MEXICO CITY, Mexico — A partial vote recount confirmed Enrique Peña Nieto as winner of the Mexican presidential election. But accusations of vote buying are piling up against him.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the candidate for a coalition of three left-wing parties, refuses to admit defeat and has demanded a full recount.
He accuses the winning Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, of committing widespread vote buying when it granted gift cards to voters in low-income areas as an inducement to pick its candidate, Peña Nieto.
"All this was ... well-designed, deliberate, dishonest and, of course, undemocratic vote buying," Lopez Obrador said Thursday from a stage at his campaign headquarters, plastered with the cards in question.
The PRI vehemently denies any wrongdoing. New results published Friday by Mexico’s elections commission show Peña Nieto taking slightly more than 38 percent of the vote, roughly the same as its original count after the July 1 election. That’s 7 percentage points ahead of Lopez Obrador —substantially less than the double-digit margin projected by pre-election polls.
The win means the return to power of the PRI, which had ruled Mexico for 71 straight years. Voters had evicted the party in 2000, after the PRI had gained an unsavory reputation for corruption and election rigging.
Now, that narrative is being upstaged by new allegations of polling chicanery.
At a supermarket on the eastern side of Mexico City, residents went on a whirlwind shopping spree and cleared the shelves. Eager customers said they were using pre-paid cards given to them by the PRI, The Associated Press reported after the election.
Supermarket chain Soriana said in a statement that it has no relationship with the party. Peña Nieto told the BBC that his campaign has never bought votes.
Allegations of vote buying are nothing new in Mexico, however. Stories abound from the days of one-party rule when PRI operatives handed sandwiches and soft drinks to villagers and then escorting them to cast not-so-secret ballots.
Vote buying and coercion are on the rise again, says Alianza Civica, an independent group that monitors politicians and elections. According to the group’s survey from the July 1 election, 28 percent of respondents said they had been asked to sell their vote or subjected to some form of coercion. The group even found evidence of children as young as 8, being used by the PRI to accompany voters to the polls to ensure they voted as instructed.
The political campaigns are more plush with cash after a 2007 electoral reform gave them free access TV and radio airways, leaving funds to invest in other forms of campaigning, the group says.
Vote buying in Mexico is illegal, although parties can offer gifts so long as no strings are attached.
The giveaways began long before election day.
Taco stand waitress Marisela Cuevas says her local PRI congressman in Mexico state delivers a “despensa” (giveaway) of rice, beans, sugar, cooking oil and soap — every month. She voted PRI, saying Peña Nieto, "kept his word," and built public works projects in her state.
But party favors may not always do the trick. Dump truck driver Jose Luis Lopez candidly confessed the real reason he attended a Peña Nieto rally in Puebla state: "For a free T-shirt."
His union is a long time PRI foot soldier, but when asked about his voting intentions, Lopez responded, "My vote is secret."
Allegations of vote buying extend to other parties, too.
The Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) — to which Lopez Obrador belongs — has been accused of other forms of coercion. Critics allege that the party has used social programs for political ends, particularly in its stronghold of Mexico City, where Lopez Obrador was mayor, says Adrian Rueda, politics columnist for online news and commentary site, Eje Central.
Lopez Obrador rejects all allegations of wrongdoing and often insists, "I have moral authority."
He says he will stick to a legal path for challenging the election results. He claims he can prove in the electoral tribunals that Peña Nieto used illicit money to buy votes and win the election.
But AMLO — as he's also known locally, by his initials — has a track record of challenging elections through sheer people power, beckoning mobs of followers into the streets. In 2006, he shut down central Mexico City for six weeks after narrowly losing a presidential election he says was rigged.
Political observers say such protests are unlikely this time around. The left-wing Mexico City government and its mayor, Marcelo Ebrard — already the subject of early chatter for pursuing the presidency in 2018 — would be unlikely to support such actions.
Peña Nieto takes office Dec. 1. He has promised good government, a focus on the crimes affecting ordinary people and some reforms to the economy. They would include a proposal to loosen the state’s grip on the oil industry — instituted by his party in the late 30s — to allow private investment.
But he brings a weaker mandate than he had hoped for and failed to take majorities in Congress — something he was betting on.
"Mexican voters are distrustful of politicians and parties, that’s what they showed," says Federico Estevez, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.
"Voters like this guy. He's pretty. But they wouldn't give him the majorities he asked them for."