Standoff At The Zocalo

Five weeks ago, the conservative PAN candidate Felipe Calderon was reported to be the winner of Mexico’s presidential elections by 243 thousand votes, a slim victory of just 0.58 percent in this country of over 100 million.
Leftist PRD candidate Andrés Manual Lopez Obrador has refused to accept the results, labelling the election a fraud. The country is now on edge as everyone waits for the Electoral Tribunal to rule whether the election was fair or whether the election will be annulled.

The results are expected any day…

FRIDAY 25TH AUGUST, MEXICO CITY: Four weeks ago, two million supporters of the leftist presidential candidate Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador protested in the Zocalo, the historic plaza at the centre of Mexico City. The surrounding streets were jam-packed as the crowd called for a total recount of all votes cast in the recent presidential elections.  “Voto por voto, cassilla por cassilla! They chanted, ‘Vote by vote, polling station by polling station! Obrador asked his supporters to stay and resist… and they’ve been camping here ever since.

When I arrived in Mexico City two and a half weeks ago, thousands of Mexicans had already spent ten nights camped out on the streets in support of the man they believe had the election stolen from him.

Looking out across the Zocalo, it’s a sea of tents. Each houses the base camp of different Mexican states: Oaxaca, Tabasco, Gurrero and Chihuahua, just to name a few. People have come from all over the country. Walking through this tent city, soccer games are underway, there’s a free medical service, a rough hairdressing salon and the smell of delicious stews bubbling away in makeshift kitchens.

Inside Guerrero state tent, a dance floor has been cleared among the tents and mattresses. The music is blaring as the crowd stamps their feets and claps along with the old couple performing the state’s traditional dance.

The camps also stretch twelve kilometres up Mexico’s City’s main roads, Avenida Juarez, Reforma and Madero. Obrador’s supporters sleep defiantly outside some of the cities largest business headquarters and fanciest hotels. I see someone’s underwear drying on the roof of a tent right outside The Sheraton.

Among the stalls here you can buy Lopez Obrador T-shirts, hats, bandanas, dolls, portrait photos, coffee mugs, posters or a CD collection of Obrador speeches. If you don’t want to hand over fifty cents for a copy of the DVD of Obrador’s life, ‘Quien es Senor Lopez?’ then just settle into a plastic chair in one of the many viewing stations that can be found roughly every three hundred metres. There are four separate volumes of the film to be seen and they roll continuously in these improvised cinemas; middle age women with handbags sit transfixed next to elderly men in cowboy hats.

Wandering through the camps, you can see how this protest movement has exposed the deep class divide that exists here in Mexico. Obrador’s support base is largely made up of lower class and indigenous Mexicans and they view him as a saviour, the only contemporary figure willing to fight against the corruption of the ruling class. Obrador’s supporters feel like he’s given them a voice and they’re now here to be heard. “If we don’t eliminate hunger, we’re going to a have fatal unimaginable disaster,” a young Indian man from Oaxaca tells me. “There’s alot of blood that’s going to run if we don’t change this country’s economic polices.”

As former Mayor of Mexico City, Obrador proved his social credentials with pensions and public housing programs. He would have been Mexico’s first democratically elected left wing president whilst his rival, Felipe Calderon, is from the same pro business, right wing PAN party as the current President Vicente Fox. Obrador is convinced Mexico’s powerful worked together in what he sees as a conspiracy to keep him out of office.  “We defend a project that disturbs the powerful,” he explained to me inside his tent office in the Zocalo.

 “We have the fourth highest number of millionaires in the world, in Mexico. That would be ok, if there wasn’t so much poverty. But there are 50 million Mexicans that live in extreme poverty. So our project is in favour of humble people, poor people.”

Obrador believes the upper class was scared of losing their privileges if he came into power. ” That is why they don’t want us to govern the country. They resist a real change and that’s the bottom of it all,” he explains with a sad little smile. ” Because a lot of people who have accumulated wealth in this country have done it with the protection of the government.”

