Viewpoint: Mexican election raising questions of cyberfraud

We’ve seen it again. If not the actual fact, at least the appearance of a manipulated election in Mexico. Conservative Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party (PAN) is claiming victory while his leftist opponent, Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Party of Democratic Revolution (PDR), is charging fraud and planning to challenge the outcome.

The Calderon victory was openly hailed by President George W. Bush and his administration.

What evidence is there that the election may have been rigged? Marti Batres, head of the Democratic Revolutionary Party’s Mexico City chapter, quoted by Salon magazine, told reporters: “There may have been a source code used to manipulate our elections just as with Florida elections in 2000.”

The Obrador campaign and PRD Party claims the Calderon campaign had access to voter files that are supposed to be entirely the property of the Mexican Electoral Commission. The commission is controlled by Calderon’s party.

Last week, the Web site reported the American FBI had obtained Mexico’s voter files under provisions of a secret “counterterrorism” contract with the database company ChoicePoint of Alpharetta, Ga. goes on to say the FBI’s contractor said that after the Mexican government arrested ChoicePoint agents, the company either returned or destroyed its files. Such files could be used to challenge a voter’s right to vote or to prevent that vote from being counted.

There is no way to know whether the FBI destroyed its copy of the files or whether they were used to give an edge to Calderon’s campaign. But reports say that, like Florida and Ohio in U.S. elections, exit polls in the Mexican election did not tally with “official” polls. As investigative reporter Greg Palast of the UK’s Guardian put it: “There’s something rotten in Mexico, and it smells like Florida.”

Palast noted that just before the U.S. presidential election in 2000 in Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush ordered many thousands of African-American voters’ names removed from voter rolls, claiming they were felons. It turned out their only crime was being black while voting. Jeb’s winning scrub list, which created a margin big enough to hand the White House to brother George, was created by ChoicePoint, according to Palast.

Palast also said several months ago he acquired a copy of an internal FBI “secret” memo calling for “intelligence collection of foreign counter-terrorism investigations.” The memo was dated Sep. 17, 2001, one week after the New York and Washington terrorist attacks. The perpetrators of those events were believed to be Saudi Arabians mainly, but the contract referred to in the memo, Palast said, called for obtaining the voter files of Venezuela, Brazil and … Mexico.

Like the Florida election, Mexico’s had a purge of voters. Officials said there were 827,000 ballots reportedly left blank. Most of them came from districts where the PDR party is strongest. There also was substantial negative drop off—more votes were cast for lower offices than for president.

Signs of meddling in the election by Bush operatives are evident. The International Republican Institute, part of Bush’s party machinery, admits it furnished some training in tactics for Calderon’s campaign. We don’t know whether Calderon made use of those stealthily acquired voter lists.

Salon magazine added Obrador’s aides also charge President Vincente Fox acted improperly in the months before the vote by repeatedly appearing on television and radio claiming great accomplishments for his administration. That was seen as a barely concealed effort to boost Calderon’s candidacy. Mexican law forbids an incumbent to intervene in a successor’s election. A top official with the Obrador campaign, Ricardo Monreal, said Fox “violated the principles of equity, impartiality and objectivity,” according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

Despite the allegations of vote fraud, Calderon contends he will win out in any legal fight. “There is no legal argument that will lead to” an annulment of the election, he said.

If the vote totals stand, Calderon will take office Dec. 1. His “victory,” however, must be affirmed by Mexico’s electoral tribunal. Until that happens, it has no legal standing.

In the past, the tribunal has overturned the outcome of some gubernatorial and mayoral elections and ordered new votes. John Ackerman, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said: “Whether they would dare to do this at the presidential level is a different question, but if Lopez Obrador decides to make such a case, they would have to take it seriously, because they have their own jurisprudence that requires them to do so.”

The Times also quoted Lorenzo Cordova, former member of Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute and a specialist in electoral law. Cordova said the judges “would have to find very grave circumstances” before they could annul the election. “It’s an action of last resort,” he said.

PRD members say they have considerable evidence of improprieties. For instance, they said, vote totals in Calderon strongholds, like Guanajuato State, often exceeded the number of ballots delivered to those precincts. The tribunal has until September to validate the election results.

President Bush called both Calderon and Fox to extend his congratulations. A number of other world leaders followed suit. Calderon said he will continue to push for legalization of millions of undocumented Mexican workers in the U.S. and for an expanded guest worker program for others.

At the same time, Calderon stressed the need to make Mexico a more attractive site for job-creating investment. He calls on the United States and Canada to help finance efforts to begin productive enterprise in the poorer regions from which most of the immigrants head north. In a reference of two such states, he said: “A kilometer of highway in Zacatecas or Michoacan can do more than 10 kilometers of [border] walls in Texas or Arizona to reduce migration. This should be understood on both sides of the border.”

That part is true enough. If Mexicans could make a decent living in their own country, there would be less incentive to come here, but what of the election? Was it on the level?

Palast observed: “Mexico’s Bush-backed ruling party claims it has conducted Mexico’s first truly honest election, though it refuses to re-count the ballots or explain the purge of voters. Has the PAN and its ally in Washington served democracy in this election, or merely Florida con salsa?”

From the July 12-18, 2006, issue

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