FOILING FRAUD. Mexico opposition and voters gear up to avert election-day cheating

Tucked away on the top floor of the Mexican Socialist Party's headquarters, Gilberto Calder'on and 23 other designated ``vote watchers'' are getting a crash course on how to defend against fraud in tomorrow's presidential elections. They are not alone.

Around the country, tens of thousands of Mexicans are preparing to combat a recurrence of the electoral fraud previously carried out by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The two major opposition candidates, while far apart on most points, have rallied around the controversial issue, making it the election's main focus.

PRI candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari acknowledges that his party faces its stiffest challenge yet in its 59 years of single-party dominance. But he sharply rejects accusations of fraud as bald-faced electoral maneuvering and promises to recognize ``clean and transparent elections.''

Regardless of what either side maintains, political analysts say one thing is clear: The degree of fraud will be a touchstone for democracy, an indication of how far the PRI is willing to go toward a more open, multiparty system.

``The real risk is to take a step backward,'' says social scientist Ignacio Marv'an. ``If the PRI closes the system in the face of this electoral challenge, that would be catastrophic.''

Mr. Salinas seems intent on overseeing clean elections. Party insiders say that the 40-year-old former budget minister has been trying, in private, to convince old-line party members of the need to change some of the PRIs heavyhanded electioneering.

His argument is simple: Since this election will be more closely scrutinized and take place in a more heated atmosphere than before, a grossly inflated tally would spark more severe social conflicts and deprive the PRI of its badly needed ``new'' legitimacy - the appearance of democracy.

Very few political observers here, however, believe the elections will be free of fraud. Not even PRI members themselves.

``I don't have the least doubt in the sincerity of the candidate [Salinas],'' says Rodolfo Gonz'alez Guevara, a former secretary-general of the PRI who is fighting for internal reforms. ``The doubt lies in the PRI candidates [for the congress] and, above all, in their electoral teams, which could commit a number of irregularities.''

Critics have already begun to roll out lists of irregularities. Last week, for instance, it was discovered that 72 registered voters claimed the same address - the home of Mexico City Mayor Ramon Aguirre. It is a spacious residence, but Mr. Aguirre only has a family of four.

Francisco Gonz'alez Garza, head of electoral actions for the conservative National Action Party (PAN), says 30 percent of the voters in the electoral registry are incorrectly listed. ``It's a cushion of sure votes for the PRI to use at its whim,'' he says.

To puncture that cushion, both the PAN and the newly formed Assembly for Effective Democratic Suffrage have distributed manuals outlining the PRI's stunning repertoire of dirty tricks. Just a few of the tactics attributed to the PRI's electoral ``alchemists'':

``Tacos'': PRI supporters fold up several ballots in one.

``Tortoise'' booths: By creating delays and conflicts, officials hold up voting so voters get bored and leave.

``Stuffing'': This is committed either early in the morning before ``vote watchers'' arrive, or at unknown extra voting stations set up on the pretext of handling excess voters.

Beyond the election-day fraud that people here expect, the PRI also benefits from ``inertial fraud,'' seemingly endless federal resources, huge chunks of air time on network newscasts, coercive unions, and an electoral law that makes the PRI supreme judge of the elections.

Despite the stacked conditions, many political analysts say progress has been made. Salinas has convinced most party members that the PRI cannot win in a landslide - that the vote must at least appear credible.

``Salinas has been able now to impose his view on most of the party machinery that there should be clean elections,'' says political expert Jorge Castaneda, explaining that ``clean'' means no dirty tricks except inertia fraud. ``The problem is that his view of clean and credible elections may be totally out of tune with reality.''

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