The Recount

In early September we’ll learn how the Mexican government plans to paper over the controversial outcome of this summer’s presidential race. As I saw for myself, it won’t be easy.

September 2006By Comments

THE TELEPHONE RANG IN MY MEXICO CITY hotel room at about 10:30 p.m. on July 4. The caller was a young woman I’ve known since she was a child: Aleida Alavez, a city councilwoman representing the Partido de la Revolución Democratica (PRD), the party of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (or “AMLO,” as he’s known), the presidential candidate who’d lost the balloting by half a percentage point two days earlier and was now challenging the results of Mexico’s national election.

“You told me that if we send people into the field, you want to go,” she said. “Be at Mitla at eleven. Alejandro will pick you up. You’ll be going to Puebla.” Her call reminded me of those that must have gone out when American electoral processes went awry in Florida in 2000. But the Mexican contest was far more bitter than the tiff between George W. Bush and Al Gore. It was essentially a battle between the prosperous and the struggling—a class war.

Mexico has been a democracy, it is now generally conceded, only since 2000, when Vicente Fox was elected president. Before that, elections were noncontroversial, their winners known months ahead of time. All of them came from the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). Only once before, in 1988, had a candidate backed by the poor—Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, of what would become the PRD—challenged the country’s oligarchy, but that election, it is widely believed, had been stolen by Carlos Salinas, of the PRI. This year’s polls showed a divide like that of 1988, with blue-collar workers backing López Obrador and the PRD, white-collar workers split in their loyalties, and the moneyed classes lined up behind Felipe Calderón and the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN)—Fox’s party. Late polls had predicted a close finish. Militants from the PRD had vowed that, no matter the cost, they would not let an election be stolen again. On the night Aleida called, they were convinced that a steal was under way.

I knew that Mitla referred not to the Oaxacan town famous for its ruins but instead to the street where López Obrador’s party had one of its offices. But I assumed that by “Puebla,” Aleida meant the city some eighty miles southeast, home to Mexico’s Volkswagen plant. I was wrong. At Mitla I would begin a forty-hour trip that would reacquaint me with rural Mexico in the raw and teach me much about how Mexican politics works today.

I showered, threw my Dopp kit into a backpack, and, thinking I’d be gone only overnight, left the hotel.

The PRD office on Mitla Street is a three-story building that was a sixties mansion. A sliding metal door on its ground floor, a garage space, was half-open when I arrived. A clutch of about a dozen men and women who looked like white-collar workers and block-captain types was gathered around the desk of a uniformed guard.

“Are you going to Puebla with us?” someone asked me as I stepped inside.

“I am supposed to meet Alejandro,” I said, addressing the guard.

“Go upstairs,” he said.

The receptionist on the third floor, still on duty, motioned me into an office where a dozen more volunteers had gathered. They were standing, arms folded, watching a late-night TV show: Gray-haired but baby-faced AMLO, 52, was the guest.

Before the program was over, Alejandro Ojeda appeared, fresh from a PRD strategy meeting. The group split into two, both bound for Puebla, but Alejandro and I descended the stairs alone and got into his SUV. It was pitch-black outside.

I’d first met Alejandro ten years earlier, when he was a law student and Aleida’s suitor. The years had been kind to him. His limbs were thicker, and a little gray had come into his hair, but it’d done him good. Dressed in a buttoned-up cotton shirt and casual slacks, he had the look of a bronze crooner of syrupy love songs or of a suave, smooth-skinned movie star. He always smiled more than he talked, and he said almost nothing as we drove.

In another residential neighborhood, its curbs lined with cars, we came upon a stretch of sidewalk bathed in yellow light: a second house-turned-PRD-office. Six people were gathered outside. Inside, more than sixty volunteers, most of them in their thirties, were staring at computer screens placed on top of collapsible tables. A nine-year-old boy sat at one of the tables, playing a computer game. The plastered interior walls of the office were painted a pale yellow. Fluorescent lights, four feet long, were mounted in fixtures in the ceiling, their wires encased in conduit, as if the place had been rezoned for commercial use.

The volunteers were looking for irregularities in actas de escrutinio, or “voting tally reports,” by scrolling through the Web pages of the Instituto Federal de Elecciones. The IFE is a bureaucracy that was created in 1990, following the Cárdenas-Salinas election, to give credibility to the Mexican electoral process.

