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Mistranslating the Mexican Election

Newspapers in the U.S. and Canada consistently misrepresent the democratic process in Mexico, to the advantage of the right wing establishment.

Several of us on the Production Team had been following the Mexican election, but didn't feel informed enough to write our own editorial. Susana Vargas, meanwhile, has been actively following media across two borders and has a solid background in Mexican politics. When she expressed interest in writing an article for us, I suggested an editorial. --Jonathan Sterne


Until the recent blowup in the middle east, the Mexican election drew much attention from North American news outlets. No wonder: it had the possibility of creating a more leftist Latin America (following examples of Chile, Bolivia, Venezuela, Uruguay and Brazil) or a more conservative North America (following United States’ Bush and Canada’s Stephen Harper). Reading mainstream newspapers like the Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, The New York Times, Washington Post and The International Herald Tribune, it seems that these paper were more interested in Mexico becoming part of the North American rightward swing – guaranteeing a continued free trade and source of cheap labor.

We have been hearing the same story over and over: Calderon, the right wing candidate won, but the leftist Obrador is trying to steal the election away. On July 7, all these newspapers declared the right-wing candidate Calderon as a winner. This may be an easy assumption to make if one doesn’t understand the Mexican electoral system. But the declaration just echoes the right wing position in Mexico. Luis Carlos Ugalde, the President of the Federal Electoral Institute declared on national TV on July 6 that conservative Calderon had the majority of votes, a difference of 0.58% against the leftist candidate Obrador. Ugalde proceeded to say: “it is the golden rule in democracies that the candidate with more votes wins the election”. But Ugalde didn’t have the authority to declare a winner. In the Mexican media we read headlines stating that Calderon is the “virtual” winner, “IFE backs up Calderon”, or “Calderon wins in the count of tallies”. This is because Calderon’s official victory has not and can not yet be declared. Despite the still inconclusive results of the election, Harper and Bush followed the Anglo North American media in congratulating NAFTA friendly Calderon on his presidential victory.

Throughout the campaign, Calderon did everything he could to discredit Obrador as “socialist” and “leftist,” and the pattern continued after the end of voting, with Americana and Canadian papers following the Calderon party line. Globe and Mail headlines like “Official recount gives Calderon Mexican presidency” or “Mexican recount stirs political tensions” and the Toronto Star’s headline “Mexican presidential candidate demands recount” (July 4, 2006) give the reader the impression that Obrador’s request for a recount was somehow unreasonable, because it would delayed the election and produce more political tension. If there is political tension right now in Mexico, it comes from irregularities in the votes counted for public viewing and those counted in the PREP (preliminary results which different from exit polls); from the discrepancies among the number of votes for President, Senators and Deputes (which should be the same) and from the almost “3 million votes with inconsistencies,” which wwere not counted in the PREP. Political tension is not coming from any recount of tallies because there hasn’t been one. The official tally after PREP is a normal procedure in every election. Officials verify that the tallies previously filled out by civilians had no anomalies. In case of irregularities like illegibility the IFE advisors have the authority to open the boxes with the votes and verify the count. The count of the tallies is not a “recount” as the English language press suggests, it is the official count of tallies by Electoral Advisors of IFE.

So if the election is not over, then the English language papers are wrong to depict Obrador as a “racial leftist” who will not concede the election when he should. By they cast Obrador as a sore loser who will “fight the results in court” (Globe and Mail) that Obrador “vowed to take his case to a special tribunal” (Toronto Star). The Washington Post erroneously reported that that “Obrador, refused to concede and demanded a recount, and it appeared that the winner of Sunday's balloting would ultimately be decided in court” and The Herald Tribune made refernce to a “special tribunal set up to handle electoral disputes, a court that has never before been asked to make such a momentous ruling.” The problem is that none of these claims are true. Unlike in the 2000 U.S. election, no one is taking the election to court, there are no special tribunals have been set up to decide this election. Reviewing the votes is a compulsory step in every Mexican election; the Federal Electoral Tribunals (TRIFE) assesses the validity of the election, and they are the only authority allowed to officially declare a winner. Any candidate from any political party has the right to bring before the tribunals complaints of irregularities on the election for up to four days after the official count of tallies finished. The TRIFE validation of the election is an obligatory step. The only complaints ever brought the Tribunal are of the elections for governor; and election for presidency has never waited for the approval of TRIFE to declare a winner since there has never such a close race between leading candidates. The TRIFE decides, after analyzing the complaints and evidence, if it is necessary to count vote by vote again (which would be a recount) or to nullify the elections. Obrador has stated he is demanding the count vote by vote because of multiple inconsistencies, but he hasn’t declared intentions to (as the Herald Tribunal states) “to annul what they consider a legitimate victory by mounting a court challenge”.

