Mexican Elections and Morena’s Challenge

July 27, 2017

Jared Flanery

The June 4 governor’s election in the State of Mexico (or Edomex), the most populous state in Mexico, came close to ending the Partido Revolucionario Institucional’s (PRI) nearly nine-decade-long control over the state.

Throughout the campaign and its aftermath, PRI’s illegal election interference, or what the New York Times called “business as usual in the State of Mexico,” 1 was widely documented by independent observers. Even as PRI-controlled election monitors proclaimed their candidate the victor with a slim plurality, evidence of extensive irregularities undermined the results’ legitimacy. The absence of a clear mandate produced a scandal and strengthened the prospects of the leading opposition party ahead of the 2018 presidential elections.

It wasn’t the Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN), the right-wing party that had interrupted the PRI’s grip on the presidency with the elections of Vicente Fox in 2000 and Felipe Calderón in 2006, that threatened PRI’s stranglehold on the state. Rather, a new political force, the Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (Morena), emerged as the most credible challenger to the PRI.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the left-wing perennial presidential candidate, formed Morena in 2011 and formally organized it as a political party in early 2014. López Obrador (popularly known as “AMLO”) was previously a member of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (or PRD), and stood as that party’s candidate in two contested and ultimately unsuccessful presidential bids in 2006 and 2012, in which many believe that fraud played a decisive role. While the PRD emerged from the PRI’s left faction in the 1980s, the party recently turned to coalitions with the conservative PAN. Meanwhile, some of the PRD’s leadership has been linked to corruption scandals since at least the early 2000s. 2

In the 2017 elections, the State of Mexico Electoral Institute (IEEM) reported a significant increase in voter turnout to over 6 million people, or 53 percent of eligible voters. In 2011, the PRI candidate won overwhelmingly, with a 46 percent turnout, the year before the PAN’s 12-year interruption of PRI presidencies was halted. In 2005, a year before the PAN again won the presidency in a bitterly contested campaign against AMLO and the PRD, current president Enrique Peña Nieto won the governorship of Edomex with only 42 percent voter participation. 3

The IEEM’s initial official estimates failed to reach their own May 3 protocol of 1,800 voting booths tabulated, with only 1,347 included in the rapid count following the election. 4 Still, early estimates from the Preliminary Election Results Program (PREP) excited Morena supporters with a slim advantage for their candidate, Delfina Gómez, until the final tally days later declared the PRI’s Alfredo del Mazo Maza governor-elect with 33.69 percent, over Gómez’s 30.91 percent. 5 Morena supporters also noted that the National Electoral Institute (INE) had installed voting booths at a much slower pace than required by law, and that while the INE had promised that voting would begin at 8 a.m. and carry on until 6 p.m., by 9:50 a.m. officials had only installed 57 percent of Edomex voting booths. 6

Del Mazo may be the officially declared victor (with extensive irregularities, as we’ll see below) but Gómez and Morena’s rapid surge in the official vote count made it the closest governor’s election in Edomex on record. The incumbent PRI governor won with 61 percent of the vote in 2011, and the currently deeply unpopular President Enrique Peña Nieto, who survived credible allegations of corruption during his presidential campaign, had managed to officially win close to 50 percent of votes back in 2005.

IEEM’s figures depict a margin of about 170,000 votes in Del Mazo’s favor. With no comparable figures available prior to 1993, when “Mexico was still considered more or less a one-party state,” 7 it is likely that the Edomex elections were the most competitive in the state’s history. 8

Indeed, Animal Político describes the Edomex 2017 results as a “collapse” for the PRI, and “unprecedented growth” for the infant party, Morena. 9 In raw vote numbers, the PRI lost a million supporters, about a third of its 3 million vote total in 2011. When taken as a proportion of the election results, however, Del Mazo’s campaign results represent an abject failure. The 2011 PRI candidate had won with 62 percent of the vote, whereas Del Mazo managed 33 percent. 10

Fraud: Accusations and Evidence

Accusations of fraud marred the Edomex elections well before a single vote was cast. For example, the Washington Post reported that eligible voters were offered cash discounts from the PRI at local shops if they traded in their voting credentials and refrained from voting, a clear violation of Mexican election laws. 11 The Argentine outlet Segundo Enfoque and others reported that some voters traded in their electoral credentials for debit cards that would receive post-election deposits of 2,000 Mexican pesos, or about $100. 12

Reuters quoted PRI-supporter Maria de los Remedios Gonzales’ cynical logic in accepting PRI pamphlets that promised cash payouts should Del Mazo win: “Better the devil you know …. At the end of the day, it’s our money, and they give us a bit back.” 13 On the day of the election, independent observers reported that voters received burner phones to take into the ballot box and provide photographic evidence that they had voted for Del Mazo or other PRI candidates as part of a quid pro quo. 14

