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Populist Lopez Obrador Demands Full Vote Recount in Mexico’s Closest-Ever Presidential Race

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Populist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and conservative Felipe Calderon both claim victory in Mexico’s closest-ever presidential race. Lopez Obrador is now calling for a full recount after charges of voter fraud and manipulation. We go to Mexico City to get a report and host a roundtable discussion on the election. [includes rush transcript]

The party of populist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is demanding a full, vote-by-vote recount in Mexico’s closest-ever presidential race.

A preliminary count of the votes cast in Sunday’s election gave a slim lead to conservative candidate Felipe Calderon. But federal election officials acknowledged Tuesday that more than three million ballots–or eight percent of the total–remain uncounted. In the latest tally, Calderon leads Lopez Obrador by just over 0.6 of a percentage point, meaning the race is still too close to call.

On election night, both of Mexico’s major television networks said their exit polls showed a statistical tie. Two hours later both candidates claimed victory in Mexico City.

The new election results were released on Tuesday after Lopez Obrador made charges of fraud and manipulation of the vote. His party is calling for a full recount of all 41 million votes claiming that some voting places were counted twice while others weren’t counted at all. Although a formal recount will begin today, electoral authorities will only be required to re-check tallies from each ballot box.

Lopez Obrador has been running on a progressive platform calling for greater aid to the poor; free medical care and food subsidies for the elderly; the rewriting of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement; and the end to the further privatization of the country’s oil and gas industries. Meanwhile Felipe Calderon has received the strong backing of the business community.

  • David Brooks, U.S. Bureau Chief for Mexican Daily newspaper La Jornada.
  • Gilberto López Rivas, anthropologist with the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. He is also a frequent contributor to La Jornada.
  • John Ross, a regular contributor to the Nation, Counterpunch and La Jornada. He has also written three books chronicling the Zapitista movement in Mexico. His latest is “Making Another World Possible: Zapatista Chronicle 2000-2006” to be published by Nation Books in October 2006. His most recent article about the Mexico elections is on the website and is titled “Disputed Election Raises Tensions in Mexico.”
  • George Grayson, professor of Government at the College of William and Mary. He also writes a regular column for “Milenio Semanal,” a weekly magazine in Mexico. Professor Grayson’s latest book is about presidential contender, Andrés Manuel López Obrador and is titled “Mesías Mexicano,”–in English, “Mexican Messiah.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On election night, both of Mexico’s major television networks said their exit polls showed a statistical tie. Two hours later, both candidates claimed victory. This is Lopez Obrador speaking in Mexico City.

ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: [translated] I want to tell the Mexican people that, according to our data, we won the presidency of the republic.

AMY GOODMAN: Felipe Calderon also claimed victory on Sunday night.

FELIPE CALDERON: [translated] We have won the presidential elections, and that data will be confirmed by the Federal Electoral Institute.

AMY GOODMAN: The new election results were released on Tuesday after Lopez Obrador made charges of fraud and manipulation of the vote. His party is calling for a full recount of all 41 million votes, claiming that some voting places were counted twice, while others weren’t counted at all. Although a formal recount will begin today, electoral authorities will only be required to recheck tallies from each ballot box.

Lopez Obrador has been running on a progressive platform calling for greater aid to the poor; free medical care and food subsidies for the elderly; the rewriting of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement; and the end to the further privatization of the country’s oil and gas industries. Meanwhile, Felipe Calderon has received the strong backing of the business community.

We’re joined now in our Firehouse studio by David Brooks, the U.S. Bureau Chief for the Mexican daily newspaper La Jornada. On the phone from Mexico, we’re joined by Gilberto Lopez Rivas. He’s with the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City, frequent contributor to La Jornada. We’re also joined on the line by John Ross, a journalist and author who has written three books chronicling the Zapatista movement in Mexico. His latest book is called Making Another World Possible: Zapatista Chronicle 2000-2006. And we’re joined by Professor George Grayson, Professor of Government at the College of William and Mary. He also writes a regular column for a weekly magazine in Mexico. We welcome you all to Democracy Now!

