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Disputed victory

Published : Aug 10, 2012 00:00 IST

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Enrique Pena Nieto, the President-elect, addresses a news conference in Mexico City on July 11. His closest economic advisers are free marketeers known as the Chicago Boys, American-trained economists who wreaked havoc on the economies of many Latin American countries in the past two decades.-TOMAS BRAVO/REUTERS

Enrique Pena Nieto, the President-elect, addresses a news conference in Mexico City on July 11. His closest economic advisers are free marketeers known as the Chicago Boys, American-trained economists who wreaked havoc on the economies of many Latin American countries in the past two decades.-TOMAS BRAVO/REUTERS

Mexico: Enrique Pena Nieto survives a recount to score a narrow victory over his leftist rival in the presidential election.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which monopolised power in Mexico for most of the 20th century, is once again in the saddle. Enrique Pena Nieto, the telegenic PRI candidate, won the presidential election held on July 1. However, the commanding lead that pollsters had predicted did not materialise on voting day.

Pena Nieto won with just 38 per cent of the vote. Coming second was the firebrand left-wing leader of the Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD), Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, with 32 per cent of the vote. The candidate of the ruling National Action Party (PAN), Josephina Vasquez Mota, came a distant third with 25 per cent of the vote.

The election was held at a time when the country was caught up in a vortex of violence precipitated by President Felipe Calderons decision at the beginning of his term to launch military operations against the entrenched drug mafias. Mexicans had expected the operations to be swift, but the well-armed drug gangs fought back with a vengeance. The military, the police, government officials and the media have been specifically targeted by the drug gangs, which operate like well-armed militias. Of course, ordinary Mexicans have paid the highest price. More than 60,000 people have died since the war against the drug lords began. Pena Nieto has pledged to continue the war against the drug cartels but emphasised that the anti-drug campaign will not be subordinate to the strategies of other countries. The current Mexican government is conducting its war on drugs in close coordination with the Barack Obama administration.

Disappearing jobs

Another hot-button election issue was corruption and the fall in living standards. The rising unemployment was also debated. Lopez Obrador said on the campaign trail that 6,000 jobs were disappearing every day from Mexico. According to official statistics, 52 million Mexicans live below the poverty line, 12 million more than a decade ago. There are reports coming out from the countrys north about rising malnutrition and continuing drought.

Lopez Obrador and the PRD alleged widespread rigging and other malpractices in the election and were quick to ask the countrys Federal Election Commission for a recount. The request was partially complied with. Around half the votes cast in the election were recounted. According to the Election Commission, the result remains unchanged, for the number of votes for Pena Nieto had not come down significantly enough to warrant a re-poll.

There was no denying that in many areas, especially in the impoverished ones, votes were bought, mainly by the PRI. When the election was held, the PRI controlled 20 of Mexicos 31 States. Poorer voters were paid the equivalent of $40 each. It was observed that on voting day supermarkets were full of shoppers using gift vouchers.

Eduardo Huchim, an election observer whose monitoring group was funded by the United Nations, said that the election was perhaps the biggest operation of vote-buying and coercion in the countrys history. Pena Nieto continues to insist that his party acted within the law. Under Mexican law, voters being given gifts by a political party is not deemed a crime. A survey conducted by the Mexican paper La Jornada showed that 70 per cent of Mexicans believed that the election would be fraudulent.

Lopez Obrador alleged that the PRI had bought $5 million worth of debit cards that were distributed to voters on election day. There is no doubt that there was not a fair and transparent election, the defeated leftist candidate said, accusing Pena Nieto of having bought five million votes. Lopez Obrador described the electoral exercise as a national embarrassment. Around 49 million people (62 per cent of the registered voters) cast their ballots in the presidential election.

The influential electronic media were biased in favour of the PRI candidate, who is known to have good ties with big business. After the result was announced, protesters gathered outside the offices of the biggest broadcaster, Televisa. They alleged that the channel had imposed Pena Nieto on the Mexican people. Televisa, which was government-owned when the PRI was in power, reaches more than 70 per cent of Mexican households. The other major broadcaster, TV Azteca, was also an unabashed supporter of Pena Nieto. Together, these two media monopolies reach 95 per cent of Mexican households. When Pena Nieto was on the campaign trail, university students protested in large numbers, accusing the PRI candidate of buying the media. WikiLeaks had released documents in which United States diplomats seem to suggest that Pena Nieto was paying Televisa out of public funds in return for favourable coverage. One of the diplomatic dispatches talks about the extraordinary amounts of airtimes and other kinds of coverage Televisa provided for the PRI candidate in the run-up to the election.