We can also see the editorial slant in the adjectives applied to each candidate. For the Globe and Mail Calderon is a “savvy” politician, for almost all other North American newspapers he is the “confident” technocrat. Calderon is praised by the North American papers for his” calm” and “astute” personality and his Harvard degree in public administration. In contrast, Obrador doesn’t speak English and graduated for the Autonomous Public University of Mexico (UNAM), another point on which readers are frequently reminded. In the same articles that praise Calderon, the “populist” Obrador is a “defiant” candidate that has called on his supporters for a massive “protest” to “overturn his narrow election defeat.” Obrador’s supporters are “angry” followers of “the folksy leftist with near religious zeal.” For conservatives governments like Bush and Harper administrations, perhaps any mass of people is a “protest” but there is a much stronger tradition of public protest in Mexico; Mexican politicians are less scared of masses. Mexican newspapers, even the conservative ones, have called Obrador’s gathering a “mitin,” which is Spanglish for “meeting.” What Obrador called for, in his own words, was an “assembly” to announce his action plan without the interference of a manipulated media.

Obrador’s “determination to challenge the results” should not be perceived by North American readers as a threat to democracy. Obrador is exercising his right as a candidate according to the procedures set up beforehand by the Tribunal. By using his last resource at the TRIFE, Obrador is in fact supporting democracy and making up for another episode in recent memory. When Cardenas, the leftist candidate for president in 1988 lost, he was perceived as not using all of the means available to challenge what many people thought was electoral fraud. North American papers’ representations of Obrador’s “defiance” against the “widely respected” IFE misleads the reader, and parrots the Mexican conservative line that Obrador is a “disrespectful” “socialist” and “leftist” candidate. Yet during the campaign, Obrador sold himself as the “central-left” alternative, never as the “left.” In fact, most Mexicans would have called the feminist Patricia Mercado the real left candidate in the election. The Mexican left is “the other campaign” represented by the Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos who called for a no vote. While Canadian and American conceptions of a left government may differ greatly from those in Latin America, the fact remains that in Mexico, Obrador is seen as a liberal and rejected by the left of the political spectrum. Obrador is no Marxist: he has numerous dealings with the richest men in Latin America, including 3rd richest man in the world, Carlos Slim --the owner of different monopolies of telecommunications in Mexico.

Mainstream North American coverage of the Mexican elections has been misleading and misinformed. The Mexican electoral process is very different than the American and Canadian ones; the translation of this process to Anglo readers hasn’t reflected the differences in political systems and electoral processes. On the contrary, it has given North American readers a story they can identify with at the expense of printing the truth. Unfortunately Mexico is becoming more and more Americanized, the conservatives imported a US –style smear campaign against Obrador, and we now have a very divided electorate – our own blue and red states. However there are still some important differences. In Mexico we vote by hand in ballots, not into computers, so a vote by vote hand count has the possibility of making a difference. Many Mexicans support a vote by vote count and contrary to reports in the North American media, international observers are worried about the IFE’s performance. The Mexican leftist newspaper La Jornada reported that a “commission of observers from the European Union has demanded transparency.” Furthermore, the NGO Global exchange has declared that a “vote by vote count will bring transparency to the process.”

With a history of fraud and illegality in elections, the inconsistencies and irregularities in the PREP results have generated a great deal of doubt among Mexicans. A vote by vote hand count has the possibility of unifying a very polarized society; it also promises to dissipate doubts and validate the legality of the election. At this time in Mexico we need international support to guarantee a transparent and clear election. The twisted representation of the electoral process presented by mainstream U.S. and Canadian newspapers only contributes to an already confusing, tense, and complicated local political situation.

Susana is a Mexican living in Montreal.

Copyright © Susana Vargas, 2006. All rights reserved.