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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

x ray of a news story - the mexican election

The Mexican election is proving to be an x ray of the news business.

The so called “preliminary result” showed that PAN’s candidate, and the candidate of emerging market investors, Felipe Calderon, had pulled ahead by 400,000 some votes. The number remaining to count was 800.000 votes. Hence, it looked like Calderon had an insurmountable lead.

This, at least, is what the NYT reported. And it was reported internationally. Here, for example, is the Globe and Mail (a Canadian paper for which LI has written), today:

“The party of leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador challenged preliminary results of Sunday's presidential election, accusing Mexican election authorities of failing to count more than three million votes.
Mr. Lopez Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor, has claimed victory in the divisive election even though he trailed his conservative rival, Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party, by slightly more than 400,000 votes, or one percentage point, after the Federal Election Institute (IFE) completed a preliminary count on Monday.
The official count is due to start today, but an announcement of the result is not expected until Sunday.

"Preliminary figures showed Mr. Calderon with 36.4 per cent of the vote, Mr. Lopez Obrador with 35.3 per cent and Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) with 21.6 per cent.”

This is the Financial Times story, today:

“Manuel Camacho, a congressman for Mr Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolution party (PRD) and a key strategist in the leftwing candidate's campaign, told the FT yesterday: "We are almost certainly going to contest this election . . . but we are not going to generate a dispute unless we are sure of our arguments."

"His remarks were made as Felipe Calderon, the centre-right candidate for the ruling National Action party (PAN), appeared to have taken a small but decisive lead in what is turning out to have been the closest election in Mexico's history.
A preliminary count by the country's Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) showed Mr Calderon with an advantage of 400,000 votes - about 1 per cent of the total cast - over Mr Lopez Obrador.”

These stories repeat the AP and NYT accounts from July 3. The problem is, of course, that they are false. The notion that, for instance, there is a preliminary count is a newspaper event – as we learned in today’s stories in WAPO, the NYT, and the LATimes.

From today’s LATimes“Ugalde [the head of the commission counting the votes] reminded Mexicans in a television interview Tuesday that the preliminary count issued by the institute had no legal standing. The official winner will be determined after a recount of the polling reports begins today. It remains unclear when that count will be complete.

"We still do not have a winner," Ugalde said, adding that there was never any intent to hide the vote result from the public.”

And further:

“An initial count of the ballots gave a slim but apparently insurmountable lead to Calderon. On Monday evening, Calderon was leading Lopez Obrador by 402,708 votes, with 98.45% of polling stations "processed," according to official reports.

But election authorities acknowledged Tuesday that the preliminary count did not include vote totals from more than 11,000 stations where "irregularities" were noted in official paperwork. Those stations were listed as "processed" in the official reports, but their votes were not included in the tally.

Late Tuesday, election officials added the 2.5 million votes to the public count. Lopez Obrador outpolled Calderon on these ballots by more than 145,000 votes, narrowing Calderon's lead to slightly more than 257,000 ballots, or 0.6 percentage point.”

Now, when LI first scribbled this down, we were sure that something odd was going on with the very notion of preliminary results. Apparently, the oddity stems from an agreement between the parties and the election commission. This is from a site entitled Mexdata:

"As a matter of fact, Mexico’s electoral law does not include the PREP mechanism, nor is the chairman of the board of the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) given the option to release the preliminary results publicly on the same day as the election. The decision to allow this was the result of an agreement reached with the political parties, which said four hours after the polls close each could have their data transmitted to the IFE, so that it could then release trusted preliminary result data on election night.

The PREP results do not take into consideration any challenges made by poll representatives, nor the possibility of ballots from some of those polls being annulled. However, besides the dependable information each political party knows this, through their polling place representatives, as they too have the information that supposedly corresponds with that of the IFE. Thus the PREP results are trustworthy, although not definitive."

So it is going to far to say that the newspapers were wholly inventing the preliminary results -- rather, they were giving them a false finality. The word to watch for – the word that went around the world – is “insurmountable.” As LI noted a couple of days ago, the news – especially when these kinds of coups occur – operates in a special temporal mode. Just like in your favorite fascoid action movie, the hero moves in slo-mo. This isn’t just one way of showing an event –it is an essential constituent of the event. What is otherwise unbelievable happens right before your baby blues. How can you doubt your vision? How can you doubt that ‘insurmountable’ lead – which seems, indeed, to have been cut in half, now, with 900,000 votes still waiting to be counted?