The New York Times is probably justified in identifying this kind of overt interference in the democratic process as “usual,” but as pre-election polls showed a tightening race, the tainted atmosphere of electoral sleight of hand took on a more blunt, violent air. For example, authorities have yet to identify who left the dozens of pigs’ heads stacked menacingly in front of the Morena state headquarters on June 3. 15 Pigs’ heads were also left in front of two other Morena offices in Tlalnepantla and Ixtapaluca-Chalco. 16

International and local observers documented a pattern of violent intimidation toward opponents to PRI rule. Alex Main, Senior Associate for International Policy at CEPR, participated in an independent investigation of the election proceedings in early June. Commenting at a joint press conference in Toluca, Main relayed that an observer from the civil society organization #NiUnFraudeMás, Soledad, had received threats: after an anonymous phone caller asked whether Soledad supported Morena, the unidentified person threatened her and her family with murder.

Main also received reports of intimidation of independent observers in the zone of Ahuizotla. Observers reported illegal busing of voters and, after taking photos of apparent PRI operatives, received death threats from an armed man near voting booth 2866. 17

Most alarming were disappearances of Morena party members. The PRI spokesman for Edomex and other officials confirmed at least two disappearances, one of a Morena official in Metepec, and another of the Morena coordinator in Atlacomulco, the area where Peña Nieto began his rise within the PRI, reportedly as part of the infamous Grupo Atlacomulco. 18 Peña Nieto had established local alliances with his uncle and former Edomex governor Arturo Montiel of Grupo Atlacomulco, before he became governor of Edomex and later head of state. The president, who is distantly related to his party’s Edomex candidate, currently boasts an approval rating of just 12 percent. 19

The spokesman assured the public: “Since the morning, I have been attentive … working with both the State Security Commission and the office of the Attorney General.” But the Peña Nieto administration’s documented record of near-universal impunity in the many disappearances of journalists, political figures, and others raises considerable doubt as to the successful resolution of these kidnappings. 20 Cristina “N.” was witness to the disappearance of her husband Óscar Juárez Cárdenez, the Atlacomulco representative. She saw two cars arrive from her balcony and later found her disappeared husband’s T-shirt on the street, tattered and blood stained. 21 Mexico City-based La Jornada also reported that state police forcibly removed about 20 Morena party members from their hotel rooms in Toluca on the discredited pretext of a bomb threat. 22

Much of Main and other observers’ testimony related to the municipality of Naucalpán, particularly the town of Chimalpa, where they witnessed physical threats and also non-violent obstacles and impediments to a fair election. The PRI’s ground operations included a system by which voters would receive their benefit for voting PRI under the guise of breakfast or a friendly gathering at nearby houses.

Christy Thornton, another election observer and professor of Latin American history at Rowan University, defined the so-called “casa amiga” program as a fraud “where PRI operatives coordinate various kinds of voter coercion, from outright buying of votes to incentivizing individuals to bring five or ten others with them to the polls.” 23 As an example of this systematic bribery, the observers witnessed eligible voters, “all women of very humble social condition,” who were apparently returning from voting booth 3002 to queue outside of a nearby house with a known PRI operative inside.

While illegal, the casa amiga and desayuno (breakfast) vote buying programs reflect the PRI’s broader campaign strategy of targeted patronage to affect election outcomes. Del Mazo campaigned on the “pink salary,” a promise to distribute over $100 every other month to more than 500,000 poor women. Del Mazo’s campaign manager framed the policy as “allowing the man to have the opportunity to leave to work to produce an income for his family.” In one of Del Mazo’s antiseptic campaign ads, the silver-haired scion quipped “they prepare breakfast … they deserve a dream.” 24

Spain’s El País reported pink cards were distributed as PRI “campaign objects/materials” before June 4 around the State of Mexico, and reminded readers of present PRI governor Ávila’s 2011 campaign “trick” of promising pharmaceutical aid, in the form of a green card, in return for a PRI vote. Noemí Romero, who lives in Edomex, said that when she and her mother went to the pharmacy after the 2011 election ended overwhelmingly in Ávila’s favor, the clerk laughed and asked why they would believe PRI’s promises. “We wanted the ground to swallow us up in shame. This pink salary, it is the same as the green card, it’s the same, they only changed the color.” 25 In 2017, however, #NiUnFraudeMás documented payouts in the form of pink debit cards.

While it is not illegal to promise social benefits for everyone as part of an election campaign pledge, the recent experience in Edomex included widespread illegal vote-buying techniques, as well as harassment, and even forced disappearances that appear to be campaign-related.

