'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Sunday, August 27, 2006

What's Happening in Mexico? 

UPDATE: Mark Weisbrot, Center for Economic Policy Research, during the Democracy Now! interview referenced in the initial post:

JUAN GONZALEZ: And these massive demonstrations that have been occurring now in Mexico City for weeks, they have gotten very little coverage here in the United States. I’m thinking back to when the massive protests in the Ukraine and some of the other Russian republics over allegations of election fraud. But there hasn't been much coverage here in the U.S. press of these protests right with our southern neighbor.

MARK WEISBROT: No. Not very much. And especially the allegations, like the one I just said before. That's not even allegation. That's a verifiable fact, that you have the majority of ballot boxes where the votes don’t add up, the ballots aren't kept track of. So that hasn’t -- the media hasn't made an issue out of that. And they haven't made any issue out of the fact that the tribunal is withholding the results. And I’m actually worried that they're going to not even wait until the August 31 deadline. They’re going to announce the result before the public gets to see what happened in the two recounts that they already did.

AMY GOODMAN: What does this mean for the future of Mexico?

MARK WEISBROT: Well, I think it's huge. I mean, the issues in this election are very big. Mexico has had a terrible economic failure over the last 25 years. The total economic growth has been about 17% per capita over a 25-year period, as opposed to 99% from 1960 to 1980. And it's been a terrible failure, a terrible economic failure.

Apparently, Weisbrot is well-informed, if perhaps, only partially so, because, while the timing is accurate, the method seems to have been altered. From Reuters, about an hour ago:

Mexico's electoral court will give its verdict on Monday on a partial recount of votes in the July 2 presidential election, which leftists say was rigged against them.

The court will hold a public session at 8 a.m.to give the results of the recount this month at 9 percent of polling stations, a court spokesman said on Sunday.

It was not clear whether the court would also give a revised vote count for the overall election, in which ruling party conservative Felipe Calderon came out ahead with a margin of some 244,000 votes out of 41 million cast.

Mexico has been in turmoil since the election, with Calderon planning his cabinet while leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador calls rallies and sit-ins to push for a full recount of every vote cast.

The electoral court is widely expected to reject Lopez Obrador's demand for a full recount and most analysts expect it eventually will confirm pro-business former energy minister Calderon as president-elect.

It is hard to understand how this is going to persuade people to accept the initial results. It does, however, appear to be consistent with a strategy of marginalizing left opposition so that they can be violently suppressed.

INITIAL POST: Who won the Mexican election? It is hard to know. Narco News, a Central and South American grassroots journalism effort created by Al Giordano, has consistently asserted that Andres Manual Lopez Obrador, the left candidate of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, the PRD, was the victim of massive vote fraud orchestrated by the two parties who dominate Mexican political life, the National Action Party, the PAN, and the Institutional Revolution Party, the PRI:

Finally, the hard numbers are starting to come in. In the “partial recount” of paper ballots from the July 2 presidential election in Mexico, ordered by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (known as the Trife), the recount has been completed in 10,679 precincts of the 11,839 ordered by the court (about 9 percent of Mexico’s 130,000 precincts). From these precincts, Narco News has obtained the following preliminary numbers that confirm the massive and systematic electoral fraud inflicted on the Mexican people:

In 3,074 precincts (29 percent of those recounted), 45,890 illegal votes, above the number of voters who cast ballots in each polling place, were found stuffed inside the ballot boxes (an average of 15 for each of these precincts, primarily in strongholds of the National Action Party, known as the PAN, of President Vicente Fox and his candidate, Felipe Calderón).

In 4,368 precincts (41 percent of those recounted), 80,392 ballots of citizens who did vote are missing (an average of 18 votes in each of these precincts).

Together, these 7,442 precincts contain about 70 percent of the ballots recounted. The total amount of ballots either stolen or forged adds up to 126,282 votes altered.

If the recount results of these 10,679 precincts (8.2 percent of the nation’s 130,000 polling places) are projected nationwide, it would mean that more than 1.5 million votes were either stolen or stuffed in an election that the first official count claimed was won by Calderon by only 243,000 votes.

