DHAKA: Political reforms in Mexico have made it much harder to steal an election, officials say. But a lot of people think you can still buy one.
As voters go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president, allegations are flying that candidates are offering money and swag, flouting campaign-spending limits in the process.
Most allegations are aimed at the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which polls say holds a sizeable lead after being ousted from the top office by voters 12 years ago.
According to pre-vote surveys, the PRI`s Enrique Pena Nieto will coast to victory, with hundreds of local candidates riding his coattails.
The PRI held on to Mexico`s presidency for 71 years, using vote-buying and other kinds of fraud when deemed necessary, until it was defeated in 2000 by the National Action Party, or PAN.
The PRI claims to have changed, and political reforms instituted since 1988 have made Mexican elections far harder to steal.
But in the latest contest, the PAN accused Pena Nieto`s campaign of acquiring about 9,500 pre-paid gift cards worth nearly $5.2m to give away for votes.
Pena Nieto has also been dogged by allegations that he overspent his $330m campaign funding limit and bought favourable coverage from Mexico`s television giant, Televisa.
With a double-digit lead in most polls, Pena Nieto has seldom felt the need to respond to the attacks.
``We are going to win with your vote, with your free participation, nothing coerced or conditioned,`` he told a crowd last week at a closing rally in southern Chiapas state.
But the election fraud unit of Mexico`s attorney general`s office says that since the campaign officially began March 30 it has opened investigations into 542 complaints that voters were bought off or coerced to vote for a certain candidate.
"In a country so poor, with so much inequality, there are undoubtedly forces that will try to take advantage of that,`` said Ricardo Becerra, co-ordinator of the institute`s election advisers.
At least three groups have set up sophisticated websites where citizens can upload complaints and videos or other material to document irregularities.
There are also social media sites for reporting alleged fraud in real time, something unthinkable in the 2006 contest, when Twitter was a few months old.
"Six years ago we didn`t have the have the tools we have now,`` said Carlos Gershenson, a leader of the Contamos election watchdog group.
On Sunday, Mexico`s more than 79 million voters will elect a president, who serves one six-year term, as well as 500 congressional deputies and 128 senators. There are governors` races in six of Mexico`s 31 states, plus Mexico City, as well hundreds of local offices up for grabs.
For president, voters will choose among Pena Nieto and his chief rivals: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party; Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party and Gabriel Quadri of the New Alliance.
Becerra said ballot fraud is "materially impossible" because 92 per cent of the 143,151 polling stations nationwide will have registered representatives from all three major parties.
At the start of the day, all three must sign off on the ballots, ensuring they are blank. At the end of the day, the marked ballots will be counted again and stamped at the polling place, so counterfeits cannot be brought in.
There will also be about 700 international observers, the largest contingent from the Organization of American States. But that`s down from more than 900 in the 1994 and 2000 elections, when Mexico`s emerging democracy was under much more pressure.
Voter fraud was a well-practiced tradition under PRI rule, including the delivery of ballot boxes to polling stations with the votes already marked.
This time, the PRI, as well as PRD and PAN, have been accused of giving out gift cards and groceries to garner votes. Technically, parties are allowed to give away anything they want, as long as they report the expense, do not exceed spending limits and do not make people feel the gift is payment for their vote.
BDST: 1005 HRS, JULY 1, 2012
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