One Secret to a Latin American Party’s Dominance: Buying Votes


The Espinillo indigenous community is 13 miles from the nearest polling station — and no one in the village owns a car.

So two weeks ago, on the eve of Paraguay’s elections, Miguel Paredes, a retired ambulance driver turned local politician, loaded indigenous families into a bus and drove them to the side of a highway, a short distance from the polls. on the “We want to take care of them,” said Mr. Paredes, 65, standing next to six young men he called his comrades.

Then, after dark, Mr. Paredes and his colleagues rounded up some of the indigenous people and took their identification numbers. Mr. Paredes told them he would vote for the Colorado Party — the dominant, right-wing political force in Paraguay — and to make sure his fellow community members did the same. The youth then guided indigenous people to vote for Colorado candidates through simulations of Paraguayan voting machines on a phone.

Within earshot of New York Times reporters, Milner Ruffinelli, one of the young men, slipped into Guarani, the indigenous language. “The money that was promised to you is also there, and Mr. Miguel Paredes is going to see how to get it to you,” he said. “We can’t give you anything here. You know why.”

Democracy is being tested all over the planet. In some countries, leaders have attacked democratic institutions, including the United States, Turkey, Brazil, and Mexico, while in others they have completely subverted the democratic process, such as in Russia, Venezuela, and In Nicaragua.

At the same time, Internet disinformation has fed claims of hacked voting machines, dead voters and stolen ballots, reducing confidence in fair elections.

But in many nations, a less visible, but just as widespread threat affects free and fair elections: vote buying.

Mexico’s political parties have raised their hands Gift cards, groceries and even washing machines. Election observers said last year’s vote in the Philippines “Mass buying of votes” In February, a politician in Nigeria was caught with $500,000 and a list of potential recipients a day before national elections.

Last month in Paraguay, a nation of 7.4 million in the heart of South America, The Times found a unique kind of vote-buying, developed over decades, on clear display: Political operatives in remote Paraguay Collected and tried to control the tribal people in the north. Or buy their votes.

On the weekend of the national election, The Times found that representatives of the ruling Colorado party were trying to buy the votes of indigenous people, and more than a dozen indigenous people said in interviews that they accepted money from the party just before voting. were

In one case, a Colorado candidate for governor personally handed out 200,000 guarantas, or about $30, to more than 100 indigenous voters outside a polling station in the riverside town of Fuerte Olimpo, with five indigenous people receiving the money. According to an interview with This amount is equivalent to several weeks’ earnings for Paraguay’s poorest.

Nestor Rodríguez, chief of the Tomaraho indigenous community who was given the money, said it was standard. “It’s just to buy clothes and things for your family,” he said. He said he voted for Colorado candidate Arturo Mendez because of promises of jobs and a new road.

Mr. Mendez won the election handily. In an interview, he admitted to giving cash to the indigenous people but said it was only because they needed food and clothing, and the government had forgotten them. “Yes, we help them. But not to sway their vote,” he said. “It would be cruel not to.”

Paying people to vote a certain way is illegal in Paraguay. Many payments are designed as financial assistance, such as money for lunch on election day.

In the border state of Concepcion, home to 3,000 indigenous residents, the Colorado candidate won the governorship by just 28 votes. The losing candidate is challenging the results, claiming irregularities in the counting of votes.

Ryan Carlin, a Georgia State University professor who studies the issue, said vote buying can change local elections, but rarely national elections. Yet it always undermines democracy by “bridging the mechanisms of representation and accountability”. “If a vote is accepted and given in exchange for something else, there is no policy promise on the other side.”

Many of Paraguay’s roughly 120,000 indigenous people began to integrate into modern society a few decades ago, and many political parties — not just Colorado — have since tried to control their votes.

In the days before national elections, party workers cheer in the Chaco, a vast, arid region that straddles the northwestern half of Paraguay, where nearly half the indigenous people live.

According to election observers, local activists and indigenous people who have experienced it, in remote communities, workers load indigenous people into buses, drive them to fenced-off sites and drive them to the polls with meat and meat. Raised with beer. The goal is to control a community before an opposing party can.

