Olivares, director of the José María Morelos y Pavón Regional Center for Human Rights. Other individuals have left due to threats, extortion, or kidnappings, he says.

But many people don’t know of the possibility to vote outside of their home community, says Mr. Olivares, and others will choose not to vote “because the government hasn’t been able to resolve their problems.”

For Gonzalez, life in her municipality of Tixtla de Guerrero has changed substantially over the past several years. Few people go out after 8 p.m., and she and her neighbors no longer leave their doors unlocked or host parties on their block. Nighttime mass at her church has been cancelled. But at least returning home is still an option.

“I think change will come from the people, not the government,” she says. “But I don’t know what will happen to my beautiful little town.”  

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