Among the findings of this very limited partial recount are that in 3,079 precincts where the PAN party is strong and where, in many cases, the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) of candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador did not count with election night poll watchers, one or more of three things occurred: Either the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE, in its Spanish initials) illegally provided more ballots than there are voters in those precincts, or the PAN party stole those extra ballots, or ballots were forged.

“Taqueo and Saqueo”

These preliminary recounts demonstrate mainly two kinds of fraud: “taqueo,” or the stuffing of ballot boxes with false votes as if putting extra beans inside a taco, and “saqueo,” or “looting,” that is, the disappearance of legitimate ballots cast.

A significant problem, now, for Mexican democracy (for those who claim that the election was fair, and also for those who view this evidence as proof of electoral fraud) is that there is no way to tell, inside each ballot box, which of the ballots were legal and which were not; nor which ballots were stolen and which were not.

In some past post-electoral disputes for state and local offices, the Trife electoral court has opted, based on this kind of evidence, to annul the results from those precincts where stuffing or looting occurred.

If the Trife follows the law and its own established precedents, and annuls the results in these 7,442 precincts where the fraud took place, it would reverse the official results and López Obrador would emerge the victor by more than 425,000 votes nationwide.

Greg Palast, discussed here previously in the context of the Republican effort to create a permanent electoral majority by manipulation of the franchise, is also dubious:

. . .The precinct-by-precinct returns were quite otherworldly. I used to teach statistics and what I saw in Mexico would have stumped my brightest students.

Here's the conundrum: The nation's tens of thousands of polling stations report to the capital in random order after the polls close. Therefore, statistically, you'd expect the results to remain roughly unchanged as vote totals come in. As expected, AMLO was ahead of the right-wing candidate Calderon all night by an unchanging margin -- until after midnight. Suddenly, precincts began reporting wins for Calderon of five to one, the ten to one, then as polling nearly ended, of one-hundred to one.

How odd. I checked my concerns with Professor Victor Romero of Mexico's National University who concluded that the reported results must have been a "miracle." As he put it, a "religious event," but a statistical impossibility. There were two explanations, said the professor: either the Lord was fixing the outcome or operatives of the ruling party were cranking in a massive number of ballots when they realized their man was about to lose.

How could they do it? "Easy pea-sy," as my kids would say. In Mexico, the choices for president are on their own ballot with no other offices listed. Those who don't want to vote for President just discard the ballot. There is no real ballot security. In areas without reliable opposition observers (about a third of the nation), anyone can stuff ballots into the loosely-guarded cardboard boxes. (AMLO showed a tape of one of these ballot-stuffing operations caught in the act.

The "9% solution" was the TRIFE's ham-fisted attempt to chill out the several hundred thousand protesting supporters of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador who had gathered in the capital and blocked its main Avenue. Lopez Obrador, the Leftist challenger known by his initials AMLO, supposedly lost the presidential vote by just one half of one percent of the vote.

I say "supposedly" lost because, while George Bush congratulated his buddy Felipe Calderon on his victory, the evidence I saw on the ground in Mexico City fairly shrieks that the real winner was challenger AMLO.

James K. Galbraith, a professor in government at the University of Texas at Austin, echoes Palast:

An analysis by the physicist Luis Mochán of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, based on the real-time evolution of the vote count and the distribution of vote totals by polling place, can be found on the Internet. It’s not easy reading, but is immensely worthwhile. It’s possible that Mochán’s work inaugurates a new era in real-time checking for vote fraud, made possible by the simplicity of Mexico’s first-past-the-post direct vote and the rich electoral data sets that can be made instantly available. Call it the age of transparency, in collision with an oligarchy of thugs.

Mochán’s work calls attention to at least four important anomalies in the count.

