Mass street protests have erupted against electoral fraud in Mexico. The official version of the results of the presidential election on 1 July gave Enrique Peña Nieto, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) 38.21% of the vote, with 31.59% for leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), and 25.41% for Josefina Vázquez Mota of the conservative National Action Party (PAN). The small New Alliance party got 2.29%.

But nobody believes the official figures, which are regularly rigged. It is common knowledge that the PRI shamelessly bought votes and bribed TV networks for support. Agents of the PRI gave out free groceries, pre-paid gift cards and other gifts to voters. Accusations of vote-buying began surfacing in June, but sharpened later when people rushed to grocery stores on the outskirts of Mexico City to redeem pre-paid gift cards worth between 100 and 1500 pesos ($80 to $110 US). Many openly said they had been given the cards from PRI supporters before the elections in exchange for voting for the party.

A series of articles in The Guardian added to the controversy by publishing evidence that Televisa paved Peña Nieto’s path to the presidency by slandering his rivals and presenting blatant pro-PRI propaganda as news. The newspaper El Universal had already printed in advance its morning edition with Peña Nieto on the cover as the “winner.”

In the weeks before the latest polls a student-led movement, #YoSoy132, mobilized demonstrations and online protests against Peña Nieto’s links to the media giant Televisa, accusing both Peña Nieto and Televisa of manipulating both public opinion and state institutions. López Obrador has correctly called this a “national shame.” He said that at least five million voters had received either pre-paid store cards, cash, groceries, construction materials or appliances. The Economist comments:

“There were reports of voters in poor areas being offered upwards of 500 pesos ($38) to hand over their voting cards, which prevented them from casting their votes and perhaps enabled someone else to cast them instead. The PRI featured most often in such reports. A ban on political advertising after the end of the campaign on Wednesday was flouted by the Green Party, a formal ally of the PRI. The Greens illegally sent text-messages and recorded phone calls to many people (including your correspondent) on the day of the election, urging them to vote for their candidates.”

To pay for this massive bribery, the PRI exceeded the legal limit for campaign spending by at least 10 times. In addition, PRD polling booth observers were intimidated, shot at and some were killed. For many, it was like a return to the bad old days of PRI rule. This party ran Mexico uninterruptedly for seven decades, through a toxic mixture of corruption, repression, patronage and electoral fraud, until it was finally ousted from the presidency in 2000.

In 2006, Calderón the candidate of the right-wing PAN party was declared the winner in the presidential elections. But Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the candidate of the PRD, challenged the result and appealed to the masses. López Obrador had lost that election by less than 0.56%, which was clearly the result of rigging. Hundreds of thousands participated in a months-long blockade of Mexico City’s main thoroughfare to protest that result.

Now history seems to be repeating itself. After a six-year term in office, the PAN is completely discredited. But the Mexican ruling class wants to hand power to the PRI in order to block the election of a man who they fear will be under the pressure of the masses. So López Obrador’s followers are taking to the streets again.

The persistent reports of ballot-rigging are confirmed by the result itself, which is closer than that predicted by the polls, some of which had given Peña a lead of between 10 and 15 percentage points. Despite everything, the PRD and López Obrador got a very good result. In Puebla, despite the rigging, the Left won for the first time ever. The Left also won the governorship of Tabasco for the first time.

The PRI did worse than expected. It has not got a majority in parliament and is compelled to ally itself with small right-wing parties (PVEM and PANAL). It will have to take charge of a country gripped by a deep recession, with mass unemployment and growing poverty. It will be a weak government – a government of crisis. It can be defeated. But the prior condition is a general mobilization of the masses. This has already begun.

Angered by this shameless rigging, as many as half a million people marched in Mexico City on Saturday 7 July. Students, unionists and left-wing activists in Mexico City carried placards reading: “Peña, how much did it cost to become president?” and “Mexico, you pawned your future for 500 pesos.” A BBC report quoted interviews with some participants that give some idea of the anger of the protesters:

“The fraud was carried out before [the election], buying votes, tricking the people,” said Gabriel Petatán García, a geography student who carried a sign in Finnish. Protesters also carried signs in English, Japanese, French, German and other languages to call the attention of the international press.

“Some demonstrators covered the heads of statues with plastic shopping bags from Soriana, the supermarket chain where the gift cards were redeemable. ‘We have to come out in the streets to denounce that the PRI bought votes, and there were people who sold them,’ said a 32-year-old psychologist, Raquel Ruiz. ‘The PRI threatens many people and buys others with a couple of tacos,’ said Manuel Ocegueda, a 43-year-old shop worker at the rally.”

López Obrador’s team has denounced irregularities in 113,855 of the country’s 143,000 polling stations, and independent election observers have said that 28 percent of voters interviewed (i.e. about one third) had faced cases of ‘irregularities’. The candidate of the left has, therefore, demanded a re-count. This is correct and logical.

The mood for a fight is clearly present. Demonstrations have occurred in at least 16 states out of a total of 32. In Jalisco there was the largest demonstration in 20 years. In Monterrey, on the frontier with the USA there was also a big demonstration. It is difficult to know how many people are involved, but the movement is larger in numbers than in 2006.