According to the advocacy campaign for electoral transparency, #NiUnFraudeMás, the seven most common forms of interference were:

“pressure on state and municipal government workers, transport workers, health workers, teachers and police; psychological terrorism; busing, voter coercion and vote-buying; violation of the campaign ban just prior to election day; exceeding campaign spending limits; inconsistencies between the collection of election day minutes in the official record, the rapid count, PREP and the district count; and deficiencies in electoral organization and training.”

Finally, the third report from #NiUnFraudeMás has links to video evidence of police intimidation and coercion on behalf of the PRI; police violence against journalist Alan García of the newspaper El Gráfico; 26 an attack against Morena representative Rodrigo Abdalá in Atlacomulco; and the intimidation of independent observers.

There were also less violent forms of interference: photo evidence of the pink salary system in quid pro quo form; PRI propaganda and misinformation on public transport; an apparent admission of illegal busing from multiple PRI operators; 27 illegal PRI counts of voters in front of voting booth 2266; 28 arbitrary elimination of votes in Toluca; 29 and insufficient ballots in densely populated areas.

There was an especially high presence of reported irregularities in the municipalities of Naucalpán and Ecatepec, where the rate of femicides sets another poor record. 30 The two zones tied with 39 reported electoral irregularities of a total of 601 in the 125 municipalities overall.

In sum, #NiUnFraudeMás described the PRI’s overall electoral blueprint as “a strategy of psychological warfare” and to create “fear [among] the militants and representatives of Morena and [within] the entire society.” 31

In mobilization against the thoroughly documented irregularities and fraud, the organization led by artists, academics, and activists called for a full recount, and, if necessary, a complete repeat of the gubernatorial election itself. #NiUnFraudeMás members also demanded the resignation of the PRI-controlled election counselors of the IEEM and the INE, among other officials. 32

#NiUnFraudeMás’s most recent press bulletin shores up the constitutional bonafides needed to demand both a “totally autonomous and independent citizen recount,” as well as “the nullification of the eventual ‘triumph’ of Alfredo del Mazo,” citing the Mexican constitution to bolster its case. Its July 10 press release notes that Article 6 affords Mexican citizens the right to “free access to diverse and timely information,” and Article 41 guarantees the right to “free, authentic and periodic elections.” 33

Institutional Investigations and Compromises

La Fiscalía Especializada Para la Atención de Delitos Electorales (FEPADE), the federal agency responsible for investigating voter fraud, reported evidence of interference before June 4. The agency at first refrained from detaining drivers of illegal busing operations, intercepted en route from the Plaza Américas in Naucalpán to Nezahualcóyotl, but without passengers, on a possible practice run. FEPADE promised an investigation. 34

Multiple reports emerged of an election day mobilization that included 3,500 PRI-voting bus riders on 70 buses, and that FEPADE arrested two bus drivers involved. Two days after the election, FEPADE announced that there were at least 192 outstanding arrest warrants, primarily for alleged vote purchasing and reported that most of the complaints filed related to “fraud in the vote counting.” 35 For example, one video uploaded to social media uncovered an instance of an IEEM official apparently inflating the PRI vote tally through officials inaccurately transmitting vote totals from one to another, verbally changing the results. 36

Both Morena and the PRD lodged an official complaint with the INE, arguing against the elections’ legitimacy because Del Mazo and the PRI exceeded spending limits by as much as 40 percent. 37 Horacio Duarte, a representative of Morena, said that someone close to Del Mazo and the PRI anonymously submitted folders with financial papers that purport to document the excess expenditure. The Morena representative also claimed that the evidence was derived from the “internal accounting system” of the PRI. 38

While the INE hastily refused a full recount, they did conduct a partial one, potentially to save face. Some of the results strongly suggest both fraud and a cover-up. John Ackerman, a researcher and law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, observed a recount in Naucalpán de Juaréz, at voting booth 2836 in which, he said, Del Mazo’s vote total fell from 640 to 81 votes. Ackerman commented in a tweet with photographic evidence: “no wonder they don’t want to open the other ballots!” 39 During the vote count, the INE president of district 32 attempted to remove Ackerman from the premises with the use of police, while defending the democratic legitimacy of the process: “There are no delinquents here,” he said. 40

A week after the scandal-ridden election, AMLO formally appealed to the Tribunal Electoral del Estado de México (TEEM) with 45 legal challenges, one for each district in Edomex. He called for the Tribunal to “clean up the election” and declare Delfina Gómez the next governor of Edomex.

AMLO further accused the PRI of buying votes and filling ballot boxes “with an operation led and directed by Enrique Peña Nieto,” who is also the distant cousin of Del Mazo. 41 (Del Mazo’s family lineage is a legacy in Edomex, where both his father and grandfather served as PRI governors.)