David Brooks, let’s begin with you. Were you surprised by the vote?

DAVID BROOKS: The election had been neck-and-neck for the last couple months, although Lopez Obrador’s people had expected to win by 2, 3, 4 percentage points, so everybody was a bit upset about this tie. And the question is now that nobody quite knows what the result is in Mexico. And that uncertainty and that doubt that has been brought upon the electoral institution for not being clear about what happened with these three million votes, what’s happened with the preliminary results, has led for more uncertainty, and so now we’re in uncharted terrain in Mexico.

AMY GOODMAN: George Grayson, you’re with the College of William and Mary, a professor who writes a weekly column in Mexico. Can you talk about your reaction to the vote?

GEORGE GRAYSON: I agree with David. I was out on election day as an observer visiting various precincts, and I found it to be a relatively calm, orderly process, except their so-called special precincts, casillas especiales, where if you happen to be a tourist from another part of Mexico, you can cast your vote. Regrettably, the election law only allows these special precincts to have 750 ballots. And I was in the neighborhood of the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, where there are just thousands and thousands of tourists on the weekend. And in the five special precincts around the Basilica or in that particular borough of the city, all of them ran out of ballots, and they were looking for another place to vote. I think that was probably more bureaucratic incompetence and the failure of the legislature here to update a law that’s about 11 years old. But otherwise, the voting seemed to go smoothly.

AMY GOODMAN: John Ross, you’ve been writing extensively, well, for years and in the lead-up to the election and now afterwards. Your assessment today of what the numbers mean that have so far been revealed and how this reverberates with the past?

JOHN ROSS: I think I’d like first to say that we need to put this in context. This is the most important election that Mexico has had perhaps since the Mexican Revolution. This is an election which will tell us whether Mexico is part of North America or is, in fact, in alignment with the left democracies in Latin America that have developped. This is an election that’s been based on the class war. Lopez Obrador represents the poor people in this country. This is poor versus rich, brown versus white, worker versus boss. This is, in fact, an electoral class war, and in fact, if the election isn’t straightened out real quickly it’s not only going to be an electoral class war.

My assessment is that, in relation to what Professor Grayson said, that you can’t tell anything from what happens in the poles on election day, elections here are stolen before, during and after the election, and so now we’re in the aftermath, and we saw the disappearance of 3 million votes from the PREP, from the preliminary totals. Only 2.5 million have been put back in there. There’s still 600,000 votes out there. I personally believe that those votes were not counted on Sunday night to give the impression that Felipe Calderon had won the election. The PREP, of course, can’t determine who won the election, but if we look at the news media, particularly the New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times, they’re all giving it to Calderon on the basis of this PREP, from which the Federal Electoral Institute withdrew 3 million votes, in order to give the impression that Calderon had won, and I think that’s a measure of how the Federal Electoral Institute is active throughout this entire electoral process.

Way before the campaigns began in January, when Luis Carlos Ugalde was appointed president of the IFE, we began to see a pronounced bias against Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and in favor of Felipe Calderon in the decisions that the IFE and Ugalde were making. This latest event where three million votes disappeared and then were placed back in after Ugalde was called on it, and he only on a television interview yesterday morning admitted that these votes had been taken out.

The other thing, Amy, that we really have to look at is that there’s an enormous disparity between the numbers of votes that have been cast for senators and deputies and those for the president. And interestingly enough, in those states in which the PRD, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s party, has won the elections, there are much many fewer votes for the president than there are for the senators and deputies, whereas in the states that the PAN now controls, there are many more votes for the president than there are for the senators and the deputies.

