MEXICO CITY — Looking north to the election imbroglio their gringo neighbors are in, many Mexicans are enjoying a delicious irony.
"Is the Mexican or the American election system more reliable and confidence- inspiring?" asked TV Azteca news anchor Javier Alatorre one night last week. Nearly two-thirds of his callers chose Mexico's system - a reflection of how far the Mexican democracy has come, and how far US prestige has fallen.
Mexico is not the only country having a bit of fun watching as the nation which often holds itself up as the world's greatest democracy, struggles to elect a president.
In recent years, many young democracies swallowed their national pride and allowed US electoral observers in to guarantee "free and fair" elections. But what goes around comes around. And from Russia to Cuba to Zimbabwe, many nations are now gleefully offering advice and even electoral observers.
"It is a shameful reflection on our continent that, in the US's hour of need, we were not there beside our American brothers and sisters to help and advise where we could," said an editorial in the Mail, a South African news weekly.
Even Cuba, despite its lack of experience with multiparty democracy, is offering advice on carrying out transparent elections. Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque cited a new election in Florida as a "reasonable" solution and offered to send observers. Short of that, sniffed the island's Communist Party daily Granma, the US will have become "what they so contemptuously call a banana republic."
But because of Mexico's long and complex relationship with the US, dominated by a mix of admiration and rejection, attention to the northern neighbor's presidential machinations is particularly acute. Anyone reading a newspaper, listening to the radio, or watching the news has received a crash course in the US's "peculiar" Electoral College system - not to mention a detailed look at the Palm Beach County ballot.
Bewilderment runs high. "Days running on without a result, one candidate winning the vote but another saying he's already won, voters complaining their vote didn't count, we don't expect all this from the most advanced democracy in the world," says Oswaldo Barron, a Mexico City gym instructor.
"We're used to hearing from the US how we should do things, but we just had an election with a huge change for us, and it went very smoothly. Maybe," he adds with a wry smile, "they should take a lesson from us."
Mexicans elected a new president in July, unseating the ruling party for the first time in 70 years.
Editorial pages and columnists are full of hopes that the election woes will prompt the US to adopt a little humility in its dealing with other countries. "Maybe Washington won't be so quick now to 'certify' this and that," sniped one, referring to annual US certification of other countries' antidrug and human-rights efforts.
But on the street, one also finds mixed in with the enjoyment of the arrogant neighbor's problems, another sentiment that is less common vis-a-vis the US: sympathy.
"We've had so much of this kind of electoral chaos, we can relate," says Alberto Gaitan, a Mexico City university student. "Look at our election in 1988, when a mysterious computer failure changed everything and gave us Carlos Salinas," he adds, referring to the president Mexicans most like to dislike. "I don't think things are that bad there [in the US], but I understand how people must be feeling."
Still, to safeguard against Mexicans becoming too righteous about their new superiority in matters electoral, some social critics have taken on the job of providing a reality check.
Magu, a well-known cartoonist for the Mexico City daily La Jornada, recently chose to highlight the US election confusion by picturing his vision of how a Mexican politician might respond. He shows a traveling salesman - it looks like Roberto Madrazo, a governor with the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party who is considered one of the last of the Mexico's political dinosaurs - heading north across the border, a sack marked "bag of tricks" over his shoulder. With his free hand cupped to his mouth, he's calling, "Tied races to untiiiie! Elections to resooolve!"
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society