Voters courted with gifts

Mexican parties offer food subsidies, relief supplies

June 25, 2006|By RICHARD BOUDREAUX | RICHARD BOUDREAUX,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ECATEPEC, Mexico -- Want to add a room to the house? Get fitted for reading glasses? Take home a bicycle or container of gasoline? Better yet, qualify for a free-meals program?

If you're needy and registered to vote in Mexico, now is the time to improve your lot. It's election season, and in poor communities all over the country the three big political parties are dispensing campaign largess, with the hope or understanding that recipients will return the favor at the ballot box July 2.

Scores of senior citizens gathered under a tent in the main plaza of this Mexico City suburb in the second week of June to sign up for a new $70 monthly food subsidy. Each of them was handed a registration number stapled to a flier for presidential hopeful Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Along the Pacific coast in Oaxaca state, blankets, mattresses and other relief supplies authorized last October after Hurricane Stan are emerging belatedly from warehouses, residents say, and being offered to voters on behalf of rival candidate Roberto Madrazo.

Truckloads of building materials are on the move in several states, much of them channeled from a federal anti-poverty program to the ruling National Action Party to be doled out on behalf of its nominee, Felipe Calderon.

Six years after a landmark election ended decades of single-party rule, the deposed regime's art of courting voters with giveaways has proliferated across the political spectrum, challenging a young democracy that has moved halfheartedly to halt the practice.

Now the first election of the new pluralist era, a tight race between the pro-business Calderon and left-wing populist Lopez Obrador, could be decided as much by payoffs - or pressure to cut them off - as by proposals.

Mexican law bans soliciting or attempting to coerce votes in exchange for cash or material benefits more valuable than the hats and T-shirts routinely handed out at campaign rallies. That makes it illegal for political parties to take over the distribution of food subsidies, disaster relief or other government benefits during an election campaign.

Electoral authorities are investigating such giveaways but have little power to stop them, and each party quietly defends the practice on the ground that others get away with it.

"No party wants to put a stop to vote-buying," said Alfredo Fuentes, an election official in Oaxaca. "It is so much easier to try to buy the votes of illiterate peasants than to educate them about political platforms."

As a result, Mexican campaigns include medical checkups, sewing machines, haircuts, school supplies, life insurance policies, amusement park rides, bank loans, food baskets and, when nothing else will do, cash.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had monopolized federal power since 1929, resorted to such come-ons in the late 1980s, when opposition parties began mounting serious challenges. Vicente V. Fox complained during his successful run for the presidency in 2000 that his PRI rival was buying votes "in plain view of everyone."

Once in power, Fox's party began imitating its rivals and ignoring the law. Today all three main parties lead state and municipal governments and raid their treasuries to woo needy voters.

Presidential campaigns are also running roughshod over a ban on the flip side of giveaways - coercion of voters. The most common form is to summon beneficiaries of a welfare program and warn them that if they fail to vote a certain way, the benefits will cease.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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