Coping With the Joneses

Mexico grudging opens its ballot process to US and others after years of guarding its sovereignty

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IMAGINE your neighbor is rich, foreign, and tactless. During family quarrels, he shows up with unsolicited advice. Social and professional ties make him impossible to ignore. Your kids love to hang out at his house and go shopping at his chain of retail stores. You own television and car factories, but you are dependent on him because he buys 70 percent of your products. A few years ago, he took over a chunk of your backyard without permission, and you were powerless to stop him.

Mexicans don't have to imagine that neighbor. From their perspective, it sits just north of the Rio Grande. What is unusual is that, for the first presidential vote in its history, Mexico is opening its back gate and grudgingly inviting its Yankee neighbor -

among others - over to watch.

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History has taught Mexico to guard its sovereignty jealously. Incursions by everyone from conquistadors to gringos are unforgivable sins as taught in school.

But just as President Carlos Salinas de Gortari was convinced the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was a political compromise necessary for economic advancement, he apparently sees the arrival of non-Mexican electoral observers as necessary to give the elections an imprimatur of credibility.

For most of its 65 years in power, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party did not much care what the world thought about its questionable electoral practices. But Mr. Salinas wants Mexico to be a ``first world'' nation. NAFTA is one step toward that goal. NAFTA and this January's rebel uprising in southern Mexico have turned a bright, judgmental spotlight on Mexico.

US Ambassador James Jones has made it clear that clean elections on Aug. 21 will attract US investors; fraudulent ones will discourage them. And the calls for democracy by Zapatista rebel leader Subcommander Marcos have struck a chord with Mexicans tired of repression and feudal justice. One response to the Zapatistas has been a last-minute flurry of electoral reforms.

The first breach in the sacred political wall of sovereignty came with the arrival of 50 UN technical advisers. These are not, as Mexican officials are at pains to point out, observers. They are only assisting the government and a network of Mexican citizen observer groups, which hope to field 100,000 poll watchers on election day. Ironically, many Mexican groups are receiving US funding.

But the United Nations is one thing. Allowing just anyone from the US to peer over Mexican shoulders is another matter. There have been months of nationalistic teeth gnashing over Article 33 of the Mexican Constitution, which states: ``Foreigners can in no way interfere in political matters of the country.''

Last month, the General Council of the Federal Electoral Institute unanimously (but lamentably, as one council member said) decided to allow electoral visitors. In some countries, foreign observers have access to voter lists, can question officials, and conduct research. Not here. The rule is ``look but don't touch.'' All will be required to register with the government. The registration process is going slowly due to bureaucratic snags. An estimated 1,000 electoral ``visitors,'' mostly from the US and Canada, are expected.

The combination of foreign and domestic observers could produce more honest results, leading to greater investment. But lingering suspicions and national pride make it hard for even the most ardent champions of democracy to accept the change. ``I don't like it,'' says Margarita, a Mexico City school teacher. ``It's like we're inviting somebody to referee my family fights. It's my family. Nobody else's opinion should matter. Besides, the US has always influenced our elections. I don't know how.... But we know they do it.''

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