It was the IFE that had announced, at 11:00 p.m. on the night of the election, that the 2006 presidential race was too close to call. In his televised message to the nation, IFE president Luis Carlos Ugalde instructed the candidates not to make any declarations until the results had been announced. But within thirty minutes, both AMLO and Calderón had proclaimed victory anyway. Despite the nearly real-time flow of official data, the outcome wasn’t clear by early morning. The capital’s newspapers ran headlines like “Who?” “Wait!” and “Uncertainty Reigns.”

By mid-afternoon on July 3, the IFE’s Web site had pointed to a winner. With 98.45 percent of the vote reported, Calderón led by 1.04 percent. But by then, López Obrador, known to the masses as El Peje—after a garlike fish from his native state of Tabasco—had already lobbed his first grenade. The IFE’s calculations, he charged, were 3 million votes short; its numbers totaled only 39 million when, according to its own records, nearly 42 million Mexicans had voted.

That evening the IFE explained. Its spokesman, René Miranda, said that actas accounting for some 2.5 million votes had not been tabulated because they showed internal inconsistencies. In addition, the IFE had received no reports from some 2,017 polling places, or casillas, where an estimated 700,000 to 900,000 Mexicans had cast their ballots. The “inconsistent” tally sheets had been scanned onto an IFE Web site, but up until that point, no link had been provided. Number crunchers immediately scrutinized the inconsistent actas, sorted out the mathematical snarls, and came up with a new figure: Calderón still led, but by only .63 percent, or some 257,000 votes.

In announcing its too-close-to-call stance on election night, the IFE had also postponed confirming its figures until Wednesday, July 5, when its three hundred electoral districts would meet to canvass the tallies of Mexico’s some 130,000 casillas. Alejandro had driven to the PRD computer center to rendezvous with a team he had recruited to help local PRD leaders.

For more than two hours while we were at the office, Alejandro conferred by cell phone with various PRD superiors. Sometime well after midnight he was given a destination that was a particular trouble spot, a place where PRD supporters had reportedly been threatened during the campaign: Teziutlán, on the northeast edge of the state of Puebla, a farmers’ trade town in the verdant Sierra Madre Oriental. The birthplace of a onetime Mexican president, Manuel Avila Camacho, it had been the turf of the PRI, which ruled for 71 years, until Fox’s 2000 presidential win. Though the state of Puebla had voted for the PRD in the July 2 balloting, the Teziutlán region, like many other rural locales, had backed the PAN.

The volunteers seated at the computers in the yellow-walled office were mostly city and federal employees pulling an overnighter for the sake of the party that had given them their jobs. But one looked out of place. His thick and wavy hair was nearly shoulder length, and a wiry three-inch goatee stuck out from his chin. He was wearing a light suede jacket—Mexico City is chilly on summer nights and mornings—and beneath it an unbuttoned plaid flannel shirt, its tail hanging out. A T-shirt with a reggae design peeked through.

“He looks like a hippie,” I carped after Alejandro introduced me to Oscar. Alejandro explained in an apologetic way that Oscar had just returned to Mexico City after seven years as a traveler who earned bus- and airfares by juggling fireballs in plazas across Central and South America. “We’ve been friends since law school,” he explained. “He was a good lawyer.”

Ten minutes later, I was standing on the sidewalk with Oscar, waiting for the van that would take us to Teziutlán. With us stood Oscar’s girlfriend, a thin blonde named Cristina, whom he’d traveled with for six of his years on the road. A graduate of Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, she was a fire juggler herself. On this trip to Teziutlán, she was merely along for the ride.

Eight of us climbed into a dark-blue van, which had four school bus—style passenger benches. In the front seats sat our drivers, Amado and Gaspar, both balding young men who, like Alejandro, were natives of Iztapalapa, a thoroughly working-class district on the eastern side of Mexico City. Alejandro claimed the seat behind them and promptly fell asleep; Cristina and Oscar took the seat behind him. I found myself sitting on the aisle side of the third bench with Gerardo, a handsome thirty-ish college student who was paging through a history text. Rodrigo, an activist in a black T-shirt, took the bench behind us.

