July 4, 2012 in Nation/World

Gift card spree in Mexico drives vote-buying charges

Winning party gave them out, users say
Olga R. Rodriguez Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

A woman shows her prepaid gift card while waiting in line at a Soriana supermarket in Mexico City on Tuesday. The cards are inflaming accusations of vote-buying.
(Full-size photo)

Gifts allowed

Under Mexican election law, giving voters gifts is not a crime unless the gift is conditioned on a certain vote or meant to influence a vote.

MEXICO CITY – Thousands of people rushed to stores Tuesday to redeem prepaid gift cards they said were given to them previously by the party that won Mexico’s presidency, inflaming accusations that the weekend election was marred by widespread vote-buying.

At least a few cardholders were angry, complaining that they didn’t get as much as promised or that their cards weren’t working. Neighbors at one store in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Mexico City said the unusually large crowds prevented them from doing their daily shopping.

Under Mexican election law, giving voters gifts is not a crime unless the gift is conditioned on a certain vote or meant to influence a vote. However, the cost of such gifts must be reported, and cannot exceed campaign spending limits. Violations are usually punished with fines, but generally aren’t considered grounds for annulling an election.

Some of the people lined up to use gift cards said they got them for supporting the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, whose Enrique Pena Nieto won Sunday’s presidential election, according to the preliminary official vote count. Some wore red T-shirts and baseball caps with Pena Nieto’s name printed in white.

Maria Salazar, a 20-year-old university student, came with her 70-year-old father, Antonio Salazar, to cash three cards.

“They gave us the cards in the name of the PRI and Rep. Hector Pedroza (a PRI congressional candidate), and they said they were counting on our vote,” Maria Salazar said outside one store, as she carried plastic shopping bags packed with toilet paper, cooking oil, rice, saltine crackers and instant noodle soups.

Her father carried two more packed grocery bags and her 8-year-old nephew carried another.

“They told us they were worth 500 pesos ($37.50), but when we got to the checkout, they were only worth 100 rotten pesos ($7.50),” Salazar said.

Both she and her father said they had been told to turn in a photocopy of their voter ID card in order to get the gift cards.

Pena Nieto’s campaign and the PRI press office said they had no immediate comment. In the final days of the campaign before Sunday’s vote, PRI officials denied allegations that the party had distributed prepaid cash cards from a local bank.

Humberto Fayad, a spokesman for the Soriana grocery store chain, denied the company sold huge numbers of gift cards to the PRI.

“There is no agreement between the PRI and Soriana, or Soriana and any other political party. Soriana is a nonpolitical company,” Fayad said.

Before the election, the PRI accused the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, whose candidate ran third in the presidential election, of passing out groceries during the campaign, and claimed the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, had gotten illegal campaign financing. None of those allegations has been proved.

On the Friday before the vote, the PRD issued a statement accompanied by photos of dozens of the Soriana gift cards, saying they had been distributed by a PRI-affiliated union, and it filed a complaint to electoral authorities. The party’s presidential candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, came in second.

Allegations of vote-buying were not limited to Mexico City, with complaints cropping up in several battleground states. PAN accused Pena Nieto’s campaign of acquiring about 9,500 prepaid gift cards worth nearly $5.2 million to give away for votes. Authorities said a business had bought that number of cards, but had found no direct evidence of vote-buying. That investigation continues.

On Tuesday, Alfredo Figueroa, a council member of the oversight agency known as the Federal Electoral Institute, said authorities were investigating complaints about the Soriana gift cards.

Lopez Obrador said Tuesday that his team had detected irregularities at 113,855 polling places, and called for a total recount.

“This is a scandal … They bought millions of votes,” Lopez Obrador said at a news conference, referring to the PRI. “Clearly, they far exceeded campaign spending limits … this is a national embarrassment.”

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