Election Lessons from Mexico


By Geri Smith Why is a Mexican elections expert among the international observers monitoring the U.S. vote for signs of unfair doings? After all, for nearly a century, Mexico had one of the world's most notoriously corrupt political systems. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) held onto power for 71 years by openly stealing elections: It bought off voters with government handouts, sent party faithful out to vote 20 or 30 times apiece, and if any district showed signs of leaning toward the opposition, party goons would simply steal ballot boxes at gunpoint. It's not surprising, then, that the PRI regularly "won" elections with 99% of the vote.

But all that changed in 2000, when opposition candidate Vicente Fox managed to break the PRI's grip on power and win in elections that were virtually fraud-free. No one protested the results, and Fox walked away with an indisputable mandate. That remarkable achievement happened thanks to dramatic reform of the Mexican electoral system in the 1990s -- including some reforms that the U.S. would do well to emulate.

GUESTS OF POWELL. Sergio Aguayo, a political scientist at the Colegio de México in Mexico City, is 1 of 15 observers from 11 countries invited by Global Exchange, a San Francisco human-rights organization, to watch the U.S. elections in Ohio, Florida, and other hotly contested states. An additional 100 or so observers from the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a 55-state security group, will also be on hand for the vote. OSCE was invited by Secretary of State Colin Powell after 13 Democratic members of the U.S. Congress asked the U.N. to send a team to monitor the proceedings.

For years, the U.S. has sent election observers to countries around the world to help ensure fair, fraud-free elections. But Americans are unaccustomed to theirs being scrutinized, and some are quite unhappy about it. The conservative Washington (D.C.)-based American Policy Center charges that the foreign election monitors are "radically active leftists" who sympathize with the Democratic Party and are intent on enforcing a "political agenda that will affect the outcome of the election."

The soft-spoken Aguayo, 56, is far from being a radical leftist. In fact, he risked his own life to make sure Mexico had fair elections. As co-founder of Civic Alliance, a coalition of 435 grass-roots groups created in 1994 to monitor that year's presidential election, he received death threats that forced him to accept round-the-clock protection by three armed bodyguards.

LANDMARK LOSS. The long-ruling PRI won that election, but public opinion strongly disapproved of the lopsided advantage the party had in campaign financing and coverage in the pro-government media. Thanks in large part to Civic Alliance's efforts to shed light on Mexico's once-shadowy election process, people started demanding that the PRI no longer be allowed to organize and oversee the elections.

Two years later Mexico's Congress agreed to create a completely independent, nonpartisan Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) run by leading academics and legal experts to oversee all future elections. Private campaign contributions were sharply curtailed and replaced by government financing for parties, and Aguayo's Civic Alliance monitored media coverage to make sure that it was equitable.

It worked: In the 1997 midterm elections, the PRI lost control of the national congress for the first time ever, even though its candidates continued to give away sewing machines and bags of food and fertilizer to sway voters.

"MONUMENTAL EFFORT." Then the IFE spent nearly $1 billion to clean up voter rolls, issue 59 million new, tamper-proof photo ID cards for voters featuring holograms, and train 800,000 citizens to serve as unpaid official observers at 113,000 polling places. Public service ads assured Mexicans their vote was secret and would be carefully counted.

In 2000, 68% of registered voters turned out to elect Fox with 43.7% of the vote, vs. 34.9% for the PRI. For the first time ever, the result wasn't contested. "It was a monumental effort by civil society and the political class, and it gave us election results we could believe in for the very first time in our history," says Aguayo. "That's an extraordinary achievement."

Aguayo, who studied under a Fulbright fellowship at Johns Hopkins University in the mid '70s, says the U.S. could learn much from Mexico's experience. For starters, he finds it incredible that elections are run by mostly partisan state and local officials. "That looks an awful lot like the old Mexican PRI to me," he says. American states have no reason, he says, not to set up nonpartisan election commissions with citizen oversight.

NOT "RELIABLE." And he's amazed at the news stories showing names such as Mary Poppins and Dick Tracy appearing on voter rolls. That sort of thing doesn't happen in Mexico today -- people have to present a series of official documents, including a birth certificate and proof of residence, in order to join voter rolls and obtain a voter photo ID. And, when they go to vote, their faces are matched to their voter ID pictures and then cross-matched to a printout -- also with their pictures on it -- at the polling place.

Aguayo has long been impressed with the U.S. political system and with the achievements of its durable democracy. But he says the country's electoral system urgently needs reforms. "Technically, it isn't a reliable democracy," he says. "The litmus test is when the loser accepts the results of an election. This isn't the case now in the U.S." And only after changes are made, he says, will future governments enjoy full legitimacy in the eyes of all voters -- and the rest of the world. Smith is BusinessWeek's Mexico City bureau chief


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