Though Cristina also promptly nodded off, the rest of us chattered excitedly as we got on the road. Gerardo complained that we were being sent on a fool’s mission: to persuade local IFE authorities to recount votes, one by one. We would accomplish nothing, he predicted, because the IFE had already ordered its employees not to recount ballots except where the election code explicitly required it.

Oscar wasn’t buying that. He had turned on the van’s dome light and was flipping through the Código Federal de Istituciones y Procedimientos Electorales, trying to refresh his memory. Section B of Article 247 provides for a recount “if the results of the actas do not coincide, or if obvious alterations of the actas that generate fundamental doubt about the result of the election in the casilla would be detected, or if the acta would not be found in the files of the casilla nor in the possession of the president of the district council.” The language was thick, but to Oscar it said that if the PRD crew found mathematical errors in the tallies, or if the tallies themselves were missing, a recount would have to take place.

ABOUT 7:30 A.M., having nodded fitfully in my seat throughout the night, I fully awakened. We were passing over green hills with steep sides. Girls and boys in school uniforms walked down the narrow shoulder of the road, heading into Teziutlán, as we were. Later that day I learned that Teziutlán has a cathedral with a tiled dome and an indoor market—not a Wal-Mart—two blocks in size. It’s the kind of town where parakeets tell fortunes from their cages and men move vegetables down the streets in carts. On its main street, a physician had hung his sign: “Dr. William,” it read, as if Anglo-Saxon ancestry were a medical specialty of some kind. Because of its altitude, Teziutlán is cool even on July afternoons. The place reminded me of Saltillo forty years ago, before auto plants changed it into an industrial town.

At 7:50 we pulled alongside the curb across from our destination, the district office of the IFE. A soldier was pacing the roofline, two stories up. At the door, we were met by two policemen in black uniforms bearing stainless-steel shotguns. Upstairs more soldiers were in view, M16’s strapped to their shoulders. It was clear that whatever transpired, the revolution wasn’t going to happen that day.

In a room with high ceilings, suited men and women—the chairman and six members of the district’s electoral committee—were taking their places at desks arranged in the form of a U. A computer-linked projector sat in the opening of the U, and a large portable screen was at the other end. Between the IFE committee and the projector, the representatives of three political parties—the PAN, the PRI, and the PRD—were settling in. Alejandro slipped over to introduce himself to the local PRD rep, a balding, middle-aged man in a leather jacket. The rest of us bunched in the aisle. Standing with us were more than a dozen people we didn’t know, most of whom turned out to be local PRD volunteers. They were standing because the six chairs reserved for a public audience were already taken.

The IFE building had also once been a nineteenth-century home, built around a courtyard. Its offices, formerly bedrooms, stood along the margins of the open space, sides to a square. Ballot boxes were stored in a room guarded by soldiers on an opposite side of the building. When the IFE chairman tugged at his tie and called for the report from the first of the 373 casillas in his purview, a young man in a jogging suit went to that room and brought out a box made of corrugated white plastic and sealed with tape bearing the IFE’s name. On its sides, the box was marked with the name and number of the casilla whose records it contained and with the signatures of the officials who had sealed it shut.

An assistant who ran the projector flashed the casilla’s tally numbers onto the screen, and after the box was opened, the chairman recited the numbers from its acta into a microphone: the number of ballots cast for the candidates of each of the five political parties, the number of ballots nullified as unmarked or indecipherable, the total number of ballots cast. The figures on the acta and the screen were in agreement, and the math was correct in both the paper and the electronic report. The chairman called for acceptance of the report, and by a show of hands, the six members of his committee agreed.

The PRD, however, was just getting into gear. The local party representative gave Alejandro copies of the actas from the district. Someone went down the street to buy calculators, pens, and notepads. Oscar began looking for a place to work. After a few minutes he’d persuaded an IFE secretary in an adjoining room to give up a corner of her desk. Gerardo took a seat beside him, and the two began paging through the tabloid-size copies of the actas. Within half an hour, they made their first strike. They’d found an acta whose numbers didn’t make sense. The acta reported a tally of 34 votes cast for one candidate, but its sum indicated that he, or someone else, should have been credited with 100 more. Oscar dispatched the suspect acta with a note to Alejandro, who approached the local PRD representative, urging him in a whisper to challenge the casilla’s report when its number came up for call. Then he backed away and talked into his cell phone, consulting with the PRD in Mexico City.

