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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Has Mexico's Reformer Strayed?

MEXICO CITY -- For much of Mexican President Vicente Fox's term, Arnulfo Montes Cuen was a prized ally. A spellbinding speaker in a black cowboy hat, he barnstormed rural Mexico, setting up farmers' unions friendly to the ruling National Action Party and cementing their loyalty with access to government aid programs.

Then the 41-year-old organizer fell out with the party and became a whistle-blower, triggering an investigation into the biggest case of alleged illegal funding to surface in this year's presidential race.

As Montes tells it, Fox's government had authorized $5 million for him to buy building materials and distribute them to thousands of poor farmers. But there was a catch: He was to kick back half the money to the campaign of Felipe Calderon, the National Action Party's presidential candidate.

Montes refused and was booted from the program. He is pressing criminal charges against 12 officials of the government and the party, known as the PAN, for allegedly replacing him with someone willing to divert the anti-poverty funds to Calderon's war chest.

Fox and his conservative followers rode into office in 2000 on a wave of popular revulsion against the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had monopolized federal power for seven decades. But their campaign to perpetuate PAN's rule appears to mirror many of the PRI's unscrupulous uses of incumbency.

As a result, Mexico's electoral bodies are facing their biggest test of the new democratic era: Six years after managing the historic election that toppled the PRI, can they coax a freely chosen government to play fair enough to ensure a credible vote on July 2?

Already, the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, has warned it may take to the streets at the first hint of a tainted PAN victory.

Fox until recently made massive use of public-service announcements to promote his party's achievements. And thousands of messages denigrating the leading opposition candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, have flowed from e-mail addresses in Fox's administration.

Opposition parties say the alleged diversion of the $5 million grant is part of an effort to extort campaign money. This week the head of a private security company lodged a criminal complaint accusing Fox's Social Security Administration of demanding a 10 percent kickback for the Calderon campaign in exchange for approval of a $5.2 million contract to provide guards for public hospitals.

Both the PRI and PAN were fined for sneaking illegal funds into the 2000 campaign, but no candidate was penalized and the parties responded by blocking further electoral reform in Congress.

Lorenzo Cordova, an advisor to the electoral institute in that campaign, said the panel could not adequately vet widespread suspicion that the parties are up to the same funding tricks.

"This is something we cannot know for sure, because the electoral institute has no power to audit these reports until after the election," Cordova said.

The PRD has cast suspicion on the panel's decisions, particularly its months-long hesitation to censor PAN ads attacking Lopez Obrador as "a danger to Mexico" and to negotiate an end to presidential public-service announcements.

PRD campaign aide Manuel Camacho Solis has said that Fox's interference in the election already had been "reason enough to annul it."