That is the suspicion emerging here, in the days after preliminary vote tallies by Mexico’s Federal Election Institute (IFE) gave Enrique Peña Nieto a six percentage point win over second-place finisher Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who represents the country’s left.
The initial count shows Peña Nieto’s margin of victory was more than 3 million votes, an advantage that should be wide enough to overcome any legal challenge to his win, including Lopez Obrador’s demand for a full recount of the ballots.
President Obama and other foreign leaders called Peña Nieto to congratulate him on his victory Sunday night. He has been declared the “virtual president” by the Mexican media and has been busy giving speeches laying out an ambitious agenda. Final results are due by Sunday.
But the whiff of suspicion building over Peña Nieto’s win has less to do with the overall vote tally than the way the presidency was won.
Peña Nieto campaigned on a promise to break with the heavy hand and dirty tricks associated with his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for seven decades until 2000.
PRI activists allegedly handed out prepaid gift cards from the grocery chain Soriana to voters in some districts, according to amateur videos broadcast Wednesday on Mexican television networks and reports in Mexican media.
The alleged card recipients mobbed at least one store on the outskirts of Mexico City in a panic after rumors spread that the cards would be invalidated. According to the Associated Press, each card was worth 100 pesos, about $7.50.
“It was neither a clean nor fair election,” said Eduardo Huchim of the Civic Alliance, a Mexican watchdog group funded by the United Nations Development Program.
This was bribery on a vast scale, said Huchim, a former IFE official. “It was perhaps the biggest operation of vote-buying and coercion in the country’s history.”
But even he acknowledged that the vote-buying and coercion that his group is alleging will not change the election’s outcome.
It’s not against the law in Mexico for political parties to give out gifts — such as school supplies, a sack of cement, a hot lunch, or even prepaid gift cards. And all three major parties of the country do so, in national, state and municipal elections.
The gift expenses must be reported to election officials, and total spending cannot exceed campaign limits. Violations are fined, but well after ballots are cast, and campaigns routinely consider the penalties the cost of getting elected.
However, it is illegal to directly buy votes with gifts.
The Civic Alliance also said that the PRI employed child lookouts as young as 8. The “niños halcones,” or “kiddie hawks,” were allegedly sent to some polling stations to guarantee that voters marked their ballots as they were paid to do.