Officials estimated about 50,000 demonstrators gathered at the central Zócalo square. The real figure is anybody’s guess, but the photographs and eyewitness accounts show that it was many times bigger, maybe up to half a million. Our correspondent in Mexico City informs me that there were tens of thousands of people of all ages, but the predominant component was the youth, especially students. Being a college student today is synonymous with being against Peña Nieto. He got no support, even in private schools. There were several mock elections in the schools, and in every case López Obrador won a by large majority.

Our correspondent writes:

“People came marching to the Zócalo for at least three continuous hours. We organized spontaneous rallies and people gathered around our table. We sold 580 newspapers – all we had. They were all shouting slogans against fraud, against the PRI, against the Federal Electoral Institute, against the television, but there were also some contingents who chanted slogans for a general strike (Por el paro nacional). No mass organization called this demonstration.”

The last comments are significant. The masses want to fight. But who is leading the movement? Who organized these protests? The answer seems to be: nobody. These demonstrations appear to be mainly of a spontaneous character, probably called through social media. Thus, they have all the strengths and all the weaknesses of spontaneous actions. The lack of leadership is its Achilles’ heel. Only MORENA, which organizes the left wing of the PRD and activists outside of the party, together with the student movement, backed the call to action.

Whereas in 2006, López Obrador identified himself with the protest movement, this time he has so far distanced himself from the marches and the struggle in general. Instead of mobilizing a mass movement, he has said he would file a formal legal challenge to the vote count in electoral courts. This strategy is completely mistaken.

The PRI can argue that what they did was within the boundaries of (Mexican) legality. Giving gifts to influence votes is a crime, but simply giving away such gifts is not illegal under Mexican electoral law, as long as the expense is “reported to electoral authorities”. In other words, there are a thousand tricks to render a legal challenge null and void.

To appeal to a corrupt judiciary against a fraudulent electoral decision is like appealing to Satan against the Devil. Such an appeal will get nowhere and will take a long time. By delaying things until the cumbersome wheels of “justice” have finished rolling, the authorities will succeed in demobilizing the mass movement. To try to substitute the class struggle by judicial appeals is nothing less than legalistic cretinism.

With the most astounding cynicism, the PRI spokesman, Eduardo Sánchez, said last week the gift-card event had been “a theatrical representation” mounted by the left. He claimed that supporters of López Obrador took hundreds of people to the shops, dressed them in PRI T-shirts, gave them gift cards, emptied shelves to create an appearance of panic buying, and brought TV cameras in to give the false impression that the PRI had given out the cards! With this “explanation”, the art of lying has attained new heights, bordering on the surreal.

Leonardo Valdés, the president of the Federal Electoral Institute, is a more cunning and subtle representative of the ruling class. He has already said he “did not see any grounds for overturning the results” but assured the public that an investigation into the gift cards “had been launched”. In other words, he is saying to the Left Coalition: “Carry on with your legal appeals, my friends. We will of course investigate as much as you like, but in the end the investigations will find nothing, and the decision we have already taken will stand.”

César Yáñez, the spokesman for López Obrador’s campaign, denied the PRI accusations, but did not call for more mass protests. This is a bad mistake. The only hope of getting the result overturned is by stepping up the mass movement. By resorting yet again to the blatant rigging of elections in order to prevent the PRD coming to power, the ruling class has thrown down the gauntlet to the working class and the people of Mexico. The working class must pick up the gauntlet and throw it back in the face of the oligarchy.

Probably the leaders of the PRD think that because it did not achieve the intended result in 2006, this tactic ought not to be repeated. But the problem of 2006-07 was not that the movement went too far. Rather, it did not go far enough. What was needed was to bring the whole thing to a head with an all-Mexican general strike to bring down the government. Without that, the occupation of the Zócalo could never have succeeded.

The same mistake can be seen in other countries, where the idea has gained popularity that merely by demonstrating and occupying city centres it is sufficient to bring about a fundamental change. Mass street protests and occupations are an excellent way of mobilizing broad layers of the population, of giving the masses a feeling of their strength. But in and of themselves, such tactics solve nothing. They cannot bring about a fundamental change in society.

The simple truth is that the ruling class can afford to wait, but the masses cannot. People have to live, to eat, and to earn wages. They cannot simply remain on the streets and squares waiting for something to happen. Such passive tactics eventually exhaust the masses and irritate the middle classes and other “respectable citizens” who wish for nothing more than to go about their daily business with a minimum of disturbance.

As a first step, López Obrador should call for more protests, demonstrations and occupations. But the lesson of 2006 is that such a movement can only succeed if it is the launching pad for an all-out general strike.

Call mass meetings in the factories and workplaces to discuss and prepare strike action. Elect strike committees in the factories and broaden them to include other layers of the oppressed: the peasants, unemployed, street vendors. Draw in the representatives of the students, working class women and all who are willing to fight for democracy and socialism. On that basis, and on that basis alone, will the PRI be defeated and the working people advance to the final goal: the conquest of power.