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Irregularities cast doubt over Mexican poll

Errors in vote counting have forced Mexico’s electoral authorities to recount ballots in around half of polling stations – but allegations of vote buying and fraud mean many are now unwilling to recognise upcoming results.

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Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) began recounting Thursday more than half of the ballot boxes used in the country`s presidential poll, citing inconsistencies in vote tallies. But a growing number of people insist the July 1 election was plagued by more serious problems and are refusing to accept official results.

Ongoing vote counting published and updated on the IFE`s website on Thursday showed that Enrique Pena Nieto, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) who declared himself the winner of the election last Sunday, was more than three million votes and 7 percentage points ahead of his closest rival, the left-wing presidential hopeful Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

The IFE said the recounting process -- which will also include 61 percent of ballots cast for senators and 60 percent of votes cast for MPs -- would contribute to the “consolidation of the democratic system.” Electoral officials expect the recount and final overall tally to be finished by Sunday.

MEXICAN VOTES `FOR SALE`

However, dissatisfied voters and observers have come down on election authorities for not looking into complaints of vote buying. Their allegations have gained weight after hundreds of people rushed to the Soriana department stores near Mexico City this week to redeem gift cards allegedly given to them in exchange for votes for PRI candidates.

After a nine-hour meeting at the National Autonomous University in the Mexican capital on Wednesday, the student-led #YoSoy132 movement -- which organised mass anti-PRI protests in the run-up to the election -- announced it would not recognise the election as legitimate because of numerous irregularities on election day.

“We feel like the electoral authorities want to protect the government institutions at all costs and by defending these elections are selling the Mexican people short, ” said Julio Colin, a political science student at the Ibero-American University and one of the movement`s spokesmen.

“[The Soriana gift cards] confirm what everyone knew was happening throughout the campaign: that the PRI launched a massive operation to fraud the election,” he added.

On July 3, the political left’s Lopez Obrador asked the IFE to recount every vote during a press conference, but has kept a low profile since then. His complaints after he lost the 2006 election by a small fraction led to weeks of protests that paralysed the Mexican capital.

SorianaGate

For critics of the PRI, the Soriana retail shop in the poor district of Iztapalapa became the epicentre of large-scale vote fraud. Local press described panicky shoppers clearing out entire market shelves, fearing their gift cards would be invalidated. Many expressed disappointment that the gift cards contained less money than what was promised in exchange of their vote.

The hashtag #SorianaGate became one of the most popular on the micro-blogging website Twitter, with thousands of users relaying pictures of the alleged rush inside the shop.

Other social media networks, like Facebook and YouTube, were also awash with videos that seemed to capture alleged vote-buying before and during Election Day.

Both the retailer and the PRI have denied any irregularities.

According to Eduardo Bohorquez, director of Transparencia Mexicana, the national chapter of the watchdog group Transparency International, the Soriana incident was a highly sensitive one, but in itself could not affect the three million votes that now separate the two leading candidates.

Moreover, Bohorquez said his group had not observed a nationwide pattern of vote-buying. “The number of irregularities that have been documented and brought before the competent legal bodies correspond to what can be expected in a country as large as Mexico,” he explained to France 24.

Nevertheless, #YoSoy132 has called on members and sympathisers to rally on Saturday for another day of mass protests across the country, one organisers hope will not be limited to Mexico City. “If the fraud was this large in the capital, it must have been brutal in the provinces,” student leader Colin argued.

Weakened mandate?

The climate of doubt that has taken hold of Mexican elections was for many a reminder of a dark past. The PRI ruled over Mexico for 71 uninterrupted years until it was defeated in the 2000 elections. During that time, it became infamous for cronyism, intimidation and rigged elections.

In interviews to international news outlets in the past two days, Pena Nieto rejected any fraud had been organised by his camp. "I’m totally, totally certain the party acted within the law," Pena Nieto told the BBC on Thursday, later calling Lopez Obrador a “sore loser”.

The IFE also made an effort to extinguish fears of cheating. In response to questions about amateur videos that supposedly show ballot stuffing, the body wrote on its website that “electoral fraud is materially impossible” and that it was equipped to counter any such attempts.

But even if the future administration belongs to the PRI, the current controversy will in all likelihood affect its legitimacy.

“It’s true that many intellectuals, students and young people feel like the PRI has not changed and has failed to learn lessons from the past, and changing that image will certainly continue to be one of the main challenges for the party,” Transparencia’s Bohorquez said.

Although election-rigging and corruption don’t seem close to disappearing from Mexican politics, Bohorquez thinks the recent election is proof Mexican voters are hungry for more and better democracy.

While Pena Nieto remains poised to take office as the next president, the election failed to hand him a majority in either house of parliament. “I think that is a strong message from voters,” Bohorquez noted. “They are saying this is a diverse country, and a complicated country, and we are not giving the PRI a blank cheque to do as it pleases.”

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