On election day, party workers either pay tribals for their identity cards – thus preventing them from voting – or bus them to the polls and give them cash.

The practice is so entrenched, it has developed its own terminology: “herding” indigenous voters and keeping them in “corrals.”

“It’s like we’re animals to be bought,” said Francisco Caceres, 68, a member of the Kom indigenous group.

European Union election observers said they had seen such “corrals” in Paraguay’s 2013 and 2018 elections, and several cases of vote-buying in the April 30 election. Observers said the parties try to buy the votes of many Paraguayans, not just indigenous ones.

The exercise is part of a robust political machine that has strengthened the Colorado Party’s grip on Paraguay, which it has controlled for 71 of the past 76 years, including four decades of military dictatorship. .

Colorado presidential candidate Santiago Pena, Won by 460,000 votes, with 43 percent of the total. (Paraguay has fewer than 80,000 indigenous adults, according to estimates.) Mr. Peña is a political supporter of the former president and current party chairman, Horacio Cortes, who was sanctioned by the U.S. government this year on charges that he paid bribes. . The way of power.

The second- and third-place candidates have suggested that Mr Pena’s victory was rigged, but have not offered clear evidence. The third-place candidate, whose supporters have blocked highways in protest, has been jailed for attempting to disrupt the election.

In an interview before the election, Mr. Peña said that if there was vote buying, it would not swing the race.

“There really isn’t much evidence in the vote-buying argument,” he said. “It has never been possible to demonstrate a large procurement plan. If 2.5 to 3 million people vote, how many votes do we have to buy?

Yet, among Paraguayans, vote buying is an open secret. “It’s almost as if without it, it’s not an election,” Rev. said Jose Arias, a Catholic priest who uses his sermons to stop his indigenous flock from selling their votes. “People agree in principle,” he said. Bribery is “even accepted by many people”.

At the highway encampment, Mr. Paredes and Mr. Raffinelli said they were not paying bribes. He said the Colorado party paid for the bus, as well as the chicken, noodles and cooking oil he gave to the community. But they were there because they had built relationships over time, they said, and were pushing Colorado candidates because they were best for the community.

Everyone was free to vote as they wished, Mr. Ruffinelli said, but he hoped they would vote for Colorado.

“They have already promised,” Mr. Rafinelli said. He crunched the numbers: 86 percent of the 5,822 registered voters in the local voting area were Indigenous. He said he would analyze the results to try to determine whether “this community betrayed us.”

Some in the Enxet Sur community said they would accept the money — but still vote against Colorado. “If Colorado comes with an offer, we’ll take it, but we know how we’re going to vote: for change,” said Fermin Chilavert, 61, one of the community’s elders.

Others had already taken money and were planning to vote when asked, including 10 community members who agreed to act as “political operators” for the party on election day.

In a late-night meeting, Mr. Paredes and Mr. Rafinelli explained to the operators that they wanted to make sure more indigenous people voted in Colorado, including entering polling booths with them. (Election observers said political parties regularly abused laws allowing people with disabilities to go to the voting booth.)

“You’re going to enter with them, you’re going to teach them and you’re going to tell them where to click,” Mr Paredes told the indigenous people, many looking nervously at the ground. were

The next morning, election day, a truckload of buses was parked near the polling station. They sent hundreds of indigenous people to vote, and each was adorned with political party decals, mostly for Colorado.

On a bus with Colorado signs, indigenous passengers said they were each given 100,000 to 150,000 guaranties, or $14 to $21, and voted Colorado.

Catalino Escobar, the man driving the bus, said the voters were given a stipend to eat. (A sandwich and a Coca-Cola cost $2 at the gas station.)

“I don’t know who the candidate is, to tell you the truth,” said Marie Fernanda, 51, who said she accepted 100,000 guarantees to help feed her children. “I’m just voting out of necessity.”

When the votes were counted, the Colorado Party again dominated Paraguay’s elections, retaining the presidency and consolidating its control of Congress.

All of the 19 indigenous people who ran for national or state seats lost. Paraguay has never elected someone who identifies as indigenous to national office.

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