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It was the weirdest thing: Election Night, Mexico City, 2006.

I was inside the “macro-newsroom” of the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) at the moment the polls were officially closed. Surrounding the room, monitors designed to show incoming returns from each of Mexico’s 31 states flashed on. The buzzing reporters and campaign surrogates looked up for a second. Columns on each of the screens representing the old-guard Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) were nearly flat. So were the yellow columns for the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). But on each screen, the blue column for the conservative National Action Party (PAN) was inexplicably, instantly, fat and tall. A second or so later, the screens went back to normal, the columns all empty, and everyone went back to work.

Was I the only one who caught that? Probably not. In what turned out to be the most contested, controversial and media-saturated election in Mexican history, a little moment of graphical anomaly at the national elections headquarters turned out to be nothing compared to what was seen in the weeks preceding and following July 2, 2006: dirty, misleading campaign propaganda; an incumbent president, Vicente Fox, defying Mexican electoral tradition by openly stumping for his party’s candidate; photos of stuffed and trashed ballot boxes; outrageous irregularities in polling-place tallies; and recordings of suggestive phone calls between labor bosses, state governors and corporate magnates. “Everything is under control,” they reassured one another.

This is all displayed in convincing detail in Fraude, the Luis Mandoki documentary that wears its political sympathies in its title. The electoral “fraud,” the film argues, was committed against Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the Social Democrat–style populist who was defeated in the election by an official but highly dubious margin of less than one percentage point. Irregularities were found in more than 60 percent of polling-place tallies in the 2006 presidential election in Mexico. But in the end, only 9 percent of the ballots were recounted.

The conservative Felipe Calderón, a Harvard-educated devout Catholic and career bureaucrat, was named president. At his swearing in at Congress, Calderón was met with partisan representatives openly brawling on the chamber floor and the full force of the Mexican military keeping peace on the streets. Mexico was growing up — very, very painfully.

When Fraude opened in Mexico last year, after major stonewalling from distributors, it was met with the same kind of mudslinging that characterized the summer of 2006. The film was all but panned by most people outside of López Obrador’s armies of unyielding militants (who have since named their leader Mexico’s “Legitimate President”). But when it arrives in U.S. theaters this weekend, Fraude (which includes raw video footage submitted to Mandoki by thousands of citizens) will render a vital portrait into the complexity and fragility of Mexico’s recently reformed electoral system, which in the weeks before Calderón’s election was trumpeted internationally as a shining example for all the world’s tender democracies. It is all the more riveting because in 2006 the stakes were so high.

Modern Mexico has never elected a textbook leftist to the presidency. Since the 1910 Revolution and the early years of the PRI regime, Mexico’s presidents have been practically appointed: More than seven decades of single-party rule under the PRI ended only with the election of PAN candidate Fox in 2000. Left-minded people going to the polls in Mexico in 2006 believed that Fox ended up governing just as his recent predecessors had — by appeasing the interests of the Americans, the multinationals and the minute circle of Mexico’s extremely wealthy. No surprise there. In his lifetime, the Nobel laureate Octavio Paz consistently argued that the office of the president in modern Mexico is an extension of the Spanish viceroy in the Colonial era and the tlatoani during the Aztec Empire. That is, a soft dictatorship in everything but name, for more than 600 years. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Fraude suggests, would have changed that order once and for all.

Where the film falters is in satisfying the natural inclination of an outside viewer to wonder, “Why this man? Mandoki breezes over López Obrador’s personal history and provides little compelling evidence for why he is so loved by the tens of thousands who continue to turn out for the rallies he commands in Mexico City (lately, against Calderón’s proposed privatization reforms of the state oil company, Pemex). Footage of the “legitimate president” seated alone in a director’s chair offers some hints. López Obrador tears up while discussing his political idol, Chile’s Salvador Allende — the Marxist who was removed from office and died during his country’s military coup on September 11, 1973. Pondering the idea of leading a violent uprising in the face of the “fraud,” López Obrador states with solemn pauses: “Violence is … something … totally … undesirable. I can’t offer other people’s lives. I’m a pacifist.”

Mandoki’s documentary argues throughout that the 2006 election was about more than the López Obrador candidacy, that democracy itself was under attack and ultimately beaten. There is never a smoking gun. There is, instead, exhibit after exhibit of artful, fear-fueling media spin and the innuendo of backroom deals and ballot manipulation. Fraude exposes how Mexico’s new democratic electoral institutions are so painfully vulnerable to the influence of those who maintain power in Mexico and pass it around like a silver platter.

In this respect, the film shows that, in Mexico, what we know of as “democracy” did not fail, exactly, if you keep in mind what happened north of the border in 2000 and 2004. Supposedly, there are fine democratic infrastructures in Ohio and Florida, right? Fraude makes the case that in Mexico in 2006, those same sorts of institutions just became positively gringo.

 
FRAUDE: MEXICO 2006 | Directed by LUIS MANDOKI | Produced by FEDERICO ARREOLA | Released by Maya Entertainment | Music Hall