Each night at seven the faithful gather in front of the stage at the Zocalo to hear the man himself. On my first night, the crowd of thousands waits patiently in the rain. Obrador appears and waves to the masses, ‘ Presidente!’ they scream, Presidente!’ He is a charismatic speaker, speaking slowly and forcefully. “We’re not going to allow an imposition,” Obrador declares to the crowd. “No, we’re not going to allow a bastard President.  Illegal and illegitimate!” “Fraude! Fraude!” the crowd chants back, “You’re not alone!”

A PRD official comes out with a large poster filled with numbers. He explains to the crowd a supposed difference in tally results, which the party believes is evidence of fraudulent numbers that took votes away from Obrador.  “When we reviewed this document we found out that they only gave 59 votes to our candidate Lopez Obrador, he says pointing at the numbers, “They took away from us 159 votes.” The crowd yells no and moans in disapproval.

I notice an elderly Indian couple at the front of the crowd. The husband is missing most of his front teeth and his clothes are ragged. There are tears in his eyes as he joins in the crowd’s chant, “Obrador! Obrador!” His wife looks at me and I can see that she is crying too, “The poor people of Mexico need Obrador!” she cries at me. The man next to her chimes in,  “The president is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Whether they want it or not!”

It’s certainly true that there was a deliberate campaign to stop Obrador from even being in the race. Last year, the government tried to put Obrador on trial, saying that as Mayor he broke the law when building a road to a public hospital. Mexico’s congress voted to remove his immunity to prosecution, but there was an incredible public display of support for Obrador as Mexicans saw though this thinly veiled attempt to prevent Obrador from running. President Fox’s government was forced to back down and the charges were dropped.

“I have had to confront for a long time, the harassment of President Fox and the federal government,” says Obrador to me. “You can say that in politics that’s the way it is. What is not fair is for them to use the government, the resources of the government, and the relations of the government with television, to harm an adversary. That is not only immoral, it’s also illegal.” 
Here in Mexico, non-political parties are not legally allowed to ‘interfere’ in the electoral process. Therefore, they’re not supposed to run campaign style ads. But the business federation was allowed to get away with a highly visible TV scare campaign against Obrador.

An unknown group also funded a widely run series of ads that compared Obrador to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in an attempt to scare voters. Intercut with pictures of the Venezuelan citizen’s army, a scared Mexican woman looks extremely anxious. “In Mexico you don’t need to die to have a future’, the voice over tells the audience, ” Just vote.” 

It’s also illegal in Mexico for the sitting President to intervene in the election in any way but President Fox frequently flouted the country’s election rules by supporting his party’s candidate Calderon. It was also revealed that PAN used the country’s electoral database for political purposes, an illegal act to which they have already admitted.

Obrador’s camp received a small victory three weeks ago when Mexico’s electoral tribunal ruled that 9% of polling stations had to be recounted due to irregularities. Recounts at one local polling stations consisted of armed soldiers in all four corners of the room, as representatives from all the political parties observed officials recounting each vote.  The representative of Obrador’s coalition, Agustin Guerrero, compared some new results to the previous ones, “The tally results say 70 % but its actually 76.68 %,” he says. Outside in the hall he tells me that in this district there was a difference to the PRD of thirty votes that were not previously counted.

Apart from differing tally results, one of the concerns in this election was the high number of votes ruled invalid. An incredible 904,000 votes weren’t counted in an election supposedly won by a margin of only 243,000. Some Mexican newspapers have also published photos of dumped ballots boxes.

The PRD also insists that a large number of people that went to vote on Election Day found that their names weren’t on the electoral roll. Indeed, that afternoon after the recount I met Maria de Jesus who was a polling station observer in the Mexico City district of Iztapalapa. “Seven Obrador supporter’s weren’t able to vote because they weren’t on the list,” she told me. 

Part of Obrador’s supporter’s protest tactics has been to take over public and private utilities across the country; tollbooths have been occupied and banks blocked.   The next morning I hear that they’ve blockaded all the entrances to the Tax Department. The building is strewn with banners and the homemade signs are out; “Vote by Vote,’ they chant, continuing their call for a recount, “polling station by polling station!” 