Calderón’s percentage lead in the count started at around 7 points and diminished steadily in percentage terms through the first part of the count. This corresponded to a remarkably constant absolute differential between Calderón and AMLO as the count progressed. Is this normal? The count depended on the arrival of the boxes; if this were random, then the proportions should have held roughly constant while absolute differentials widened, as actually happened to the differential between Calderón and the third major candidate, Madrazo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, for most of the evening. Why did the Calderón-AMLO differential follow a different rule?

The PREP results went on view only after the first 10,000 boxes had been processed. If those boxes resembled what came later, then extrapolating backward should produce a line intersecting the origin—each candidate should have started with zero votes. For Calderón this is the case, but for AMLO it is not: The AMLO intercept is actually at minus 126,000 votes. Thus, the first 10,000 boxes were markedly different from those that followed. How?

There are gross anomalies in the number of votes counted per five-minute interval as the count finishes. Over the course of the evening, the pattern of vote counts set a normal range for this variable. As the last boxes came in, however, it was radically violated, with many more votes piled in, per interval, than normal for the rest of the count. Moreover, toward the very end, PREP reset the box count, which regressed from 127,936 at 1:17 p.m. on July 3 to 127,713 at 1:50 p.m., meaning that records for 223 boxes disappeared. Thirty-three minutes had by then passed with no updates. When they resumed, there were updates with absurd results: more than 6,000 votes per box at 1:50, and then updates with large negative votes per box at 1:57 and 2:03.

From a statistical point of view, the distribution across boxes of votes earned by each candidate should be smooth. For Madrazo it is. But for Calderón and AMLO it isn’t. In Calderón’s case, the distribution appears to be shifted out, with the shift localized among the last 40,000 boxes counted. In the case of AMLO, the distribution tails off abruptly from its peak. It is in the difference between the slightly fat distribution for Calderón and the shaved distribution for AMLO that the final outcome is to be found. A graph of the differences in Calderón’s and AMLO’s votes per box, which ought to follow a normal curve, does not. Over a certain range, Calderón’s margins appear abnormally large.

Professor Mochán does not claim to explain these anomalies. More time and closer investigation remain necessary. But he does conclude that it “is reasonable to suspect that there could have been a manipulation of the results reported by the PREP.” It is true that the PREP is not an official count—that was done at the district offices, with equally serious anomalies alleged. But PREP reported the box-by-box results as they flowed in-and as such it constitutes a vital instrument for the detection of patterns of manipulation and fraud.

Let me go further than Mochán. The evidence he assembles is consistent with the following possibilities:

That Felipe Calderón started the night with an advantage in total votes, a gift from the authorities.

That as the count progressed this advantage was maintained by misreporting the actual results. This enabled Calderón to claim that he had led through the entire process—an argument greatly repeated but spurious in any case because it is only the final count that matters.

That toward the end of the count, further adjustments were made to support the appearance of a victory by Calderón.

Add these elements together, and there is no reason to accept the almost universal view that the election was close. AMLO might have won by a mile.

More recently, the Center for Economic Policy Research also recently issued a short study objecting to the lack of transparency in the counting of ballots, emphasizing some peculiarites that warrant further inquiry, with Mark Weisbrot describing their findings on Democracy Now!

Meanwhile, the perspective of the American press can be summarized in this passage from an Associated Press article published on August 10th:

The count must wrap up by Sunday, after which the Federal Electoral Tribunal will review the results and decide by Sept. 6 whether to declare a president-elect or annul the election.

The initial results gave Felipe Calderon, the pro-business candidate of conservative President Vicente Fox's National Action Party, a lead of 240,000 votes, or less than 1 percent, over leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, former mayor of Mexico City.

The partial count could change those results, but it was considered unlikely to tip the balance in favor of Lopez Obrador, whose supporters have been disrupting life in the capital for more than a week to press their charge he was robbed of an election victory by fraud.

The San Francisco Chronicle is an American newspaper that has actually called for a recount of all ballots, but, given the extent of fraud, ballot spoilage and other irregularities, as observed by Giordano elsewhere in his article, what, if anything, would it reveal? Contrary to the belief of the editorial page editors at the Chronicle, probably not anything that will induce people to have confidence in the Mexican political system.

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