Sunday, May 06, 2012

Debates, Institutions, and Distrust

Just a few hours before the first presidential debate one should stop and think how we come to this date. It is hard to face it, but there are little or no expectations about what might happen in the debate. One of the most prestigious political marketing consultants in Mexico, Gisela Rubach, put it briefly in her Twitter account: "This Sunday’s debate will determine who is gets the number 2 slot".

In other words, do not expect too much of a debate with a rather stiff format. A debate where cameras will be zoomed in on whoever is talking, most likely without a boom, an open microphone, so you will only hear whoever is on your TV screen, and, with nothing but 30 minutes for each candidate.

In such a short time, candidates most probably will reiterate the general lines of their campaign ads. Ms. Vazquez Mota will insist in that she is “different”, but will not tell us why she is. Mr. Enrique Peña Nieto will tell us that he does not want to split the country, without any explanation. Mr. Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador will tell us that both PAN and PRI are nothing but the same and that we must vote for him.

The organizers keep telling us that there will be exchanges; but with 30 minutes per candidate it will be difficult to go beyond the same platitudes that have marred the presidential contest. It is hard to expect any change because the questions for the debate are extremely broad, allowing the candidates to avoid, with relative ease, any specific or technical answer. There are no mechanisms to force some degree of technical precision.

If they offer a million or one million and a half jobs, there is no way to force them to tell us how they will achieve such goals. A basic comparison between the debate in Mexico and the debate between François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy in France is shocking. Here in Mexico each candidate will have 30 minutes.

The French candidates had 75 minutes per person, plus the time to each of the two moderators. That is without taking in consideration that the French debate had wide camera shots, open microphones, and the very setup of the TV studio. In Paris, everything seemed to facilitate the discussion. In Mexico City, everything seems to preclude any exchange. Moreover, in Paris the moderators had the authority to force answers from either Sarkozy or Hollande.

In light of these differences it should not surprise the arrogance of Mexican TV mogul Ricardo Salinas Pliego who decided not to broadcast the debate in any of the two TV Azteca national networks. To this sad story of the Mexican presidential debate one should add yet another problem: the conflicting distrust in the two highest authorities on electoral matters in Mexico.

First, the Federal Electoral Institute, or IFE, has been far too lenient with the parties and Ricardo Salinas Pliego. The Federal Electoral Tribunal, Trife, on the other hand issued on the early hours of this Saturday, May 5th, a rather troublesome ruling forbidding the IFE from carrying a “quick count” after the election.

The ruling came after the Democratic Revolution Party, the largest left-to-center party in Mexico, filed a complain against the the IFE’s decision to carry the the" quick count ", as it has been done in previous presidential elections. This ruling raises several questions. Why the PRD filed the complain when it should be interested in giving certainty to the election? This question raises more questions:

Does Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, the left-to-center candidate asked for this? What reason could there be to maim the electoral authority? Was this a decision pushed by Manuel Camacho Solis, the broker of the endless struggles of the Mexican left? Was this a decision of the national leadership of the PRD? If so, is this yet another expression of the endless struggle between Mr López Obrador and the PRD leaders?

There are too many questions and all very difficult to answer. One needs to keep in mind that eliminating the IFE’s "quick count" does not preclude the parties or any pollster from organizing their own "quick counts". Killing the IFE’s "quick count" will generate a period, who knows how long, of uncertainty about the election.The electoral court's reasoning is rather poor. The judges say that "IFE used a fuzzy reasoning when it approved the quick count".

However, it is hard to understand the judges ruling, but even if they are right, this does not invalidate, on the one hand, the need to have a "quick count" as complement all the other tools available to the public on Election Day to know who wins the election. On the other hand, it does not invalidate the "quick count" technique as such.

The Trife had a choice to demand a better implementation of the “quick count”. What is ludicrous is to say that we can forget about the “quick count”. The Trife seems to be out of touch regarding the overall trust in the Mexican electoral authorities. Trust is not the fruit of isolated acts. It needs redundancy, that is to say, it needs systems and instruments supporting other systems and instruments if they fail.

I do not know if the judges are too influenced by the overall perception that the election is already decided with a wide margin, but that would be absurd. Although all the available surveys give a wide lead Mr. Peña Nieto, that advantage will narrow, so the need for exit polls, “quick counts”, and other instruments will be higher.

Having a "quick count" organized by the electoral authority could be extremely useful to avoid the kind of uncertainty we had back in 2006. The electoral authorities, IFE and Trife, have been unable to promote trust in their actions. IFE, as an example, has been extremely weak in its dealing with media mogul Ricardo Salinas Pliego. Trife’s ruling on the “quick count” far from strengthening the IFE, its administrative pair, weakens it further. One should keep in mind that IFE has been hostage of the levity, arrogance, and diva attitudes of some of the council members.

In March, as an example, the council members were forced to put some limits to the astronomical bonds and perks they were going to assign themselves after the election. These excesses were tamed only after the public outrage at the council members was way too evident. It is worth keeping in mind that trust in IFE is still recovering from the 2006 slump brought by the fickleness and irresponsible behavior of then Chairman, Luis Carlos Ugalde.

Now, according to data from Consulta Mitfosky polls, only 28 percent of Mexican citizens trust the IFE, 41 percent have some trust on the electoral authority and 27 percent have little or no trust in IFE (see third chart on page 7 of report).

These numbers are very bad for an institution as important as IFE should be and if one adds the decision to ban the "quick count", there is little or no chance to overcome the effects of the 2006 election night. And the worst part is that 24 hours before the debate, instead of talking about what the candidates are telling us, we are talking about the lack of trust in the electoral authority. Take counselor Marco Antonio Baños’s behavior.

Far from contributing to improve the overall conditions in which the election will happen, he seems to be determined to encourage confrontation. One only needs to see his exchanges with Raul Trejo Delarbre, a prestigious scholar at UNAM’s Institute of Social Research.


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