When the casilla’s number came up, the local PRD representative asked the IFE committee to open the white box and recount its ballots. In no other way, he said, could the acta’s numbers be reconciled. He cited Section B of Article 247 of the election code, the passage Oscar had found. The room went silent as the IFE’s chairman passed around a portable microphone and called for a vote. One by one the committee members assented.

A low hum went around the room. Didn’t the committee members know that the IFE had ordered them not to recount the ballots in boxes whose actas contained only mathematical errors? Or were they merely conscientious?

With a nod from the chairman, two male IFE employees in gray suits sliced the box’s tape with razor-blade cutters. Inside the box were manila envelopes containing the original actas, which the gray-suited men passed to the chairman for reading aloud. The numbers matched those on the screen. Then the IFE secretary, a stocky blonde with rosy cheeks, picked up a fat white envelope that held the ballots for the presidential race. After removing the ballots, the secretary slipped a rubber thimble onto her thumb—one of those odd devices that office-supply stores sell—and began leafing through them, one at a time. Committee members, party representatives, and assorted onlookers gathered around to watch the recount.

Twenty minutes later, in consultation with his secretary, the chairman prepared a revised report. He read the new numbers, and as he did, his technical assistant typed them into his computer, replacing the old numbers on the screen. The chairman allowed time for everyone to see that the change had been made. Then he called for a vote on accepting the revised report; everybody agreed. The new numbers, however, produced a larger margin for the PAN. The PRD workers grimaced and went back to their chores.

The procedure of motions, votes, recounts, and re-votes was repeated a time or two before 9:45, when everything stopped for breakfast. IFE employees brought in scrambled eggs, tamales, sliced bananas, and sweetened coffee for the committee, then invited everyone else into a kitchen to share what was left. For a short while, nobody talked of anything substantive, and introductions were made.

I took the opportunity to occupy a seat on one of the vacated public chairs. A thin white woman with pinched cheeks, in her late forties or early fifties and wearing a homemade pink cotton suit, sat to my right, her tall purse perched on another chair. When the session resumed, as each box was brought in, she rose to snap photos of its numbers and details. Before long she was joined by another PRD supporter, a fat bronze woman in a pink knit blouse. The newcomer had a video camera connected to an extension cord that ran into the adjacent room where Oscar and Gerardo were camped. Whenever a box was brought in, the two women recorded the event; those two and I and anyone else in the area got tangled in the extension cord. One of the gray-suited IFE officials told the bronze woman that she should recharge the video camera’s battery and disconnect the extension cord, but she merely smiled and continued with her obstruction.

By noontime, the PRD’s work had led to the recounting of six boxes, all of which produced higher totals for the PAN. Burdened by sleeplessness, I went back to the van a few minutes later, where Cristina was knotting macramé and Rodrigo was already napping. Two hours later, when I returned to the IFE session, I noticed that something had changed. Whenever the PRD’s representative called for a recount, the chairman simply denied it; no vote was called, and none of the committee members protested. After I’d seen this happen a couple of times, I asked Alejandro what was afoot. “About one-thirty,” he said, “the committee got orders from Mexico City not to open any more boxes because of mathematical errors.”

By 2:30, the committee members had removed their suit coats, and three of them, like students on the back row of a classroom, were jiving and joking to pass the time. They looked up, at the chairman or their peers, only when a vote was called, and the vote was always for accepting the committee’s report, despite the errors cited by the PRD. Half an hour later, the three passed around bags of potato chips, munching idly while business was done.

Things weren’t any better along the wall, where the six public chairs sat. The lady in the pink suit was still jumping up and down from her chair to snap photos. A male PRD volunteer was standing atop another chair, filming with the video rig. The bronze woman sat beside him, cradling the connector between two extension cords in her lap, lest power be interrupted while he filmed. Two secretaries in the adjoining room had stepped away, and their desks had been taken by members of Alejandro’s team. I took a seat at one of them.

I asked Gerardo what the point of the whole exercise might be. “You’re only finding votes for the PAN,” I argued.

“Well, in an election as close as this, don’t you think it’s important that every vote be counted?” he politely said.

