The Great Mexican Standoff

REPORTER: Sophie McNeill

It may look like these Mexicans have something to celebrate, but they’re meant to be on the losing side of recent presidential elections.

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Five weeks ago their candidate, leftist Lopez Obrador, apparently lost to the conservative nominee Felipe Calderon. Calderon was declared the winner of the presidential elections by 243,000 votes, a slim victory of just 0.58% in this country of over 100 million. But Lopez Obrador and his supporters refuse to accept the result, labelling the election a fraud.

LOPEZ OBRADOR (Translation): We will not allow the imposition. We will not accept an illegitimate government and a bogus president!

MAN (Translation): The President is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, whether they want it or not. The people have the last word. The people chose him.

Last month, 2.1 million of Obrador’s supporters protested in the Zocalo, the plaza at the centre of Mexico City. He asked them to stay and resist, and they have been here ever since.

WOMAN (Translation): This is where my comrade and me sleep. We sleep here.

They’ve also taken over a 12km stretch of the capital’s main roads.

CROWD (Translation): We shall not be moved. No! No! We shall not be moved.

This extraordinary 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, 50 million of whom live on less than $5 a day.

MAN (Translation): If we don’t eliminate hunger, the chaos will be horrendous, unimaginable. There will be a lot of bloodshed if economic policy isn’t changed.

LOPEZ OBRADOR (Translation): Mexico is a country with gross social and economic disparities.

I caught up with Obrador inside his tent office in the Zocalo.

LOPEZ OBRADOR (Translation): We have the world’s fourth highest number of multimillionaires. Many of those who have accumulated wealth have done it with the protection of this government.

As the former mayor of Mexico City, Obrador introduced popular social reforms such as pensions and public housing programs. His supporters see him as the first politician to stand up for them against the country’s largely Spanish-descended ruling class. For many, he’s seen as a messiah.

BOY (Translation): What do I like about Lopez Obrador? He gives us food, he helps poor people, he even gives toys away.

For several weeks now, Obrador’s supporters have been taking over public and private buildings across the country. Today their target is the office of the tax department where they’re blocking all entrances.

PROTESTOR (Translation): In the name of the people of Mexico today we give you the day off.

But across the road, the tax department employees aren’t thrilled. These middle-class office workers are no fans of Obrador or his supporters.

MAN (Translation): Lopez Obrador’s path has been disastrous because he appeals to people who are ignorant of politics and of social conditions. They’re people with very little income so they support him hoping to improve their situation.

AD (Translation): You can’t trust him. Lopez Obrador – a danger to Mexico.

The ruling elite has done everything it can to stop Obrador. Both his rival, Felipe Calderon, and the current President, Vicente Fox, come from the pro-business, right-wing PAN party. The government tried to put Obrador on trial last year, saying that as mayor he broke the law when building a road to a public hospital. But an incredible display of support for Obrador saw the charges dropped.

REPORTER: Why are you convinced there was a deliberate attempt to keep you out of office?

LOPEZ OBRADOR (Translation): Because we defend a project that… a project that disturbs the powerful. Our project has more to do with the needs of humble people, the needs of the poor.

Before the election, the business federation ran a major campaign against Obrador.

AD (Translation): To gamble on anything different would be to go backwards. Let’s defend our achievements.

Obrador’s opponents also compared him to Venezuela’s radical President Hugo Chavez in an attempt to scare voters.

AD (Translation): You don’t need weapons to defend your ideas in Mexico. All you have to do is vote.

And in defiance of Mexico’s strict election rules, President Fox frequently intervened to support the ruling party’s candidate.

LOPEZ OBRADOR (Translation): What’s unacceptable is the use of the government, the government’s resources, the government’s relations with television, to harm an adversary. That’s not only immoral, it’s also illegal.

Obrador and his supporters are demanding a total recount of the votes. They believe this will prove their allegations of fraud. While this call has been rejected, three weeks ago Mexico’s electoral tribunal ruled that votes in 9% of polling stations had to be recounted due to irregularities. On one of my first mornings in Mexico, I went along to one of the recounts.

AUGUSTIN GUERRERO (Translation): The tally results say 70%. But it’s actually 76.68%.

Augustin Guerrero was elected as a member of Obrador’s PRD party. He says the recount has uncovered extra votes for his candidate.