And the state that’s most, I think, blaring here is the state of Tabasco. There were 13% more votes for the president than there are for senators and congressmen. And I say that Tabasco is an interesting case, because both the candidate from the PRI, Roberto Madrazo, and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador are natives of Tabasco, and of course there would be a much higher vote for president than there would be for senators or deputies. So, that’s where we are.

Today, they begin to tally up the districts. There’s going to be a huge fight about whether or not you get to open up the ballot box, open up the bags in which the ballots are counted, and recount those things. What we’re seeing here is a replay of the 1988 election, which was stolen from Cuauhtemoc Cardenas by an electoral authority that was then part of the government. The IFE is supposed to be autonomous. But we’re seeing a replay right down to the fact that on Saturday night two poll-watchers [inaudible] were shot, were killed. After the 1988 election was stolen from Cardenas, hundreds and hundreds of his supporters were killed in political violence here.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Professor George Grayson? You, too, are in Mexico City right now.

GEORGE GRAYSON: I think it’s been a public relations nightmare for the Federal Electoral Institute because Lopez Obrador was asserting that there were several million votes that hadn’t been tallied, and the head of the institute did recognize that yesterday. I think it’s too early to say that the fix is in. And one of the problems was when they constituted the political council of IFE, which, as John Ross said so accurately, supervises the election, issues credentials and gives a preliminary tally, Lopez Obrador’s party wasn’t included on that nine-member council. And I think it was a mistake by the main political forces here not to just lock the various party leaders’ room and insist that they have someone from Lopez Obrador’s party. Now, his party can be feisty, sometimes downright cantankerous, but it was a major error, I think, of Congress and of the government secretary not to include his party in the race.

Before we get to the point of painting him as some kind of a Franklin Roosevelt, I wrote a book about him that was published two months ago; followed him for three years and went to his hometown of Tepetitan in rural Tabasco, and I think he’s done a service to the nation in that he’s focused on the plight of the poor here, because 10% of the elite control 45% of the wealth. And it’s especially — these disparities are especially notable in the south. And if you look at a map of the vote on Sunday, it’s virtually the north versus the south, the north being the more developed and more U.S.-oriented part of the country, the south being less developed, lots of natural resources but mal-distribution of income and larger indigenous populations.

But Lopez Obrador, for his genuine commitment to poor people, does have messianic tendencies. He would lead marches from Tabasco to Mexico City, which he called “exodus” marches. When he became mayor of Mexico City, he rechristened the city the “City of Hope,” La Ciudad de la Esperanza. He calls himself the little ray of hope. And during his first three years as mayor, he regularly distorted or perverted actions of the city council. They passed a bill, for example, requiring all motorists to have auto insurance. He simply told the Secretary of Transportation not to enforce that. The city council passed legislation saying we want a transparency council, so we can have a local Freedom of Information Act. He tied that initiative up in knots, and so now it has become a toothless tabby cat. So he has a strong commitment to the poor, but he also has a belief that law is the will of the people, not actions of elected officials.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor George Grayson, we’ll get response after break. Professor Grayson speaking to us from Mexico City; John Ross also there; independent journalist David Brooks in studio here in New York, of La Jornada, Mexican newspaper. When we come back we’ll also speak to an Gilberto Lopez Rivas, who is an anthropologist in Mexico City.


AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, as we talk about the elections right now in Mexico. The PRD candidate, Lopez Obrador, has called for a recount, with the officials saying it’s too close to call, though many are calling it for the PAN candidate. We have a roundtable of people to speak. In addition to John Ross, independent journalist in Mexico City, we’re speaking with Professor Grayson there, David Brooks of La Jornada in our New York studio, and we’re now joined by Gilberto Lopez Rivas, anthropologist with the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. Can you first share your reaction to this election — they say the closest in history — and this latest news of the three million votes that have not yet been counted?

