Mexico votes amid warnings over possible fraud

Mexican voters are casting ballots on Sunday in an election to determine more than 3,000 office-holders, from city council positions up to the presidency.

As in previous election campaigns, the spectre of possible fraud reared its head, both in the popular imagination and among candidates on the ballot. This year has been no exception.

Front-running leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was one of the first lined up to vote at his polling place in Mexico City. 

Lopez Obrador has promised a "transformation" of Mexico and pledged to give scholarships or paid apprenticeships to youth, and increase support payments for the elderly. 

But rivals warn that a Lopez Obrador win could set the country back decades with an interventionist economic policy.

Other presidential candidates include, from the left, Ricardo Anaya for the Mexico al Frente coalition, Jose Antonio Meade for the Todos por Mexico coalition, which includes PRI, and independent candidate Jaime 'El Bronco' Rodriguez Calderon. (Getty Images)

All the candidates are lambasting U.S. President Donald Trump's policies against migrants and Mexico, but voters were wondering who could best deal with Trump.

Sunday's elections for posts at every level of government are Mexico's largest ever and have become a referendum on corruption, graft and other tricks used to divert taxpayer money to officials' pockets and empty those of the country's poor.

3rd try for Lopez Obrador

With Lopez Obrador holding a wide lead in most polls leading up to the vote, his allies have been urging vigilance.

"They shouldn't dare commit a fraud, because if they do they will meet the devil," Yeidckol Polevnsky, president of the candidate's Morena party, said this week. "We will not accept it."

This is Lopez Obrador's third try for the nation's top office, and some see it as his best shot after 12 years of near-permanent campaigning. His railing against the "mafia of power" that has long ruled Mexico and in favour of the poor appears to be falling on receptive ears.

"The corrupt regime is coming to its end," 64-year-old Lopez Obrador, commonly known as AMLO, said at his final campaign event Wednesday. "We represent modernity forged from below."

 Much of the popular ire has been aimed at unpopular President Enrique Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, whose market-oriented economic reforms have yet to benefit many Mexicans. 

Its candidate, Jose Antonio Meade, has experience in several areas of government, including the treasury and foreign relations departments.

Women mark their votes in the Indigenous community of Soledad Atzompa, Veracruz state, on Sunday. The voting booth reads 'The vote is free and secret.' (Felix Marquez/Associated Press)

Ricardo Anaya, running second in polls for a right-left coalition, has tried to harness the youth vote with an emphasis on technology and new ideas, but he divided his own conservative party to take its candidacy and it's unclear if his new allies in the leftist Democratic Revolution Party will actually turn out for someone from the other end of the ideological spectrum.

Sunday is the first time that an independent candidate appears on the ballot. 

Jaime "El Bronco" Rodriguez fought for attention with a horse-mounted "everyman" campaign and by tossing out policy bombs like his proposal to cut off the hands of public officials caught stealing. Without the big party machinery it was an uphill battle. 

It is also the first time Mexicans living abroad can vote for down-ballot races like senators. More than 181,000 Mexicans outside the country received ballots, and the 97,000 that the National Electoral Institute had gotten back by Friday morning was already double the turnout in 2012.

History of electoral fraud

Hovering over the election is the spectre of vote fraud, though electoral officials deny it is a possibility with the modern balloting technology and institutions now in place. 

In both of Lopez Obrador's previous two presidential losses he alleged fraud. In his first loss — by a mere 0.56 per cent to conservative Felipe Calderon in 2006 — his supporters held months-long protests in Mexico City and he referred to himself as "the legitimate president." 

His allies are warning even before Sunday's presidential vote that there had better not be any funny business. 

Sonia Villarreal, running for re-election as mayor of the border town Piedras Negras, shows her marked ballots to the press Sunday. Villarreal, a member of the PRI, received death threats after her fellow party member, Fernando Puron, was murdered in June. (Nick Wagner/Associated Press)

"They shouldn't dare commit a fraud, because if they do they will meet the devil," said Yeidckol Polevnsky, president of Lopez Obrador's Morena party. "We will not accept it."

"The chances of not winning exist because of the system that has in place for years," said Antonio Lopez, a street vendor in Mexico City and Lopez Obrador supporter.

Such fears have a basis in history. For most of the 20th century, the PRI dominated virtually all aspects of politics and held the presidency uninterruptedly for seven decades until 2000, and then regained it in 2012.

Dead people voting, vote-buying, theft or burning of ballots, threats of violence, rigged counting, particularly in remote areas — over the years it's all been seen.

In 1998 opposition candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas had a narrow lead in early returns when the system for tabulating votes was said to have "collapsed," purportedly due to failure of phone lines which were used to report the count. After it came back online, the election went to ruling party candidate Carlos Salinas.

For many, the moment exemplified the lengths to which the PRI would go to keep itself in power.

Since that time Mexico's voting technology has improved, an electoral body independent of the executive branch has been created and results are no longer delivered by phone. Even though Morena was founded just four years ago, today it has a nationwide reach that will allow it to have observers on hand at nearly all the country's election centres to watch for any shenanigans Sunday.

"Electoral fraud is impossible. Not only because we do not want to make fraud, but because all the stages, activities and operations are subject to the law and vigilance of the parties and the citizens," said Jaime Rivera of the National Electoral Institute.

Voters wait in line outside a polling station Sunday in Mexico City. (Anthony Vazquez/Associated Press)

Rivera said even if there were to be a computer hack, the integrity of the vote is backed by a paper trail overseen by election workers and party monitors.

Voting was by and large peaceful, apart from the usual complaints about some volunteer-staffed polling places opening late. 

The head of the electoral institute, Lorenzo Cordova, said voting was proceeding "peacefully, without major incidents," and that only four of the 156,807 polling places failed to open.

That's not to say there weren't reports of suspicious activity.

Stolen ballot boxes

In recent weeks, officials confirmed armed assaults to steal ballots in three southern states, while a coalition of non-governmental groups monitoring the campaign said vote-buying schemes and threats to cut off social programs have targeted entire communities.

The groups said all the political parties have been guilty, but that most of the activity was on behalf of the PRI. On Tuesday, police in Mexico City seized the equivalent about $ 1 million in pesos from two men who were allegedly delivering the cash to PRI headquarters and were unable to explain its origin.

Supporters attend the closing campaign rally of Mexican presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at the Azteca stadium, in Mexico City on June 27. (Daniel Becerril/Reuters )

Eduardo Bueno, a political scientist at the Iberoamerican University in the capital, said electoral fraud has been "a constant" in Mexico's political history and that "modern fraud in the country is a creation of the PRI" to maintain itself in power.

The Electoral Institute's Rivera acknowledged that historically there has been fraud in the country, but said cases have decreased and even become virtually impossible at the national level.

"This legend — which tends to have some truth, even if it's from the past — cyclically feeds on the disagreements of political parties when they lose," Rivera said.

"The parties are not in the habit of recognizing their defeat," he added. "It is one of the weaknesses of Mexican democracy."

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