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Evidence of vote-buying damages PRI’s Pact for Mexico

April 24, 2013

He may have made Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of 2013, but President Enrique Peña Nieto’s authority in Mexico was undermined this week as his party was drawn into another political scandal.

The much touted, tri-partisan Pact for Mexico that Peña Nieto unveiled at his inauguration in December was strained to breaking point after fresh evidence emerged that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is engaged in vote-buying.

Losing candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador accused the PRI of buying votes on a massive scale in last year’s presidential election and now the party faces similar charges of misusing federal funds to secure votes ahead of the July 7 elections, in which 14 states will appoint new mayors and state legislators and Baja California will elect a new governor.

Last week both the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) accused Social Development Secretary Rosario Robles of using funds from the Crusade Against Hunger – an ambitious program supposed to help 7.4 million Mexicans out of extreme poverty – to reap votes in the upcoming elections.

The PAN released audio recordings of elected PRI officials in Veracruz discussing how to use the anti-poverty program to win votes. In one recording, a PRI politician says citizens who receive food and stipends through the program must be immediately registered to vote so that they feel obliged to support the party.

Another suggests government-supplied wheelchairs and dentures should be distributed upon the condition of political support, while other officials can be heard discussing ways of purging the social programs of non-PRI participants. The message, one says, is “support us, or else.”

Accusing the government of “using federal programs, structures and resources to promote PRI candidacies,” Gustavo Madero, the PAN’s national president, said his party would suspend support for the Pact for Mexico until Robles is removed from office. The PRD also joined the boycott, as the PAN filed a formal complaint against Robles, Veracruz Governor Javier Duarte and 56 other officials for improper use of public money.

PRI deputies retaliated on Tuesday by releasing tapes in Congress that they said provide “strong proof” that the PAN used funds from its Oportunidades cash-transfer program to win votes in last year’s elections.

Peña Nieto initially backed Robles, publicly telling her not to worry, but on Tuesday he said he would “not tolerate” the use of social programs for electoral ends. Despite having denied the allegations, Robles fired six officials who were working on the Crusade Against Hunger and suspended a seventh.

In light of this growing crisis, the government announced it had suspended all acts related to the Pact for Mexico, including plans to present major financial reforms on Tuesday, to ensure “frank dialogue to overcome disagreements” with the two main opposition parties.

The PRI convinced the opposition to resume dialogue in a meeting between party leaders on Wednesday morning, with the three parties reportedly agreeing upon measures to prevent the use of social programs for electoral gain. However, that afternoon, Madero announced that the PAN will not decide whether to continue supporting the pact until next Monday.

If the government can hold the pact together it would prove an example of the PRI’s considerable bargaining ability. Yet such an achievement would still fall some way short of justifying the praise that former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson bestowed upon Peña Nieto in Time this week.

“He combines Reagan’s charisma with Obama’s intellect and Clinton’s political skills. This is a leader to watch,” Richardson said, in sharp contrast with popular opinion in Mexico, where many regard Peña Nieto as little more than a pretty face and a puppet of more senior PRI statesmen.

As he led his party back into power, Peña Nieto was said to be the face of the new, more tolerant and transparent PRI, but the latest evidence of vote-buying severely undermines the idea that it is markedly different from the corrupt and authoritarian institution that ruled Mexico for over seven decades.

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