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Mexico’s president-elect vows to imprison vote buyers

Mexico’s recent presidential election winner Enrique Peña Nieto maintains that there was no vote-buying in the contested July 1 vote, but — in a rare departure from previous statements — told The Miami Herald that he would support putting behind bars any member of his own party found guilty of electoral fraud.

“Do not have any doubt that I will apply the law over whoever is responsible for not complying with the law,” Peña Nieto said in a 40-minute interview last week. “It will be up to the electoral authorities to determine whether such practices took place... but whether it’s during this [outgoing] government, or during my time in office, I will be for applying the law and punishing whoever may have incurred in an illegal practice.”

Earlier in the interview, he had repeatedly asserted that “there was no vote buying” by his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and described former leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s claims to the contrary as “totally unfounded.’’ If there was any vote-buying, it was in “isolated and circumstantial cases,” he said.

López Obrador, who finished second in the vote, has requested the electoral tribunal to nullify the elections. He claims that the PRI bought millions of votes — among other things by giving people gift cards for shopping at the Soriana supermarket chain. He also alleged that the PRI had vastly surpassed campaign spending limits and made back-door deals with the country’s two largest television networks to get favorable TV coverage.

The electoral tribunal is scheduled to announce its ruling by Sept. 6, but few political insiders believe it will invalidate the election. Most likely, López Obrador is hoping that the tribunal will confirm isolated irregularities which — while not enough to annul the election — will give him ammunition to lead massive protests and remain at the center of Mexico’s political arena.

“This has been an exemplary democratic process, with unprecedented citizen participation. There were more than 50 million Mexicans who participated and voted in the polls, and 3 million who monitored it as electoral authorities and party representatives,” Peña Nieto said.

When reminded that his PRI party has been the champion of vote-buying and other electoral tricks during its seven-decade rule until it was voted out of office in 2000, Peña Nieto suggested that other parties have been more guilty of that practice than his own in recent years.

But he said that “Mexico has experimented with political change since the late 1980s,” and that he belongs to a “new generation of PRI leaders” who have made their careers “in a democratic culture.”

Asked whether he will be a weak candidate — he will face a divided congress and a sizable part of the population has doubts about his legitimacy — he gave a long-winded answer that ended up with a recognition that he’ll need to seek agreements with opposition parties in Congress.

“There is a big, majority, strong and clear support for the project that I’m heading,” he said. “You can’t consider a president weak because he will have a Congress that Mexican voters have wanted to be co-responsible in the decisions to be taken... It will be through the leadership that I will exercise that we will be able to build the agreements in Congress.”

Asked how will be manage to pass his ambitious energy reform to allow private sector investments in the country’s state-owned Pemex oil monopoly when his much of his own party as well as the mighty PRI-linked oil workers union are known to be skeptical about such proposals, Peña Nieto responded that “you have not heard any statement from them, nor from any other group within my party expressing opposition” to his plans.

But that was before he could actually do anything, I noted. Peña Nieto responded: “But I have proposed that, I have committed myself to that and it clearly has been agreed and talked about among members of my party. There have been no voices against the structural reforms that I have proposed, especially the energy reform.”

My opinion: If electoral authorities confirm Peña Nieto’s victory and he takes office Dec. 1, as expected, he will not automatically have the support he will need to pass the ambitious reforms that Mexico needs to undertake. If he wants to dispel critics’ doubts about the sincerity of his claims that he belongs to a new generation of PRI leaders who are part of a new democratic culture, he will have to prove it.

Meeting his new promise to throw in jail those who engaged in vote buying, including leaders of his own party, would be the best way to boost his democratic credentials at home and abroad, and to set in motion his ambitious reforms to modernize Mexico.