SUNDAY, March 21, the birthday of Benito Juarez, the citizens of the largest city in the world took part in a plebiscite on home rule.
It was a vote the Mexican government didn't want.
Mexico City, like Washington, D.C., is a federal district. But unlike the American capital, the Distrito Federal (DF) is huge (579 square miles) and contains 30 percent of the nation's industry. But the population has virtually no control of its local government. The president of the country runs city affairs, appointing the regente, or mayor. There's no locally elected city council.
In Sunday's plebiscite voters were asked three questions:
Are you in favor of having the DF converted into a state of the Republic? (66.9 percent said "yes.")
Are you in favor of having direct elections by secret ballot for those who govern in DF? (84.8 percent said "yes.")
Are you in favor of the DF having its own legislature? (84.3 percent said "yes.")
Monday morning, the left-center La Jornada, which publicized the plebiscite more than any other newspaper, trumpeted "96.20 percent of the 2,845 voting booths already computed - 331,180 voted in the plebiscite." But El Universal took the government line: "Capital residents showed disinterest and apathy toward the plebiscite"
In fact, the plebiscite was an almost unqualified success, and it should pave the way for further electoral reform.
The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has good reason to fear this desire for clean elections and home rule. Rural flight to metropolitan Mexico City has raised its proportion of the country's population to 20 percent, most of whom are poor and ill-educated. Middle-class DF voters dislike authoritarian rule and poor services.
But the PRI has held the presidency for the past 64 years, and with it the political machinery of Mexico City. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is keeping a low profile, but the government wanted minimal television coverage of the plebiscite, especially the TV channels belonging to Televisa, the pro-government private conglomerate from which about 80 percent of Mexicans get their news.
Even so, some radio stations and newspapers had the courage to promote last Sunday's vote.
The plebiscite organizers' goal was 3,000 polling places, which they almost achieved, and 15,000 volunteers (they reported 12,000). They hoped for half a million votes, and got about two-thirds of that. These shortfalls take nothing away from some very positive lessons.
Consider these figures. There are only some 4 million DF residents of voting age. Of these, about 10 percent read newspapers or listen to the informational radio stations. One could conclude that of the 400,000 informed voters, a high percentage voted.
Upscale areas had large turnouts while poorer neighborhoods, which get their information from government-influenced television, were less informed and less willing to participate.
Another advance was the rapid computer processing done by the nonprofit, impartial, and highly respected Rosenblueth Foundation. At 1:05 Monday morning, it had a tabulation from 98.17 percent of the polling places. Usually, government reporting would take weeks; such delays will now be more difficult to explain.
But how did this plebiscite come to be held?
In 1988, in a gesture to the opposition, the government agreed to an appointed Representative Assembly for the city. It would serve as an advisory body only, with no legislative powers.
What the PRI didn't anticipate was the innovativeness and independence of the nine representatives in the Assembly, including two PRI members. They obtained backing for the plebiscite from a group called the Citizens' Board of Observers, 60 of the city's leading intellectuals, academics, politicians, artists, professionals, and even some businessmen.
When the weight of such prestigious supporters became obvious three weeks ago, the PRI-appointed mayor, Manuel Camacho Solis, faced a no-win situation. He could not refuse to deal with the city's most prominent residents.
However, Mayor Camacho insisted that only voter registration cards, which few poor resident hold, would be valid identification. He also agreed to furnish city officials as observers, and he pledged about $63,500 in city aid for posters, ballots, and radio time to announce procedures. Later, the organizers decided to add driver's licenses as acceptable indentification.
Of course, the plebiscite is not binding on the government; it only shows citizen sentiment. But it is far from an exercise in futility. It also proved that clean, efficient elections can be held in Mexico.
The PRI-dominated government still might control the formal electoral mechanisms; foreign observers still might be barred from monitoring elections on flimsy claims of sovereignty infringement; fair political coverage on television still might not be permitted. But last Sunday's plebiscite still represents one small step toward democracy in Mexico.