When Josefina M. was cold-called by the Green Party of Mexico (PVEM), she politely responded to their telephone survey, answering questions on crime, education, jobs and other issues.
She was careful not to give out her address or any other personal details, nor agree to further correspondence. A few days later, however, she was surprised to find an envelope hand-delivered to her Guadalajara home stamped with the tag, “For Green Party Affiliates.” Inside, she found a gift card in her name, containing the Green Party logo, along with a letter explaining how she could use it to obtain discounts in a variety of stores such as Sears, Chedraui and Farmacia del Ahorro.
The card is one of thousands distributed by the Green Party in the run up to the June 7 local and legislative elections, which will bring in 500 new federal deputies, nine governors, new state legislatures and 900 mayors. It appears to be part of a flagrant “vote buying” campaign that has astonished international observers, as well as many Mexicans, 90,000 of whom have signed an online petition calling for the removal of the party’s political registration.
The discount cards are not the only questionable tactic the Green Party is using to curry favor with voters. They have also given away cinema tickets, made illegal use of the electoral roll to access the contact details of potential voters and distributed four million calendars made from non-recyclable material.
The petition on change.org cites the Green Party for “serious, systematic and repeated violations of the constitution and electoral regulations.”
The National Electoral Institute (INE) has ruled the cards, and some of the other transgressions, as violations of the law and slapped the party with fines on 11 separate occasions to the tune of more than 180 million pesos (US$12 million). Forced to apply for a loan from a financial institution to pay off some of its rapidly accumulating debt, the Greens remain unrepentant, offering little justification for their campaign tactics, although Senator Carlos Puente Salas has defended the distribution of cinema tickets as “a cultural promotion exercise.”
Many commentators argue that the Green Party epitomizes the dysfunction that hinders Mexican democracy. Parties are mostly financed by the government as a way of encouraging pluralism and keeping organized crime profits out of politics. The unintended consequence of this is that small parties can collect profitable government handouts and secure favorable deals in alliances with the bigger parties at election time.
“It is profitable to run a political party,” said Ulises Corona, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). “We’re talking about billions of pesos that the central government gives these parties for their campaigns and administrative costs.”
The Green Party, currently a close ally of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), has an extensive history of controversy. Formed in 1986, founder Jorge Gonzalez Torres initially paid lip service to environmental concerns. The focus shifted when leadership was passed to his son, Jorge Emilio Gonzalez, popularly known as the “Green Boy.” The passing of the baton from father to son was controversial at the time, epitomizing Mexico’s problem of inherited privilege.
Just 29 when he became party leader, Gonzalez was recorded negotiating a US$2 million bribe with a businessman to give a construction permit to a hotel in an ecologically protected area. He later claimed he was “testing” the situation and wasn’t interested in the bribe.
In 2008, the European Green Movement withdrew its recognition of Mexico’s Green Party after it launched a campaign in favor of reintroducing the death penalty.
The distance from the European movement was further represented by the Green Party’s support for fracking, the controversial gas extraction technique that uses vast amounts of water and may damage the local environment.
Chiapas State Governor Manuel Velasco is the party’s most visible politician and has himself been the center of considerable controversy. With his youthful looks and actor fiancé, Velasco has been held up as a possible successor to President Enrique Peña Nieto. Although he denies he has plans to run in 2018, posters with his face and name have appeared in Mexico City, despite the fact that Velasco is not involved in policy making in the capital.
His multi-million dollar campaign sparked a torrent of bad press, as it was financed by tax money from Chiapas, the poorest state in all Mexico, where 75 percent of the population live in poverty.
Earlier this year, a video was released online showing a different side of Velasco, as he slapped his assistant in the face during a public event. The governor was forced to offer an apology for what he described as an “unfortunate accidental incident.”
Despite these controversies, the party’s campaign strategy has bolstered its support. The Green Party is one of only six political parties in Congress and is the fourth largest in terms of the number of representatives. It’s alliance with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has been effective, allowing it to grow under the wing of the larger, older party.
Like the PRI under Peña Nieto, strengthening democracy in Mexico is not the Green Party’s priority. The use of public money for personal publicity drives and the underhand strategies to buy influence with voters echoes the behavior of the old regime, when democracy was continually referred to, but the political system seemed closer to feudalism.
The INE is responsible for defending democracy in Mexico and the illegal behavior of the Green Party undermines its power. Unable to impose its will through fines alone, the institute has listened to calls from politicians and citizens calling for the cancellation of the party’s registration.
Political analyst Jorge Alcocer said that such a sanction is legal and feasible but difficult to engineer. “If someone wants to terminate their registration for such violations, the institute would have to reprint the ballots and they’ll say ‘there is not enough time.’ I am pessimistic. I think the party should have its registration cancelled, but I don’t think they are going to go there.”