MEXICO CITY — Political reforms in Mexico have made it much harder to steal an election, officials say. But a lot of people think one can still be bought.
As voters go to the polls today to elect a new president, allegations are flying that candidates are offering money and swag, flouting campaign-spending limits in the process. Most allegations are aimed at the old guard Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which polls say holds a sizable lead after being kicked out of the top office by voters 12 years ago.
The PRI held on to Mexico's presidency for 71 years, using vote-buying and other kinds of fraud when deemed necessary, until it was defeated in 2000 by the National Action Party, or PAN. The PRI claims to have changed, and political reforms instituted since 1988 have made Mexican elections far harder to steal.
But in the latest contest, the PAN accused the PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto's campaign of acquiring about 9,500 prepaid gift cards worth nearly $5.2 million to give away for votes.
Peña Nieto has also been dogged by allegations that he overspent his $330 million campaign funding limit and bought favorable coverage from Mexico's television giant, Televisa.
With a double-digit lead in most polls, Peña Nieto has seldom felt the need to respond to the attacks. "We are going to win with your vote, with your free participation, nothing coerced or conditioned," he told a crowd last week at a closing rally in southern Chiapas state.
But the election fraud unit of Mexico's Attorney General's Office says that since the campaign officially began March 30 it has opened investigations into 542 complaints that voters were bought off or coerced to vote for a certain candidate.
"In a country so poor, with so much inequality, there are undoubtedly forces that will try to take advantage of that," said Ricardo Becerra, coordinator of the institute's election advisers.
Mexico's more than 79 million voters will elect a president, who serves one six-year term, as well as 500 congressional deputies and 128 senators. There are governors' races in six of Mexico's 31 states, plus Mexico City, as well hundreds of local offices up for grabs. For president, voters will choose among Peña Nieto and his chief rivals: Andres Manuel López Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party; Josefina Vázquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party; and Gabriel Quadri of the New Alliance.
Becerra said ballot fraud is "materially impossible" because 92 percent of the 143,151 polling stations nationwide will have registered representatives from all three major parties.
There will also be about 700 international observers, the largest contingent from the Organization of American States. But that's down from more than 900 in the 1994 and 2000 elections, when Mexico's emerging democracy was under much more pressure.