In this way, the Obrador’s complaint can be made to seem like sour grapes. Which is how the headlines, then, will cast the issue – for after the hero, some stunning Aryan, has taken care of the villain, the film jumps back to normal speed. Is the villain going to start complaining? Why, this is the way films are made. You can't turn against the very condition of your representation. That condition is inevitable. To complain about it shows a lack of the sportif! So many poor people do that. They sit around and bitch. Life’s unfair. Like, get a job is the only answer to that one.

As for the news role in making sure that there are no surprises in these elections, the end of the LATimes piece has a nice and telling detail:

“Suspicion among Lopez Obrador's supporters was heightened Monday when the investigative magazine Proceso, citing police intelligence sources, reported that senior Interior Ministry officials had attempted to shape media coverage on election night.

"Ministry officials called the news directors at Mexico's two leading television networks and requested that they not broadcast the results of their exit polls, Proceso reported.

"Interior Minister Carlos Abascal did not deny making such calls, though he said Mexico's media were free of the government controls of the recent past. The networks did not report the specific figures from their exit poll results out of a sense of responsibility, he said.

"Abascal made several oblique references to Lopez Obrador, without naming him, and insisted on the need for all parties to respect the official count. He noted that during the campaign, all parties signed an accord pledging to honor the results.

"We insist that the electoral process has to be absolutely respected, because it was transparent," Abascal said. "It is characteristic of democracy to have argument and passionate rivalry, but it is also characteristic of democracy to submit unconditionally to the referee and the result."”

The sham, here, is paper thin. As PAN already showed when they tried to impeach Obrador, the party still has not got down the PRI talent for suppressing the opposition.

LI, of course, hopes that Obrador’s share of the 900.000 still to count might just overcome the insurmountable lead of … what is it now? 257,000 votes. But the iconic 400,000 that gave Calderon his ‘insurmountable’ lead is what will stick with the media. The outlines of the story are in place, just as they were in Florida. It isn’t enough just to steal elections with the ridiculous array of problems that we saw in Ohio in 2004, say – the press – which often chuckles and tut tuts itself about being so concerned with the horse race, the scoop - is critical in shaping the story.

The horse race is fixed. The mounts are doped. And we will definitely not be listening to complaints by the 2 dollar bettors, who obviously don’t know what the meaning of ‘insurmountable’ is.

ps -- for the other side of these numbers, making the case that the votes are already counted from the 11,000 supposedly tossed out precincts, LI readers can check out Markinmexico Blog. We looked around to find some conservative commentary on Mexico, but it is all so depressingly the same hamburger. But Mark, who is pro-PAN, is actually (mirabile dictu!) an intellectually respectable source of information.

pps -- it looks like Mexico might get something that the U.S. was denied in 2000 - an open election. The turnabout for Obrador is astonishing the Mexican electorate, who are seeing a thing never seen in Mexico -- the way the election results are made. Mexico has been haunted, since 1988, by stolen elections, and by the never explained events at the end of the Salinas era. This election is going to cripple, we think, Foxismo -- that most dubious of macro-economic strategies -- even if Calderon turns out, in the end, to be the winner. Calderon is a remarkable blank in his own election -- Obrador, as either a hate figure or an adored figure, is the only politician, at the moment, who counts. Calderon's proclamation that he slept late this morning (who, me worry?) was pathetic in every way. The PAN has not had time to absorb the whole disgusting infrastrucutre of the Salinas era PRI yet - though, of course, they are financed by the same people.

Obrador, it seems to me, did the right thing in the final weeks of the campaign by bringing in, of all people, FDR to drive out the voodoo doll of Chavez that the PAN was trying to hang around his neck. In fact, Mexico does need a heavily Keynesian policy -- it cannot continue the cheap labor policy to find its niche in the world economy. That made some sense twenty years ago, but only if combined with policies that would, in effect, accumulate capital -- both private and public. This never happened. Mexico can't compete with China on the road to the bottom, and it is gong to have massive problems in those industrial areas, like Juarez, in which the working wage, if you aren't lucky enough to find a job with a drug mafia, has remained unchanged for twenty years. And along with the wage stagnation comes the stagnation in the state of manufacturing: what they are doing in Juarez is what they were doing 20 years ago. That is the failure of Salinas style neo-liberalism, a sort of wax museum of the old blue book days in the U.K., circa 1850. It is a dead end, and whether the symbolic corpse at the end of it is the 1 day wonder of Calderon, or whether the symbolic corpses are more plentiful, and composed of the butchered women of Juarez -- the fact is, that road doesn't go anywhere anymore.

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