Mexican Opposition Defends Call for Election Observers

CONTROVERSY over voter fraud flared again after Mexican elections on Sunday. Mexico's opposition leaders on the right and left are questioning President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's commitment to democratic reform. They want foreigners to watch key elections in August - and have already irked the government by bringing in Canadians to watch a local election last weekend.

But Mr. Salinas's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), in power for 60 years, vigorously rejects the idea of international observers, saying they are an affront to national sovereignty.

"We have a new electoral law, which establishes institutions and mechanisms to watch over the process.... We don't need the participation of any foreign observers in any Mexican election," says Javier Aguirre Vizzuett, a PRI official.

The opposition, however, is not taking "no" for an answer. For the past two months, the left-leaning daily La Jornada has carried articles championing the idea of having election observers. And the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) invited (but did not finance) five Canadians to unofficially observe the municipal elections in Morelos state.

Mexican law prohibits foreign observers inside polling places or in ballot counting rooms, so the Canadians remained as casual bystanders outside of about 40 of several hundred voting sites.

The most serious deficiency witnessed was a lack of enclosed areas to vote privately. "In three-quarters of the locations, there was no provision to ensure people could cast a vote secretly. People, including police, were all around the voting tables," says Gerry Gibeault, a member of the Alberta legislative assembly.

On Sunday evening, voters were invited to tell the Canadians about their voting experience. A member of the right-wing National Action Party witnessed a voting booth being closed, moved to a new location, then reopened in an apparent effort to discourage those in line at the first location from voting.

In another area, 21 PRI officials were detained by police for burning several ballot boxes, according to local news reports. PRI officials condemned the burning. There were also allegations that PRI supporters from outside the state voted.

An indication of the government's displeasure with the Canadian presence was the downgrading Saturday of the diplomatic visa for Daniel Heap, a member of the left-leaning New Democratic Party in Canada's House of Commons. As a parliamentarian, he must apply for a diplomatic visa. Describing the move as an "overreaction," Mr. Heap remained to watch the elections on a tourist visa.

PRD officials view the Canadian group as a trial run for a larger international group of observers to be invited for August's federal congressional elections and seven state gubernatorial contests. The August vote is being billed as the first national test of Salinas's electoral reforms to restore confidence in a system undermined by voter absenteeism.

Other nations, such as El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Haiti, and the Philippines, have invited international observers to sanction the electoral process. By inviting observers and putting the spotlight on the Mexican electoral process, the opposition hopes to encourage US and Canadian officials to link democratic reforms to progress on the proposed North American trade pact.

The Salinas government, however, says it is already taking necessary steps to ensure fair elections. And it is invoking the ultimate touchstone in Mexican politics - national sovereignty - to justify the rejection of outside observers.

Romeo Flores Caballero, the PRI's secretary of international affairs, says that whether under the guise of free elections or the fight against drug trafficking, international organizations are the "emissaries of hegemonic schemes." Often these groups are not impartial referees, he says, but political participants in the process. In a recent article in the daily newspaper Excelsior, Mr. Caballero says foreign observers often arrive with a bias for or against opposition policies.

Political analyst Jaime Gonz 135>lez Graf of the Institute of Political Studies laments calls for outside observers. But, he ruefully adds, "It's a necessity. Without them we won't have clean elections."

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