MEXICO CITY — Wielding the power and resources of government, Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party has used some of the nation’s most important institutions in an attempt to change the course of next month’s presidential election, according to independent election observers and former party officials.
The nation’s attorney general, who is appointed by the president, has publicly accused one of the main opposition candidates of serious crimes without offering much evidence. Similarly, decisions by a special court overseeing the election, which was appointed by a PRI-dominated congress, have been roundly criticized.
Hardball tactics are nothing new in Mexican politics, but the PRI’s abuse of state institutions are a staggering escalation for a party in power.
Early last year, facing abysmal poll numbers and a strong opponent in the presidential race, the party was approached by the now-defunct firm Cambridge Analytica. It offered to help the PRI win, just as it said it had done for President Trump, according to a 57-page proposal the company drafted that was obtained by The New York Times.
The PRI reviewed the proposal for months, but eventually decided it didn’t need to pay millions of dollars to an outsider to wage a dirty campaign, according to three people familiar with the negotiations. The party could do that itself. But in a preview of the extreme measures the party was willing to take to secure its position, it paid Cambridge anyway so that the company would not work for anyone else, according to two people familiar with the negotiations.
The decision, made in the early months of 2017, was an informal start to what has, to some, been a period of misuse of government resources for electoral purposes.
“What they are doing is taking what little credibility and confidence there is in our institutions and throwing it away,” said Ignacio Morales Lechuga, who was the country’s attorney general during the 1990s, when the PRI was also in government. “It underscores the weak rule of law we have here and points to their desire to do whatever it takes to stay in power.”
The attorney general’s office, which announced its investigation into the opposition candidate, Ricardo Anaya, in February of this year, has not brought any charges or offered much evidence, eliciting widespread complaints that the governing party is trying to skew the elections.
The special court has rejected two audits into improper campaign spending by the governing party, overruled regulators trying to scrutinize potential vote buying and allowed a tainted presidential campaign onto the ballot — a move that could draw votes away from the opposition, pollsters say.
Beyond that, money for election observers has taken a nose-dive, while spending on gift cards for voters and social services has surged in recent months. Those tactics have long been used to win poor people’s votes in Mexico, election observers say.
For more than 70 years, the PRI has dominated the nation’s political landscape. But now the party appears to be heading toward a searing defeat in the elections next month amid corruption scandals and soaring levels of violence.
The PRI’s frantic search for an edge helped lead to its discussions with Cambridge Analytica, the full details of which have not been previously reported.
The company’s proposal began circulating in 2017, when Enrique Ochoa, the PRI’s former president, was hunting for solutions to keep the party from falling apart. By that time, Cambridge Analytica, a campaign data consultant to the Trump campaign in the months before the 2016 election, had set up shop in Mexico. The PRI was an obvious choice: It was the biggest party, and it badly needed help.
President Enrique Peña Nieto was suffering the lowest approval ratings of any Mexican president in a quarter century, and Cambridge promised to help the party pull off a stunning upset.
In its pitch, the company vowed that in return for $7.2 million, it would raise the PRI’s sagging image — and destroy the reputation of its biggest competitor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leader in the polls. “Using similar techniques that were employed against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US Presidential election,” Cambridge Analytica promised to wage “a powerful negative campaign strategy to undermine” Mr. López Obrador.
The proposal included a “feel good” component to change voters’ negative views of the governing party. But the main tactic was simple: an “Anti Lopez Obrador Campaign.”
“There is no better example of this than Hillary Clinton,” the company said in its proposal, adding: “The front-runner considered by many to have an unassailable lead, and who significantly outspent her Republican opponent, was nevertheless defeated in just this way.” The company even showed mock-ups of how the “Crooked Hillary” campaign could work as a template for anti-López Obrador ads.
But PRI officials determined that the sort of targeting the company claimed to have done in the United States would not work in Mexico, according to the people familiar with the discussions. The data on voters in Mexico was not granular enough, they said.
Cambridge Analytica, which came under intense scrutiny after revelations that it had harvested information from tens of millions of Facebook users, filed for bankruptcy in May.
The company declined to comment about the negotiations with Mexico. And the PRI denied having any relationship whatsoever with Cambridge Analytica.
But the PRI did use a battery of media strategies, law enforcement institutions and judicial bodies that it controlled, independent election observers and former party members say.
In February, the nation’s attorney general’s office announced an investigation into Mr. Anaya, an opposition candidate who was polling better than the PRI candidate. It accused him of laundering money and later released a video of Mr. Anaya meeting with prosecutors in their offices (an encounter the candidate had actually requested).
