Vote buying sullies Mexico’s midterm elections

(Photo credit: iivangm/Flickr)

Midterm elections were held in Mexico Sunday to determine the composition of the Chamber of Deputies, Mexico’s lower house, and nine of 31 governorships. Despite a steep drop in approval ratings in recent months, PRI, the current majority and party of President Enrique Peña Nieto, retained power. PRI won about 200 seats in the election, a small drop off from the 207 seats they held in the previous legislature. When combined with politically allied parties, PRI will control between 246 and 263 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, close to its current total of 251 seats. The 2015 Mexican midterm elections may have concluded with a minimal change in the balance of power at the national level, but questions still remain about the integrity of Mexican politics and electoral processes.

Mexican politics have been embroiled in political scandal in recent months, for reasons including President Peña’s unsavory relationship with government contractors and the mass abduction and murder of 43 teaching students. Seven electoral candidates were killed throughout the campaign period, and the violence caused another 20 to drop out of the race. Ballots were destroyed by protesters in multiple cities and regions. Mexican voters have been inundated by handouts from political parties that come with strings attached. Finally, as in previous elections, allegations of voter fraud, including vote buying, were widespread.

Vote buying is a tried-and-true method of political campaigning in Mexico and Latin America as a whole. It’s even considered relatively mild in Mexico as compared to surrounding countries like Argentina and Venezuela, where government spending rises by up to 25 percent in the 12 months before an election. In Mexico, political parties can legally hand out gifts like food, apparel and school supplies to voters. In the 2012 Mexican presidential election, target voters were allegedly plied with 100 peso gift cards to the Mexican grocery chain Soriana in exchange for voting for current President Peña. A recount confirmed Peña’s victory, but didn’t diminish widespread suspicion of of Peña’s methods. Although the National Electoral Institute (INE), Mexico’s electoral institution, didn’t officially take Peña’s campaign to task, former INE employees have condemned Peña and his party for widespread corruption.

In the lead-up to the 2015 midterm elections, PRI seemed to rely on these same tactics. Throughout the campaign period, Mexican voters were offered movie tickets, rooftop water tanks and even 24-inch televisions. These gifts are strategically distributed by political parties with the expectation that recipients will return the favoring during elections — and sometimes outright offered in exchange for a vote. Handout recipients must be registered voters or register upon delivery to be eligible for these gifts. Some of these practices are technically illegal, but fines are infrequent. The INE only levies fines in response to complaints, and as handouts are so ubiquitous in Mexican politics, complaints themselves are rarely submitted. Even when investigations are pursued, violators are only punished after elections, and political parties often accept these fines as the cost of doing business.

Vote buying practices may be widespread in Mexico, but they are extremely unpopular with citizens. In a recent study, over 70 percent of Latin America respondents opposed vote buying. Further, these questionable electoral practices in Mexico seem to operate contrary to official commitments to transparency and accountability on the part of the national government. Despite being a member and current co-chair of the Open Government Partnership, Mexico systematically impedes key partnership objectives, including accountability, through these legally gray electoral practices. Paired with concerns about corruption, these practices serve as a reminder that commitments to open government and open data initiatives should align with practices to make elections more open, participatory and accountable.