GILBERTO LOPEZ RIVAS: Well, I think that we have the phantom of the fraud election and state election appearing now in the public opinion and letters. Hundreds of letters in electronic means of communication are counting the irregularities and the forms in which this fraud is carried on by the Institute of Federal Elections. And I think that the counting of the votes could clear this fraud or could confirm that there is complicity between Ugalde, who is the head of the Institute of Federal Elections, and the President Fox. So now we have, as the other professor said, a nation divided by the vote but united in the clarification process that is needed to accept any president in the future. So I think that we are in the middle of a big conflict that is going to explode in these days. The counting, you have to finish at the end of the week. But I think that the people is not so happy with what is happening now.

AMY GOODMAN: In terms of history, going back to Cuauhtémoc Cardenas, 1988, afterwards there was terrible violence. A number of people were killed. Lopez Obrador being one of the top aides to Cardenas at the time. Do you see this being repeated today?

GILBERTO LOPEZ RIVAS: Yes, but with the difference that we have a society more clear, with more consciousness of what is happening. And if we have a modernization of fraud by the means of the electronic counting, we have also the democratization of what is happening by the means of the electronic mail. So what is happening now is that I receive hundreds of mails that are calling to demonstrations. As a matter of fact, today we have several demonstrations in front of the electoral body counting. So, I think that the society, Mexican society, cannot afford another fraud and especially with this officially difference that today appears in only 0.63% of difference between one and the other candidate. So I think that there are more forces, political and social forces, that are going to oppose to this kind of result.

AMY GOODMAN: The Los Angeles Times is reporting today suspicion among Lopez Obrador’s supporters was heightened Monday when the investigative magazine Proceso, citing police intelligence sources, reported that senior Interior Ministry officials had attempted to shape media coverage on election night. Ministry officials called the news directors at Mexico’s two leading television networks and requested that they not broadcast the results of their exit polls, Proceso reported, those exit polls, of course, showing that Lopez Obrador was in the lead.

GILBERTO LOPEZ RIVAS: Yeah. It’s completely — the behavior of the means of communication — the television, especially — is completely in the side of the government, because, well, we have a legislative reform that gave them the complete monopoly of the media. So I believe that the behavior during the night of the election was completely suspicious, and nobody explains why they don’t give the election exit polls that in another occasion was kind of something natural. And everybody’s talking about that there is a big complicity between the big means of the media and the electoral body and the power. So, this belief is going to thousands and thousands of citizens that are very, very angry at what is happening. So I think that we are going to have days and weeks and probably months, and I think that we are not going to have a president in several weeks that is going to be accepted for the Mexicans.

AMY GOODMAN: David Brooks, can you talk about the role of U.S. consultants in Mexico, specifically Dick Morris?

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, the campaign of Felipe Calderon became much more successful once it went negative and it started borrowing U.S.-style fear campaign tactics and negative campaigning. Dick Morris was one of the informal consultants. He claims that he was never hired and wasn’t full-time, but that he has said and admitted that he did have informal consultations with the Calderon campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Dick Morris being the former —

DAVID BROOKS: Strategist for Bill Clinton, who then had to leave the public scene in disgrace and now is a Rupert Murdoch columnist, for Rupert Murdoch media. Part of what he contributed, as well as what operatives from the Aznar government, the ex-Prime Minister of Spain, Aznar, and other people to the campaign was to create a sense of fear about the possible — because, actually projecting Lopez Obrador as a danger to Mexico, as a danger to the United States, as somebody who would be akin to a Hugo Chavez on our border.

AMY GOODMAN: Not only akin, I was looking at a magazine from Mexico that had a chessboard with Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro beings the players and they’re holding the pawn, who is Lopez Obrador.

DAVID BROOKS: And the campaign also projected him as somebody who violates the law, who disregards the laws.

AMY GOODMAN: As Professor Grayson was saying.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, and part of that became the media campaign of saying this person is dangerous, doesn’t respect the law, is willing to go to the streets and provoke violence and confront things. And all this — up to the end of the campaign people were getting messages on their phones, as well as emails from the Calderon campaign, saying that if Lopez Obrador won you might lose your car, you might lose your business and you might lose even the right to practice your Catholic religion. And so, it intensified.