When Mr. Anaya cried foul, the attorney general’s office justified its decision by saying it was responding “to public interest shown by the media.”
Critics noted that the government had not released such videos in other investigations that the Mexican media has followed in recent years, including into the mysterious disappearance of 43 students. The attorney general’s office has denied using its position to influence the elections.
The PRI’s tactics have stirred a backlash. Several prominent Mexicans — including academics, activists and even former officials — have publicly urged the president to stop intervening in the elections. A powerful consortium of businesses did the same.
“When you cross a line like that in this country, there is really nothing left to stop you,” said Gustavo de Hoyos Walther, the head of the business group, known as Coparmex.
Line crossing is a common occurrence in Mexican politics, and goes far beyond one party in one election. But Mr. de Hoyos Walther and others raised concerns about the effect on Mexico’s institutions.
Money for election observers has dropped 81 percent since the last presidential election, in 2012, according to a recent study by a nonprofit group, Citizen Action Against Poverty.
And many Mexicans argue that the most important election authority in the country has been compromised: the special court appointed to oversee election authorities and, ultimately, validate the voting. At nearly every turn, that tribunal has decided against the regulators responsible for safeguarding the integrity of the vote.
One case that caused an uproar involved Jaime Rodríguez, an especially colorful candidate known as “El Bronco.”
To get onto the ballot as an independent, Mr. Rodríguez turned in nearly 900,000 signatures. But the national election authorities found that more than half of the signatures were fraudulent and threw him out of the race.
Then the election tribunal, which was appointed in 2016 by the PRI-dominated Senate, reversed the decision, claiming that the candidate had not been given due process.
The decision raised objections across Mexico. Mr. Rodríguez is a state governor who, like Mr. López Obrador, positions himself as an outsider who can take on the entrenched interests of the political system. Experts say his presence in the race could siphon votes away from Mr. López Obrador.
Another contentious decision by the election tribunal involved prepaid gift cards handed out to voters.
Under Mexican law, the handouts are not illegal unless a party uses them explicitly to buy votes. The cards, which are used at all levels of government and by nearly all political parties, cover things like a free lunch or $25 in groceries.
But in recent years their role in voting has become undeniable. Time and again, citizens have come forward to say they were promised benefits in exchange for votes.
It happened after the 2012 election, which brought Mr. Peña Nieto to power. Then in 2017, after the PRI won in elections in the states of Coahuila and Mexico, regulators investigated questionable spending in the campaigns. They conducted audits and announced last July that they had found irregularities in campaign spending on advertising, payments to field organizers and gift cards.
The repercussions could have been severe. Such findings can invalidate an election. But before it could come to that, the special electoral tribunal dismissed the audits, declaring them flawed.
“The Tribunal always makes decisions within the letter of the law,” it said. “Our sentences and statistical data are proof of this: in this process, none of the political forces have been favored by resolutions in a disproportional way.”
The controversy over the tribunal soon came up again. Last September, election regulators announced that they would more forcefully regulate the use of the gift cards for the 2018 presidential race. Then they went further, declaring that spending on social programs was also being manipulated for electoral purposes.
But the effort to regulate the spending was stopped before it could start — by the same electoral court.
Analysts worry that the court’s decisions are already being felt, with campaign spending allowed to go unchecked.
On the outskirts of Mexico City, for example, the walls of homes glisten with fresh coats of paint, while trucks carrying rooftop cisterns roll into communities with water shortages, compliments of political parties vying for votes.
Government spending often surges as programs meant to curb hunger or help the poor are transformed into vote-buying machines during election years. This year appears no different. Overall spending for Mexico’s main social services program jumped 20 percent in the first four months of this year, according to an analysis by Citizen Action Against Poverty, the nonprofit group.
But for all of its efforts, the gains have been marginal for the governing party, which appears to be limping toward a crushing defeat this July. Its candidate, José Antonio Meade, remains a distant third in polling.
In fact, the party’s aggressive election strategy seems to have backfired and may have actually helped Mr. López Obrador.
“The use of public offices, resources and institutions for electoral purposes is so visible in this campaign and points to the weakest flank of our democracy,” said Guillermo Cejudo, a professor of public administration at CIDE, a university in Mexico City.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “law enforcement institutions are tools used by the economic and political elite not to defend and protect Mexicans, but rather used to beat each other with a stick.”
Paulina Villegas contributed reporting.