Mexican party builds comeback with discount card

AP News
Posted: Aug 18, 2011 12:21 PM
Mexican party builds comeback with discount card

Join a political party and get deals on meals, hotels, gyms, jewelry and more.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, the authoritarian party that ruled Mexico for 71 years before its defeat in 2000, is offering discount cards on movie tickets, gym memberships, jewelry, dry cleaners, hotels and even university tuition to boost party membership in the central state of Queretaro.

The PRI, which had a long history of corruption and vote-buying to stay in power, now says it's a renovated party dedicated to open democracy as it makes a strong campaign to regain the presidency in 2012.

But others argue the discount cards handed out under PRI's "Family Savings" program are just a more sophisticated twist on old party practices _ this time aimed at the middle class, where the swing votes lie.

Party members once lured voters to campaign rallies by announcing free "despensas," or food baskets that were needed in a country where half the population lives in poverty.

"There was a condition of 'I will give it to you, but you have to go to the rally,'" said political columnist Raymundo Riva Palacio. "It is an evolution of the 'despensas.' They are tackling different demographics."

Gabriela Monjaraz, who heads the "Family Savings" effort and says it is the first program of its kind, denies it has anything to do with vote-buying in a state where the PRI already holds the governorship but not a majority in the state legislature.

"It is only a program in place so people who want to save a bit with the businesses we have signed ... are able to do it," she said.

Federal election laws say parties cannot force people to affiliate in order to obtain a service. And state election laws penalize those who offer a benefit in exchange for a vote, but only during elections.

The Queretaro Electoral Institute, which enforces state election law, has received no complaints about the program and can't say whether it breaks any laws, spokesman Gabriel Morales said. Jose Luis Orozco, spokesman for the Federal Electoral Institute, said affiliating to a party is not a sure vote.

But Jose Luis Baez Guerrero, state president for President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party, or PAN, said he is investigating possible violations. At the very least it is not ethical, he added.

"It's not healthy to take advantage of people in need," Baez said. "It's not moral or ethical to tell people, 'I'll give you a discount as long as you carry a party credential.'"

PRI leaders in the states of Sonora, in the northwest, and Tamaulipas, in the northeast, have also given out discount cards but with expiration dates.

Queretaro, a state of about 1.8 million people where manufacturing is the main economic driver, does not hold elections for state and local offices until next July, when Mexico will choose a new president.

After PAN candidate Vicente Fox defeated the PRI for the first time in 2000, followed by Calderon's victory six years later, the PRI's presumed presidential candidate, Enrique Pena Nieto, is running strongest in pre-election polls.

Anyone showing up at the party's offices with their Mexican voter ID can get a free "Family Savings" card carrying the PRI logo. Those who join the party get a special ID with their photo.

"We wanted people to say: 'I have a PRI card. I'm part of the party,'" Monjaraz said. "The businesses are getting customers and people are saving. It's a virtuous cycle."

The PRI first issued the cards a year ago, when they were good for about a dozen businesses. The program has since grown to include at least 200 businesses offering discounts, Monjaraz said, though the state party website lists only 110.

They include hospitals, tortilla factories, travel agencies, auto shops, gyms, universities and high schools, which offer cardholders discounts ranging from 10 percent to 50 percent for their goods or services. The company discounts are not counted as political or charitable contributions, Monjaraz said, adding that the businesses get free publicity on the PRI website and in brochures, but nothing else.

The cards "will not only identify you as a member of our party, it will also get you multiple benefits like discounts and special promotions," the state party website says.

The businesses that joined the discount agreement are not necessarily PRI supporters, Monjaraz said.

One of them, she said, is the University of the Valley of Mexico, one of the country's most prestigious colleges with a campus in Queretaro, which is offering cardholders up to 20 percent off on tuition fees.

The university said its participation does not make it appear to be a supporter of the PRI.

"We are interested in extending access to higher education," the university said in an email.

Marco Antonio Jimenez, manager of the City Express Queretaro hotel, and Roberto Gomez, an employee of auto repair business Mecanica Integral, told The Associated Press they signed the agreement with the PRI only to get more clients, not to support the party.

But Juan Pablo Rodriguez, owner of the Manduka restaurant in the state capital, also called Queretaro, said he supports the party.

"I hope this savings program helps them get votes," he said.