This did have an effect and did close the polls and did polarize the election to a point, and that media campaign is now proceeding after the election, where most of Mexico’s mainstream media, as well as the two monopoly television stations, have been projecting Calderon and giving a sense that he has won. There is no official result. The Federal Electoral Institute has said that the preliminary vote cannot be an indicator of who won or who lost, etc., etc.

That media campaign has now crossed the border. And just yesterday, the L.A. Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, all published editorials basically repeating some of the claims of Lopez Obrador as a danger, basically proclaiming that, in their view, Calderon has won the election, and saying that that’s a good thing for Mexico and for the United States. Because, again, as the L.A. Times editorial subtitle says, editorial standoff reveals a populous candidate with undemocratic leanings. And they make this accusation because he proclaimed victory late Sunday night, but they failed to mention that the PAN was the first to proclaim victory and that Felipe Calderon, a few minutes after Andres Manuel said this, he said the same thing. So essentially what we have is this whole media campaign, very similar to what we’ve seen in this country, where the fight now is to use the media and use all the tools possible to proclaim yourself a winner without a basis in any of the facts.

So what’s happening, as well, and what I think the key is in Mexico is not what the fight is between Lopez Obrador and Felipe Calderon, but what about the people? And supposedly they’re supposed to be the protagonists of this great democratic expression, and that’s what’s being violated right now. And that’s what the fury is and the ire and the anger of people. Neither of these two candidates can claim to now represent the majority of Mexico. And so one of the questions is how is Mexico going to define how to proceed, and the protagonist can’t be the candidates. The protagonist has to be the popular will. At least that’s what we’re told in a democracy.

And the other factor there is, of course, that the U.S. has been very careful, the U.S. government has been very careful not to openly participate in this election, which is a wise thing to do. But it’s no secret that the Bush administration, that Wall Street and, of course, the major media in this country favor Felipe Calderon, and that is also creating an issue of be careful what you read in the editorials, although the reports in most of these papers contradict the editorial.

AMY GOODMAN: John Ross, from your vantage point in Mexico City and your years of writing on this issue, the Zapatistas, where does the whole movement fit into this? This week, Subcomandante Marcos was in a radio studio also alleging fraud.

JOHN ROSS: Yeah. I — you know, I’ve written a lot on the Zapatistas. The Zapatistas are in the middle of what is called the Other Campaign. I haven’t been real happy with the Other Campaign. I think Gilberto is probably a better person to talk about the Other Campaign than I am. At this particular point, I think that the campaign has kind of — it’s kind of like a bicycle. When it doesn’t go forward, it falls over, and it’s kind of fallen over here in Mexico City. It pretty much limited its constituency to many young people, very much out of the mainstream of Mexican politics at this point and indeed is a contributor to the fact that Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has had difficulty here, and there’s been constant attacks on him by Subcomandante Marcos since the very beginning of this campaign.

I wanted to take up another thing, because I think it’s important, and also to respond to Professor Grayson, who wrote a hit piece, a book that was a hit piece on Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador: this question of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as being a violator of the law. We see statements in the New York Times by Ginger Thompson that he led violent demonstrations in Tabasco in 1996. I was with Lopez Obrador at those demonstrations in front of the PEMEX platforms. They were, in fact, nonviolent demonstrations. Just another example of how the U.S. press has turned this thing around. And, you know, here in Mexico City was accused of breaking the law because he tried to build an access road to a hospital out in Cuajimalpa in violation of a court order. They tried to bar him from the ballot. Major parties and Vicente Fox tried to bar him from the ballot. He put 1.2 million people in the streets. I was happy to march in that demonstration, the largest political demonstration in Mexico’s history, last April. And they dropped the charges right away.

