Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Calderon's 'Uncomfortable' Brother-in-Law

Ten days from now, Mexico will elect a new President. Given the strong influences that Mexico and the US mutually have on each other, it will affect us a great deal. The US would probably fare best with Felipe Calderon of Vicente Fox's National Action Party (PAN), but that's not clear. The PAN tends to be a more pro-American, free market party than Mexico's 2 other major parties, but that's not saying a lot. Further, the candidate of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) is former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), and while his party is of the extreme left, he was a pragmatist as Mayor. The third major candidate is Roberto Madrazo, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Even though the PRI ran Mexico from 1929 to 2000, Madrazo is clearly the underdog in this race.

The election polls show a very close race. For a long time, AMLO had a healthy lead, but as Calderon began to attack him, and link him to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (who reportedly has put money into AMLO's campaign), AMLO fell back into second place. But AMLO responded with an attack of his own at Mexico's June 6 Presidential debate, and it's turned the tide. Polls in the last week show him with a lead of either 2 or 4 points, a change from polls as recently as two weeks ago, which had shown Calderon with a slight edge. So while most now agree that AMLO leads, there's not much confidence that it's a big lead, or that it will hold up.

The most notable moment in the June 6 debate was AMLO's charge that Calderon had steered more than $200 million in government contracts to his 'uncomfortable' brother-in-law. The charge was unexpected, and Calderon responded badly. He's counter-attacked with corruption charges of his own, but he's clearly taken the worst of it:

But Mexico now is full of talk of Calderon’s “uncomfortable brother-in-law” after Lopez Obrador accused Calderon in a live television debate of awarding his wife’s brother contracts while he was energy minister. Lopez Obrador also charged the businessman did not pay the proper taxes.

Calderon has repeatedly denied any misconduct.

The scandal gathered pace on Friday as Calderon’s brother-in-law, Diego Zavala, filed a legal complaint against Lopez Obrador for defamation, and Lopez Obrador sent three cardboard boxes of alleged evidence to his rival’s campaign headquarters in a media stunt to high the affair.

“The charge is for defamation given the gentleman has not apologised. He needs to prove what he alleges,” Zavala told reporters.

Calderon called his archrival a liar, telling Reuters on Thursday, “What Lopez Obrador said about me giving contracts is a lie, a big lie and someone who lies is a liar.”

Calderon’s energy adviser, Ernesto Cordero, said the charge appeared to relate to two software licences bought by state-run oil monopoly Pemex in the mid-1990s that were renewed during Calderon’s time in government. “They are contracts that don’t go through him,” he said.

A separate Calderon aide said the boxes delivered by Lopez Obrador’s team were “a farce” and proved nothing, because they did not contain a single document signed by Calderon.

Bogus or not, it seems to be these charges, along with AMLO's renewed effort to reassure voters that he's not Chavez, that account for AMLO's surge. The Washington Post has blogged the race pretty well, and they note that with lots still to spend, and dedicated supporters, Calderon has a good chance to pull out a win despite the current polls.

The lingering concern is that the election may end up being decided by 'who counts the votes best.' I served as an election observer in Mexico just a few years ago, and while the process has gotten a lot better since the 1980s, there are still opportunities for shenanigans. In fact, although I was a US citizen and a credentialed observer, one of the election officers I dealt with offered me and my companion ballots. Further, most Mexicans believe that Cuauhtemoc Cardenas won Mexico's 1988 Presidential election, only to lose the vote count because of election fraud. And while Vicente Fox finally broke the PRI stranglehold on the Presidency in 2000, PRI supporters are still angry that President Ernesto Zedillo didn't give the OK to rig the election for the PRI candidate at the time. Things like this prompt concerns that in an election expected to be as close as this one is, there are likely to be lots of attempts to tamper with ballots and counting. The Federal Election Institute is charged with ensuring the integrity of the vote, and the head of the Institute recently reassured CNN that everything will be on the up-and-up.

It will be interesting to watch the next few weeks.

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