Upcoming Mexican Election Seen as Travesty of Democracy

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WITH the United States Congress preparing to vote on NAFTA, and influential members of the House and Senate voicing concerns about democracy in Mexico, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has produced electoral reform for the second time in his administration. On first inspection, many of the changes seem impressive: Limits will be set on campaign spending, voter identification cards will include photographs to help deter fraudulent balloting, and the Mexican Senate is being expanded to include more members of opposition parties.

Yet members of Congress should be concerned that the ``reform'' legislation is not all it appears to be, and that it sidesteps an Organization of American States (OAS) ruling, calling on the Mexican government to enact far more essential reforms. Two years ago the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the OAS found Mexico in violation of Article 23 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which requires the holding of ``genuine'' elections that guarantee the ``free expression of the will of the voters.''

Following a complaint filed by legislators of the opposition National Action Party (PAN), the commission informed Mexico that to comply with Article 23 it would have to enact two fundamental reforms: creation of ``independent'' and ``impartial'' electoral commissions and establishment of effective means of appealing fraud.

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Neither condition is met by the latest reforms. As it stands, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has ruled Mexico for the past 64 years, will continue to dominate the federal electoral council.

The PRI has six seats (nine counting three satellite parties that depend on government subsidies) to a total of five for the opposition (PAN and PRD). Six additional councilors are nominated by the president. The government characterizes these as ``independent'' because they are subject to confirmation by a two-thirds vote of the Chamber of Deputies. With control of 63 percent of the lower house, the PRI can practically muster the two-thirds on its own. Should the requisite majority prove unattainable, councilors are selected by lot from the same list of presidential nominees. Hence the president prevails one way or the other, ensuring his partisans a greater than 2-to-1 majority on the council and complete control of the electoral bureaucracy.

To provide a semblance of due process, the reform expands the authority of the electoral tribunal, to which parties may appeal decisions of the council. The tribunal will now have two chambers. The lower will consist of magistrates chosen by the president in the same disingenuous manner as the ``independent'' members of the electoral council. The new upper chamber, which will be the final court of appeals, will be composed of the chief magistrate of the lower chamber and four members of the judiciary. But since justices are appointed by the president with the rubber-stamp approval of the PRI-dominated Senate, this will only channel appeals to an even more hostile forum where the opposition has no representation at all. As a further check on dissent, Article 272 of the new electoral law limits the independence of members of both the electoral council and electoral tribunal by making them subject to removal by the other members.

Monopoly control of elections unfortunately relativizes other reforms. Limits on campaign spending mean little when the only big spender is in effect accountable only to itself.

In the absence of more fundamental reforms, photo-ID cards become another instrument of deception. Random checks of the new voter rolls in Mexico City have revealed that more than 12 percent of registered voters have fictitious addresses. The cards also do not address new forms of electoral fraud, such as the selective purging of opposition voters from registration lists.

Far from seeking to democratize Mexico, the aim of the reforms is to reinforce one-party rule while securing enough seats for the opposition to provide a semblance of pluralism. With complete control over registration and vote counts, and unrestricted access to millions of dollars of government ``Solidarity'' funds, the danger now is that the PRI will fare too well to be credible. That was the lesson learned two years ago, when the PRI claimed almost two-thirds of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and all but three seats in the Senate. To guard against such overkill, the latest ``reforms'' limit the PRI to 315 of 500 seats in the lower house and 96 of 128 seats in the Senate. This, it is hoped, will allow Mexico to portray itself as a democracy, even as it preserves authoritarian rule.

BY preparing to hold on to power in 1994 even if it means denying Mexicans their most basic political rights, the PRI risks plunging the country into turmoil over elections the opposition now insists are stacked. Following recent gubernatorial elections in Guanajualo, San Luis Potosi, and Michoacan, the president had to ask ``elected'' governors to step down after mass protests rendered the states ungovernable. If this scenario should repeat itself at the national level next year, there will be no such easy way out.

Just as disturbing is the Mexican government's continuing violation of OAS treaty obligations and the 1991 ruling of the Inter-American Commission. In January 1992, President Salinas amended the constitution to prohibit the national human rights commission from hearing cases involving infractions of political rights. The action reinforced the existing ban on judicial review of violations of political rights, which are not recognized as individual rights in the Mexican constitution. The present electoral reform deliberately sidesteps the OAS requirement of independent and impartial electoral authorities.

As the US Congress considers whether to approve NAFTA, it should inquire why the Mexican government is evading its legal obligations to its citizens and to the OAS. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

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