The other thing is that, you know, when we say that the media has been very bad in this campaign, we have to understand that they’re operating with the permission of the IFE. These hit pieces spots that ran for months and months that compared Lopez Obrador, inter-cut his face Hugo Chavez, Subcomandante Marcos, riots, lynchings, whatever you want, all these inter-cut his face, ran for months and months and months despite the objections of the PRD and of Lopez Obrador. It was only when there was a court order to have them removed that the IFE moved to remove those from the air just at the beginning of June.

Time and time again — I think the most — one of the most egregious errors, maybe a deliberate error, that the IFE committed during this campaign was to disenfranchise millions and millions of Mexicans north of the border by setting up a procedure where it was impossible for people, undocumented workers, in the United States to cast a ballot, although there is a law now that says they’re allowed to cast that ballot. Indeed on Sunday when thousands of people caravanned out of Los Angeles down to Tijuana to vote — and the PRD is extremely strong in Los Angeles — they were denied to vote because there were not enough special polling places and because, as Mr. Grayson has indicated, there’s only 750 ballots in each. So at every step — and again, the bulk of those voters, millions of voters in the United States who are thought to be Lopez Obrador supporters were denied the ballot because of IFE procedures.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Grayson, your response?

GEORGE GRAYSON: First of all, IFE wasn’t enthusiastic about having the vote abroad. It was legislation passed by the Mexican Congress, which is elected, and I agree that the Mexican Congress is no model of efficiency. It does much better at blocking bills than passing them. But IFE simply had to abide by the guidelines, and the guidelines required expatriates to have to register in January, and so that meant that you were going to have a very small registration, only about 41,000 sought ballots, and maybe 32 or 33 thousand actually voted. Turns out, the overwhelming number of people who voted from abroad voted for Calderon, although one can assume that was a largely middle-class vote.

With regard to the 1988 election, I was here for that one also, and undoubtedly the fraud was ubiquitous. But there wasn’t much violence after that election, mainly because the loser, Cuauhtémoc Cardenas, who’s run three times for president of Mexico unsuccessfully and is kind of an icon of the Mexican left and who did not support Lopez Obrador in this campaign, the election was in early July, I think July 6, as I recall, and about two months later he went into the Zocalo and made a speech in which he criticized the outcome of the election. He said he had been defrauded of the presidency, although, of course, the ballots were impounded, later burned, but he did not call the people to violence. There was a major split within what became the PRD at that time, and Cuahtémoc Cardenas acted in a — I think a patriotic fashion, because he could have had a class warfare at that time.

With regard to the spots, the negative campaigning here is really rather mild compared to what it is in the United States. It’s just for 71 years one party controlled the system. And the candidates didn’t have to — at least the candidates of the official party didn’t have to beat up on their opponents because they were going to win anyway. And Lopez Obrador does make intemperate statements on the stump.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to give the last word to Gilberto Lopez Rivas. Your response and final comment.

GILBERTO LOPEZ RIVAS: I agree with a lot of commentaries that make my colleagues. And what, for me, is important is what is going to be the reaction of the people, before the fraud that is carrying out by the federal institute. That is the main questions. And we have to go into what the people is thinking and what the majority of the people is thinking. Mexico was a specialist in electoral fraud, but we believe that we have been overcome this kind of situation, and now we return again to 12 years ago, and that is very dangerous today. It’s completely dangerous. I think that if the tribunal, the electoral tribunal, that is the body that has to say who is the next president, doesn’t take in account what is happening in the federal institute, this is going to be kind of riot in Mexico.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll leave it there, and we’ll certainly continue to follow the story of the Mexico elections. I want to thank you, Gilberto Lopez Rivas, for joining us, anthropologist with the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City; David Brooks here in New York, of La Jornada; John Ross who writes for The Nation and writes independently, a number of books, among them Rebellion from the Roots and The Annexation of Mexico; and Professor George Grayson of the College of William and Mary. I want to thank you all for being with us.

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