Standing in the middle of the traffic island, is Antonio Flores from Tabasco.  He’s gotten hold of a megaphone and is yelling out to the annoyed people in suits stuck in the park across the road. ” So comrades, workers of the tax department, we apologise because today you can’t go to your workplace. In the name of the people of Mexico, today we give you a day off!” He turns to me and tells me they’re not going to give in. ” I think that the tough Mexico has awaken,” he says, “And be careful… it’s going to explode.”

I head across the road to see what the office workers think of Obrador and his stance. Dressed in a nice suit, is a man who won’t give me his name but who says he works at the department. He tells me that Obrador is trying to win on the streets what he couldn’t win at the ballot box.  “His path is ominous because normally he moves people that are ignorant in politics and in social conditions. They’re people of very little income, ” he says. 

An Obrador supporter sees me talking to the office workers, “People are against us because they have everything at home,” he says. “They don’t need anything. We are here because we have a need in my village. Do you understand, they pay 600 pesos Monday to Saturday, from eight am til six pm, 600 pesos!” the man exclaims, “That’s why we are here!”

Obrador’s and his party have accused the Federal Election Institute of helping to fix the results.  I head over to the PRD party headquarters to speak with Claudia Sheinbaum, Obrador’s chief campaign manager. I’m shown to a room where around thirty people on computers and phones are busily typing numbers into a computer system. They’re receiving information from recount locations from all around Mexico.

Claudia accuses the Electoral Institute of giving extra ballot papers to Calderon’s party.  “What happened is that IFE, the federal institute, gives some ballots to PAN and the PAN fill out those ballots outside those polls,” she told me. ” And then some people when they came to vote didn’t put only one ballot but two or three or four. So at the end there is some votes that do not relate to people that vote.”

It’s true that there are an unusually high number of votes in some ballot boxes. According to the Electoral Institute’s own figures, there were 267 ballot boxes that exceeded the proscribed limit of 750 votes. The PRD’s confidence in the Electoral Institute isn’t helped by the fact that PAN candidate Felipe Calderon was the best man at the President of the Electoral Institute’s wedding.

I went along to a PAN Party press conference to hear their response to the PRD’s claims. “We know they will declare the president elect to be Felipe Calderon,” assured PAN party spokesman Cesar Nava. “We said it at the beginning in 98% of the cases the conclusion is that the count done on the 2d of July is correct.”

But with the winning margin of only 0.6 %, a 2 % error margin is not as small as it seems.  PAN continues to refuse a total recount and it begs the question, why don’t they want to count the ballots if they are so sure they won fairly and squarely. I ask the PAN party spokesman Cesar Nava why not just have a recount to ensure a PAN government’s legitimacy? “No, there are not irregularities,” he replied, “There are some arithmetic mistakes which have been cured by this recount. So there is no fraud. There is no evidence of any fraud in one single poll. We are very, very confident of the final result before the electoral court.”

PAN has claimed that the elections were clean because of the presence of international election observers. However, the 673 election observers only oversaw a fraction of the country’s 130 thousand polling stations and one of the international observer groups, Global Exchange, has documented possible cases of vote-buying by the PAN and PRI political parties, illegal confiscations of voter ID cards and ballot shortages at certain polling stations.

So why is the majority of the press repeating that the presence of international observers ensured that the election was clean and fair? “It was the electoral tribunal itself that put out that press release about the observer’s,” Global Exchange President Ted Lewis told me.  “We were really annoyed with them when they did that. And about two thirds of the other observers were diplomats who are not allowed to make public comments.”

There’s also an interesting theory that has emerged concerning the timing of results as announced by the Federal Electoral Institute.  Victor Romero is a Doctor of physics who specialises in statistics and randomness at the National University of Mexico. He studied the electoral commission computer results closely and he believes there is strong evidence of interference.

Dr Romero explained to me a very unusual statistical pattern he noticed with the PRD vote as the tallies came into towards the end. “The PRD was winning and then suddenly at about 70% they start losing and never even gained .01 of a percentage,” he explained.  It seems incredible that as the last 30% of results came in, the PRD share of votes never increased. “It could be like this and then like that,” Dr Romero explains, moving his hands up and down, “More of one party and less than another. But not in order. The order here is completely unexplainable.”