Lopez Obrador has reasons to feel doubly cheated this time. In the presidential election that was held six years ago, he lost to Calderon, the current President, by less than half a percentage point. Lopez Obrador and many of his supporters on the Left had alleged that it was skulduggery of the highest level that had deprived him of the presidency. Again, the media had played a dubious role in that election. Hundreds of thousands of supporters of Lopez Obrador had occupied the city centre in the capital and staged protests for six weeks demanding a recount. Lopez Obrador, on his part, never recognised Calderon as the legitimate President of the country. This time, too, he has rejected the figures put out by the Election Commission. His party may have to eventually accept the hard political reality of the PRIs return to power after its ouster in 2000. In 1988, another PRI presidential candidate, Carlos Salinas, had stolen the election from the leftist candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. Mexico should have logically taken a turn to the Left much before the pink tide hit the rest of Latin America.

The PRD, overall, has come out stronger after the recent election. The coalition led by the PRD will be the biggest opposition group in the Lower House of Parliament. In separate byelections held concurrently with the presidential election, the PRD won the governorship of two important States, including Tabasco, which for the past 60 years was under uninterrupted PRI rule.

The PRD candidate, Miguel Angel Mancera, retained the mayoral seat in Mexico City with a two-thirds majority. A significant percentage of the Mexican population is concentrated in and around the capital. The Mexico City Mayors post is considered the second most important job in the country after the presidency.

The Obama administration was quick to congratulate Pena Nieto after the results were announced. It was well known that he was Americas preferred candidate. One of his close aides had told The New York Times that his occasional anti-American rhetoric while campaigning should not be taken seriously. The PRI, in the last two decades of its rule, had grown increasingly close to Washington.

It was under the PRI that Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and introduced neoliberal economic measures. Key state-owned industries were allowed to be privatised. Oligarchs such as the worlds richest man, Carlos Slim, monopolise telecom and other important sectors of the economy.

The President-elects closest economic advisers are free marketeers known as the Chicago Boys. These American-trained economists wreaked havoc on the economies of many Latin American countries in the past two decades. Pena Nieto has already signalled that his first privatisation target is the state-owned oil giant Pemex. Lopez Obrador had vociferously campaigned against the privatisation of Mexicos oil industry.

Soon after the election results were announced, Pena Nieto said that he wanted to deepen the security relationship with the U.S. in the drug war and would allow the stationing of U.S. military instructors on Mexican soil. He said that he wanted Mexican security personnel to benefit from the counter-insurgency expertise the U.S. is supposed to have gained from Afghanistan and Iraq. In Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and some other countries in the region, American security personnel work jointly with their local counterparts to hunt down drug traffickers and criminal gangs. Pena Nieto also signalled his approval for the continuation of U.S. drone surveillance over Mexico to gather intelligence on drug trafficking.

Without a doubt, I am committed to having an intense, close relationship of effective collaboration measured by results with the U.S., the President-elect said. Pena Nieto has already announced the appointment of a former chief of Colombia National Police, Gen. Oscar Naranjo, as his top security adviser. Naranjo, who played a key role in the fight against narco-terrorism in Colombia, is known to be close to the American military establishment.

President Calderon has on many occasions blamed Mexicos big northern neighbour for the serious security issues his country is facing. He has described the U.S. as the most voracious consumer of illicit drugs and complained that the weapons being smuggled in from across the American border are fuelling the violence in Mexico. Ninety-five per cent of the drugs for the U.S. market pass through Mexico. Calderon suggested the legalisation of the consumption of drugs so as to bring down their astronomical street prices. In 2009, Mexico decriminalised personal possession of drugs such as cocaine, heroin and marijuana. The six-year drug war has not produced any results. Figures show that the illegal exports to the U.S. have only increased along with other crimes such as homicide and extortions.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Aug 10, 2012.)

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