AUGUSTIN GUERRERO (Translation): In this district, there is a difference of 30 votes in our favour. Those weren’t counted for Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Obrador’s PRD is concerned about the many votes that have been ruled invalid. 900,000 votes weren’t counted in this election supposedly won by a margin of only 243,000. The PRD also accuses the Federal Election Institute of providing extra ballot papers to its rival, and it’s true that there were an unusually high number of votes found in some ballot boxes. Public confidence in the electoral institute isn’t helped by the fact that when its president, Luis Carlos Ugalde, was married, his best man was none other than right-wing candidate Felipe Calderon.

LOPEZ OBRADOR (Translation): The judge, the adjudicators of this electoral process from the beginning have been in favour of our opponents.

The ruling PAN party is confident that the recount will confirm its victory, according to representative Herman Cazares.

HERMAN CAZARES (Translation): This will have legal consequences, including declaring the president-elect to be Felipe Calderon.

PAN claims the election was clean because of the presence of international observers. But observers only oversaw a tiny fraction of the country’s polling stations. And the one group of observers to speak publicly about what it saw, the NGO Global Exchange, reported possible cases of vote-buying and other irregularities.

CESAR NAVA, PAN SPOKESMAN: There are not irregularities. There are some arithmetic mistakes which have been cured by this partial recount these last days. So there is no fraud. There is no evidence of any fraud in one single poll.

But Victor Romero, a doctor of physics at the national university is not so sure. He’s a specialist in statistics, and after studying the electoral institute’s computer results he believes there is strong evidence of interference which hurt Obrador’s

DR VICTOR ROMERO, STATISTICIAN: The PRD was winning and suddenly, at about 70%, they start losing and never even gain .01%.

As the last 30% of results came in, the PRD share of votes never increased – something Romero says is statistically almost impossible.

DR VICTOR ROMERO: It could be like this then like that and then like this and then like that, you know? More of one party and less of the other. But not in order. The order here is completely unexplainable.

Dr Romero is talking about something a lot more sinister than stuffing ballots.

VICTOR ROMERO: 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.

In fact, IFE, the electoral institute, buys its computer programs from Calderon’s brother-in-law, Diego Zavala. As the days go by, and the protesters continue their vigil, the situation in the capital becomes increasingly tense.

CROWD(Translation): The people united will never be defeated!

Everybody is waiting for the results of the recount. And Obrador is raising the stakes.

LOPEZ OBRADOR (Translation): With all certainty we can say that we are prepared to resist, however long it takes. We could remain here for years, if that’s what the situation requires.

Obrador calls on his supporters to block President Fox’s national address to Congress on September 1. The following day, Obrador’s supporters descend on the National Congress. But hundreds of armed federal police have been deployed to prevent them from setting up camp.

MAN (Translation): We’re prepared to die for the cause, for independence, for freedom, for democracy in Mexico. We won’t step back!

In the distance, we can see the police break up the camp on the steps of Congress. Several PRD deputies and senators are seriously injured.

PRD SENATOR (Translation): Deputies and senators were hit. They threw tear gas at us as if we were criminals.

Felipe Calderon says the protests over the past four weeks have confirmed people’s suspicions of Obrador.

FELIPE CALDERON (Translation): The harm done to Mexicans in parts of Mexico City proves that the citizens not only counted the votes properly, but they also made the right decision on July 2 about who should be president.

REPORTER: Do you worry that some of your actions over the last few weeks have isolated some of your supporters?

LOPEZ OBRADOR (Translation): Yes, it’s the price that I have to pay because these measures are well seen by a lot people. But it’s the only way we have to make them listen.

GEORGE NEGUS: As we said, a genuine Mexican stand-off. But things could come to a head pretty soon with Mexico’s electoral court ruling yesterday that there was no fraud in the election. Meanwhile, the defiant Senor Obrador says he’s planning to form his own parallel government. In Mexico, they’re saying things haven’t been this tense since their revolution – and that was in 1910.

Reporter/Camera

SOPHIE MCNEILL

EditorS

NICK O’BRIEN

SIMON AMERY

Fixer / Translator

JORGE MELCHOR

Translation

MITSY FERRANT

Subtitling

DEMETRIO PADILLA

PILAR BALLESTEROS

Producer

AMOS COHEN

Additional footage courtesy of Luis Mandoki