Mexico: Prospects and Limitations of AMLO’s Election Challenge; Polarization on the Rise


On July 7th, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) published the results of the final district-by-district count for the presidential election. According to this final count, which included vote-by-vote recounts of over 50% of voting centers, PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto (EPN) won 38.21% of the vote, PRD candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) 31.59%, and PAN candidate 25.41%. These figures closely reflect the results of the Preliminary Election Results Program (PREP).

Challenging the Election Results

Ahead of the July 7th official announcement, AMLO announced he would challenge the presidential election results, citing instances of ballot tampering, voter coercion, and foul play by outside interests. The PRD candidate maintains that the PRI coopted roughly five million votes through means including exceeding campaign-spending limits, giving out grocery vouchers or cash in exchange for votes, coercing the votes of public employees in PRI-governed states, and collaborating with the media conglomerate Televisa to unfairly promote EPN.

Some of the more immediate allegations, particularly that the PRI exchanged grocery vouchers for votes in the State of Mexico, could serve as sufficient evidence to recount or even nullify certain election results in specific municipalities (the IFE has already recounted ballots where anomalies where denounced). Even still, the accusations do not provide sufficient grounds for nullifying the general election. AMLO would need to overcome a 3.5 million-vote deficit to actually change the results in his favor, something that is simply not feasible.

AMLO’s more general accusations, such as the biased coverage by Televisa—the country’s largest and most powerful media conglomerate, will be extremely difficult to prove or use as grounds for nullifying an election. In Mexico, media journalists and commentators are free to express their political opinions, as is the case with Fox News’ known biased for conservative politics.

Fanning the Flames

Although AMLO has stated that he will strictly work within the law, the leftist leader and his team of political operators have covertly encouraged the YoSoy132 student movement and other non-affiliated student groups to take more radical action on the street and raise controversy about the election results. These groups already held a series of peaceful but disruptive marches primarily in Mexico City, protesting what they deem to be electoral fraud and the forced imposition of the PRI candidate by the country’s interests groups. In the capital, student groups have joined the protests and have already set up camp outside the IFE’s headquarters.

AMLO’s decision to fan the flames of the student movement is a sly political move aimed at delegitimizing the electoral process and EPN’s victory while keeping his own hands clean. AMLO understands that his party will not support him if he decides to take his challenge to the streets himself, so he has channeled that energy into the student groups, which can claim they are acting independently.

Possibility of a Full Recount

As part of its own rules governing the district-by-district count, the IFE did vote-by-vote recounts of 78,012 voting packages from over half of all the voting centers nationwide. These automatic recounts were done in cases where irregularities were detected and where the margin of victory was smaller than the number of nullified votes. Despite the fact that the recounts were carried out publicly and in front of representatives of all parties, AMLO still wants a complete recount and nullification of the results.

The IFE, which originally defended AMLO’s right to challenge the results through legal means, has grown increasingly fed up with his rhetoric. Last week, the agency’s chairman said that by not acknowledging the election results, AMLO was breaking the law as well as the civility pact he signed before the election. At the same time, the IFE has placed pressure on the PRI to respond to the PRD’s voter fraud allegations and has not ruled out the possibility of a full recount.

Meanwhile, the PRI has stated it does not object a full recount of the votes, provided that the order comes from the Federal Electoral Tribunal (TEPJF). The TEPJF has the final say in electoral decisions and will determine the fate of AMLO’s requests.


Many of AMLO’s arguments may hold certain levels of validity, yet legally most of them are not enough to justify a total recount—much less a nullification of the elections. Even in the most poignant cases involving a party exchanging money or goods for votes, it is impossible to assure that the voter actually cast a vote for the party. Even if political operators force voters to prove their vote by taking a cellphone picture of the ballot—reportedly a common practice—voters have the option of cancelling the vote after marking the ballot and taking the picture.

Furthermore, although the PRI may be the most effective party at “manipulating” votes, it is by no means the only party that engages in such practices. Similarly, it cannot be proved that fraudulent practices were a central party policy for winning the elections. Voters from around Mexico City area have reported similar behavior from PRD officials. Some residents even reported being threatened with eviction from their public housing if they did not vote for the PRD.

Reactions To AMLO’s Demands

Many within the media agree with Lopez Obrador’s statements regarding the electoral process’s inequitable conditions, yet only a few journalists approve of AMLO’s calls for a full vote recount and nullification of the election results. Rather, many place the blame of the current situation on the country’s electoral laws, which does not allow for a second-round vote.

[So far] Enrique Peña Nieto has remained relatively quiet, letting other PRI leaders respond to the attacks. While these party officials have welcomed the prospect of a full recount if the TEPJF orders it, they have also begun preparing a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) against AMLO for trying to build a false case against the PRI.