AMLO went on to insist that, if the Tribunal rejects Morena’s challenges, the party would appeal to the national Electoral Tribunal. His social media speech averred: México “is a democratic republic, not a monarchy.” 42

According to the IEEM, Morena was not the only political party to challenge the results of the historically competitive June 4 election. The conservative PAN party also submitted appeals in 36 of the 45 electoral districts at play in Edomex, and the PRD challenged the results in 39 districts. All three parties accuse the PRI of federal interference and election fraud, citing irregularities in the district counts and in voter registration. In spite of IEEM’s June 9 announcement of victory for the PRI, the bellwether election may not be resolved until TEEM’s self-imposed deadline of August 16. 43

AMLO emphasized that if the TEEM rules in favor of the status quo, Morena will still appeal before the Mexican federal tribunal to annul the elections. AMLO attempted this level of legal appeal in the aftermath of the 2006 presidential race, and urged his supporters to occupy Mexico City’s Zócalo plaza for two months, but the tribunal ruled unanimously against the then PRD candidate despite documented irregularities. 44 Next year, Mexico again holds presidential elections, and Edomex was not the only suspicious electoral event of the year, not to speak of accusations of electoral espionage by Peña Nieto. 45


Just a fortnight after the election, opinion polling revealed massive discontent with the electoral authorities. In a national poll by the Mexico City newspaper Reforma, just 37 percent thought the INE to be prepared to organize the 2018 presidential elections. Nearly 70 percent of those polled agreed there was fraud in the Edomex elections, while only 14 percent believed in the elections’ legitimacy. The same poll found 60 percent of Mexicans thought the northern state of Coahuila’s gubernatorial elections were fraudulent, while only 10 percent maintained confidence in their “cleanliness.” 46 At least there, though, electoral officials with the INE sanctioned the PRI for its excess campaign spending. 47

In Edomex 55 percent of respondents in the Reforma poll favored legal challenges to the presumed PRI victories, while fewer than 30 percent oppose the ongoing litigation and appeals.

Even if, as expected, the legal challenges fail to overturn previously announced “victories,” the PRI’s brand has suffered greatly because of the relatively competitive elections. The only party more “weakened” by the elections, according to the poll, was the PRD ? perhaps because of its counterintuitive coalition with the conservative PAN. 48 Morena, meanwhile, was the only party considered “fortified” by a plurality of those polled, 35 to 25 percent. The Edomex election generally produced the specter of further deterioration of the PRI.

The paradoxical status of Mexican-US relations further undermines the PRI’s presidential chances next year. President Trump launched his most recent campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals.” Even former PAN president Vicente Fox responded more forcefully than the PRI’s Peña Nieto when Trump insisted that Mexico would pay for a central plank of his campaign – the border wall. 49 The PRI’s finance minister, Luis Videgaray, resigned as the humiliated “architect” of Trump’s boorish bullying of Peña Nieto in 2016, only to return newly empowered as Peña Nieto’s foreign minister. 50

The PRI’s attempts to cozy up to the Trump administration, demonstrated through their co-sponsorship of recent meetings in Cancún and the U.S. Southern Command, or their enthusiastic embrace of rapid NAFTA renegotiation, discredited the party as subservient to the newest neighbor to the north, namely Trump. AMLO, by contrast, filed a formal complaint against the wall with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in March. 51 Finally, according to Reuters, US officials “said Mexico had asked for the negotiations to be completed by the end of the year before the Mexican presidential election heats up,” to avoid benefitting the presidential ambitions of AMLO. 52

More important than the Trump effect, the strong showing by Morena in Edomex bolsters their chances in the 2018 presidential elections. Following the Edomex election, 57 percent of Mexican voters believe the PRI will lose the 2018 elections, while only 34 percent think the embattled party will retain the presidency — which the PRI has lost only twice since its founding in 1929. 53 Indeed, another recent Reforma poll relegated the PRI to third place with only 17 percent of national voters, compared with 23 percent for the PAN and 28 percent for AMLO and Morena. 54

The PRI’s star appears to be rapidly falling. Already last year, the party lost seven of twelve gubernatorial elections. Organizations like #NiUnFraudeMás are unlikely to end their concern or suspend their investigations. The hashtag movement emphasizes Article 6 of the Electoral Code of the State of Mexico, which pledges that “citizens and political parties are co-responsible for the organization, development and monitoring of the electoral process.” 55 The historically competitive Edomex election ensures that the official certification of the results, with the TEEM expected to formally declare Del Mazo governor by August 16, does not represent the end of the struggle for electoral democracy.




4 pg. 98-9


6 pg. 106




10 ibid.


12 pg. 91


14 pg. 69

15 Cited in


17 and Alex Main


19 Cited in






25 Ibid., El País.




29 pg. 111









38 pg. 81, 92


















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