This physics specialist is talking about something a lot more sinister than stuffing ballots. “There is a possibility statistically speaking, very strong, that there was an interference with the computer system of the IFE that made the counting of the votes,” Dr Romero concludes.  

Once again, public perception isn’t helped by the fact that Calderon’s brother in law has a contract for computer management systems at the electoral commission. Dr Romero’s work and similar studies by others have gained quite a following on the Internet but remain largely ignored by the mainstream Mexican media.

The national Mexican Television networks, Televisa and TV Azteca seem to have an unusual penchant for in-depth reporting of weather conditions rather than disputed presidential elections. The left wing newspaper La Jornada is one of the only outlets that regularly publishes and investigates PRD’s claims of fraud.

I asked Obrador why the Mexican Television was like this? He laughed out loud at my question. “It’s because they are a part of the group that dominates the country. They don’t want for a change to happen,” he said, ” The media is very powerful. Behind the media are the owners of the media. They’re the richest men in Mexico.”

One night as I’m walking through the press area an Obrador supporter on the other side of the barrier spots my press pass and starts pleading with me. “Please, we ask you to tell the truth!” begs the man, “that’s what the people want!” He turns to the crowd that has formed around us. “Do you want the truth?  He asks them, ” Yes!” they shout, and they begin to chant, “The truth! The truth! The truth!”

Over the next few days the situation continues to be tense as the recount is completed and the wait for the results begins. Obrador continues to stick to his position and only increases the pressure at his weekly Sunday morning information address. “With all certainty we can say that we are prepared to resist however long it takes. We could be here for years if the situation requires it!” Obrador declares.

He calls on his supporters to block President Fox’s national address to congress that’s scheduled to take place on the 1st of September and also threatens to remain in the Zocalo when the army is scheduled to march through on September 16th, Mexican Independence day. “In one way or another the year 2006 will become a reference in our national history,” he advises warningly. 

Heeding Obrador’s call, the next morning hundreds of PRD supporters descend on the National congress to set up a new camp right outside the main entrance. Swarms of Federal armed police descend and the group becomes trapped. I was standing with around 500 Obrador supporters who were trying to break through the police band to help their friends set up camp in the middle, ‘We have courage, we’re with Obrador!” they cry.  

Suddenly, in the distance, we see the federal police move to break up the camp out the front of congress. Later that night on the news I can see how violent it became, as police and Obrador supporters go at each other. The police fired smoke bombs and hit at people with their batons. A PRD deputy had his forehead split while another suffered a fractured rib.

The potential for the situation to turn violent has clearly shocked people. The intensity of the moment is seen in the words PRD deputy Emilio Serrano offers to the gathered crowd, “We are willing to die for the cause for independence!’ he yells, “For freedom and democracy in Mexico! In 1968 the students were willing to die and the Mexican army massacred them. We are also willing to die!” he says looking back at the police line, “we will die on the line, don’t you think so comrades?” ‘Yes!’ yells back the crowd.

Later I asked Obrador if he is worried that his actions have isolated some of his supporters. He paused before answering, “Yes, but it’s the price that I have to pay because these measures are well seen by a many people. It’s the only way we have to make them listen.”

The morning after the clashes, police water tanks are deployed in the streets surrounding the Congress building and hundreds of federal police patrol the streets.

I asked Obrador how this movement would be remembered in Mexico’s history.  “Mexicans are no longer willing to accept the humiliation and fraud,” he replies. “The country has to change because from this movement, transformations are beginning to be born. The guys in power are going to see themselves forced to change some things. They’re no longer going to be able to keep on doing things the same way in this country,” he tells me firmly.

Mexico City is on edge as everybody waits for the Electoral Tribunal to announce its decision. It remains to be seen where this new movement is going but it seems that whatever happens, Mexico will be very unstable and divided in the near future.

TV reporter Sophie McNeill has been in Mexico City for the last two and a half weeks. Her TV report (which includes the first television interview with Lopez Obrador since he’s been in the Zocalo) will be broadcast on Wednesday the 30th at 8.30 pm on SBS Dateline Australia. A QuickTime version will be available on after that date.

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