PAN Joins the Fray

The PAN candidate, who conceded the race early on election night and accepted the legitimacy of the election results, has recently joined the fray, stating that the race was unequal. Although PAN officials have not called for a full recount on the same scale as the PRD, they are now requesting that the IFE review the PRI campaign’s finances to determine whether it exceeded its spending limits. Although the PAN stands little to gain from a recount in terms of electoral seats, it seems determined to push the issue further in order to exert pressure on the PRI and increase its bargaining power with the incoming Peña Nieto administration.

PRD Officials Treading Carefully

Interestingly, although the PRD leader Jesus Zambrano has taken a more vocal role supporting AMLO’s demands, the majority of high-ranking PRD officials have remained noticeably quiet in recent days, a clear sign that they are not willing to get caught in the same post-electoral controversy that followed the 2006 election. At the same time, Zambrano has reassured the public that the PRD will act within the boundaries of legality.

Outlook/The Road Ahead

Although the IFE has not ruled definitively on the matter, we do not believe that electoral authorities will acquiesce to AMLO’s request for a nationwide recount, especially because the recount itself might not satiate the PRD candidate’s demands. Some electoral observers have also noted that a recount or even a re-vote in certain areas could end up hurting the PRD instead of benefiting it as it already happened in some of the recent recounts (all major parties did partake in illegal voting practices).

Given the PRD candidate’s relentlessness, the IFE may soon pass the buck to the PGR’s Special Unit on Electoral Crimes (FEPADE) or the TEPJF. The FEPADE is in charge of investigating reports of voting crimes. Meanwhile, the TEPJF could decide whether there are sufficient grounds to delay the official announcement of the election winner. The current deadline is set for September 6th.
Overall, we do not foresee AMLO’s demands having a meaningful effect on electoral results, even if electoral authorities end up nullifying hundreds of thousands of votes. An important factor is the position recently taken by the various civic organizations that acted as independent observers at voting stations throughout the country on election day. These organizations stated that although vote buying and voter coercion are still persistent, mostly in very in poor areas, they were not pervasive enough to justify nullifying the election.

Ramifications: Polarization on the Horizon

The ongoing dispute of the Mexican presidency and the many allegations of fraud have already tarnished the electoral process and given way to a polarization of the national political climate. This polarization is much different from 2006, but could be equally destabilizing due to the emergence of new social movements and a growing anti-establishment sentiment.

Although many observers do not agree with AMLO’s request for the elections to be nullified, there is an increasing number of people who believe that the election process was not impartial and that electoral authorities need to somehow punish those responsible for this bias, including Televisa for its excessively positive coverage of the PRI candidate.

More important is the increasing involvement of students who support AMLO’s arguments and are taking more radical positions against EPN and electoral authorities. At this point, it is safe to say that EPN is now an unpopular figure among a large percentage of Mexico’s youth, something that could intensify in the near future.

Lopez Obrador Is Here to Stay

With every passing day, the chances of AMLO quietly exiting from Mexican politics—as he had earlier predicted—become more remote. Although it is premature to predict his next long-term move, recent developments confirm that he will remain an important voice in Mexican politics. With or without the support of the PRD, AMLO’s radical rhetoric is being backed by hundreds of thousands of youths, even though they call themselves independent.

This scenario is potentially bad news for the structural reform agenda, as AMLO will oppose reform efforts in the energy, labor and tax sectors. As on previous occasions, the PRI may hesitate pushing forward politically sensitive reforms in order to not empower AMLO’s leadership.

A Bright Side?

On the bright side, PAN and PRD politicians as well as academics are using the ongoing conflict to increase awareness about the need for comprehensive political reform. As noted above, the most urgent electoral component of such a reform is the creation of a two-round voting system—something that should have been done in the wake of the 2006 elections.

Another potentially positive development that could result from the ongoing dispute is a much more checked PRI presidency. For a long time now there have been concerns that the return of the PRI may result in increased corruption and limits to the democratic freedoms that have been cemented during the PAN era (i.e. increased freedom of the press, increased transparency, increased citizen participation, etc.).

2 Responses to "Mexico: Prospects and Limitations of AMLO’s Election Challenge; Polarization on the Rise"

  1. serpiente1984   July 15, 2012 at 12:54 am

    You are not a Mexican, so you obviously don't know a thing about what has been going on in Mexico for years and years, mexicans are tired of this PRI-PAN coalition and looting, we want our country back and we will have our country back even if the USA is supporting this thieves, we are Mexicans and we are tired of this bull…. The Mexican "democracy" is a FRAUD, a lie, here on Mexico streets we are doing your job. Journalism is over for you, tell the truth and get it back

  2. Marco Polo   August 20, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    The thing about the media here in Mexico, is they are all PRI/PAN writers. So , can you imagine the propaganda and lies that the Mexican people have to endure? I am an American, that is supportive of the AMLO fight, and this time the courts will have to do their jobs and no more PAYOFFS for the Peña Nieto train….it stops here in DF!
    GO PEJE!