Stab at reform won't relax ruling party's grip for '94 election, Mexicans say

May 16, 1993|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Mexico City Bureau

MEXICO CITY -- It's tough running for president of Mexic against President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Opposition parties can't get the television and establishment newspapers to take their advertising.

There are no public controls on how much money the candidates raise, who contributes to the campaigns or how the campaign funds are spent. And Mr. Salinas, whose Institutional Revolutionary Party has controlled the government at almost all levels for six decades, waves that power before the country's wealthiest businessmen at private luncheons, where he gets million-dollar contributions.

On top of that, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, controls the organization of the election and the training of staff who collect and count votes. Even if observers see ballot boxes being stuffed with votes for the PRI or if they see PRI supporters voting twice, the opponent's only recourse tends to be violent protest that can result in death or injury for dozens of people.

Opposition parties in Mexico, looking to the July 1994 national elections, say unfair electoral practices and political violence have been the rule for decades. Political scientists and election observers agree.

"We don't have conditions for fair elections in Mexico," says Sergio Aguayo, a Mexican political scientist who has monitored elections in Mexico for the past few years. "Therefore, there are always doubts about results."

But increasing pressure from within Mexico -- and even more urgent pressure from outside -- has forced the PRI to adopt measures that make elections more open. And a committee of legislators from all of the country's political parties is negotiating further reforms.

All expect a list of new election rules to be adopted and implemented before the presidential elections in July of 1994. But few think the PRI will accept reforms that would create a level playing field.

"We are pessimistic that there will be any real reforms," says Rosa Albina Garavito Elias, a member of the the left-of-center Democratic Revolutionary Party. "There will only be some superficial changes, enough so that the government can claim to have opened up the system without really doing so."

Since he took office five years ago, President Salinas has implemented important new electoral laws. Under the Federal Code of Electoral Institutions and Procedures, adopted in 1989, a more broadly representative body was created to monitor elections.

In 1990, an expensive campaign was launched to re-register some 40 million voters. Opposition party officials had constantly complained that voter rolls were padded with PRI supporters because voter registration drives were never funded in communities where opposition parties were strongest.

And last year, the government launched another effort to issue new voting cards with a photo to make sure that a person cannot vote using another person's card.

Mr. Salinas, who cannot run for re-election, called for even more political reforms in his state-of-the-union address last year, and representatives of each political party are negotiating them.

However, leaders of the ruling party say change should come slowly for the sake of stability. Leaders of opposition parties say that there is a greater likelihood of instability if they don't get reforms now.

After almost every major election, opposition parties stage furious protests and insist that their candidates were cheated out of victories. Over the past two years, three state governors have been compelled to resign within weeks after taking office because protesters made it impossible for them to govern.

The most recent example occurred after elections last July in the central state of Michoacan, a stronghold of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD. After the announcement that PRI candidate Eduardo Villasenor Pena had won the election by a margin of 2-to-1, PRD militants cried fraud.

Their anger was fueled by testimony from election observers who noted serious irregularities at polls throughout Michoacan. Mr. Aguayo says that supervisors at the polls were overwhelmingly members of the ruling party and that these supervisors openly urged people to vote for the PRI candidate. Voting stations often did not have basic supplies such as voter lists and ballots.

Militants within the Democratic Revolutionary Party, desperate for their first major political victory, organized rock-throwing protests that went on for weeks. Finally, President Salinas asked for Mr. Villasenor's resignation in October and appointed an interim governor -- another member of the PRI.

The protests proved so effective -- governors in Guanajuato and San Luis Potosi were also asked to resign in 1991 -- that many joke that it is not the number of votes that determines who will govern a Mexican state, but the number of stones thrown.

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