My suspicions were not eased. I turned to Alejandro. “Are you sure that you guys aren’t doing this just to keep the scandal of irregularities in the news?” I asked.

“It’s important that every vote be counted, even if that has consequences for the press,” he quipped. Then he smiled his crooner’s smile.

AT 3:30, IFE EMPLOYEES brought lunch to the committee members’ desks. This time, deliberations did not stop, and nobody invited the rest of us to join the repast.

The problem was that the election code requires IFE committees to work “uninterruptedly,” without recessing, until their canvass of actas is done—around the clock, if necessary. The specter of an all-nighter was real. The committee had reviewed only some 180 reports, about half of those before it for the presidential election alone. Reports for congressional and Senate races would have to be reviewed after the presidential canvass was completed. The PRD’s challenges had slowed the process.

The canvass continued in its grumbling and distracted way until 7:15, when the presidential tabulation was done. The PRD had during the day challenged 86 actas, but only 6 had been approved. The committee’s technical assistant went to his computer and flashed a picture of the Mexican flag onto the screen.

At 7:50, as the IFE committee began its canvass of the remaining races, Alejandro’s team said its good-byes to the local PRD cadre and recessed to a pensión where he had rented rooms. Rodrigo and I arrived first. He motioned me to one of the three beds in the second-floor room, about ten by twelve in size. Mine was a single bed; the other two were doubles. I went into a bathroom across the hallway to shower and shave. When I returned, Rodrigo was asleep, and soon, so was I. An old color television was mounted on a steel frame in a corner of the room, next to its door. About ten o’clock, the other men showed up—from supper, I suppose. Someone turned the television on.

An odd thing, still unexplained, had happened that day. As canvasses of the actas were completed across the nation, the IFE would post the results. Alejandro, who received running totals on his cell phone, had kept the rest of us informed. On election night, the IFE’s reports had shown Calderón with a slight advantage for nearly the entire time. But on canvass day, while we’d been in the IFE meeting, López Obrador had enjoyed a two-point lead. Not until 11:00 p.m. had his lead started to fall. Every ten to twenty minutes, new figures were broadcast, and with almost every report, his margin dropped by one or two hundredths of a point.

Six of us lay in our beds, some of us in our underwear, watching AMLO’s lead go down. But we were too exhausted to feel passion of any kind. By 11:30 Gerardo was dead to the world, and by 12:30, when television cameras showed López Obrador leaving his campaign headquarters for home, only a couple of us witnessed it. Nobody was watching at 4:30, when Calderón held a press conference to tell the world that he had won, though he was leading by just over sixth tenths of a point.

BY 7:30 THAT MORNING, all of us were stirring again, and the television told us what none of the team wanted to hear: that it was over. Calderón had won, by a margin that turned out to be only .58 percent. The election had split the nation across a north-south divide, the north in Calderón’s camp, the south with AMLO. Everyone was silent and grim.

On the road back to Mexico City, discussion took an analytical turn. Though the PRD had carried Mexico City, the group derided its mayor-elect, Marcelo Ebrard, whom they viewed as a yuppie with no insight into the life of the struggling masses. They complained that at key points of his campaign, López Obrador had given in to the party’s rightward wing, ignoring, for example, the PAN’s charges that he was a pawn of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Gerardo, who had quit the PRD some six months earlier and had returned only on the election’s eve, vowed that he was quitting for good. Alejandro predicted that the PRD would split into a puny preppy faction and a grimy but principled left. Everyone vowed to stay home that Saturday, when López Obrador would speak at a “national assembly for informational purposes” in Mexico City’s main plaza, the Zócalo.

But despite their disillusionment, five members of the team (everyone but Oscar) turned out on Saturday, when López Obrador announced that he would appeal to the Federal Electoral Tribunal—a seven-member court that has the last word on election results—for a complete recount, “vote by vote, box by box.” To underscore the demand, he called for a series of demonstrations and plantones, or “encampments,” which continue today.

On August 5 the tribunal ordered a review of only 9 percent of the ballots, sparking more protests. They’ll no doubt continue until September 6, when the final ruling will be handed down. The chances are that López Obrador’s challenge is already doomed, but in Mexico it’s no longer easy to predict the future.

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