Rebels Win Rights for Indians, Spur Ballot Reforms for Mexico

MEXICO'S Mayan rebels are returning to the mountain jungles of Chiapas. They are still armed, but tucked in their rucksacks is something they did not have two weeks ago: a preliminary peace pact promising Chiapas Indians more economic and political rights.

The leaders of the Zapatista National Revolutionary Army (EZLN), a 1,500-member guerrilla force that occupied six towns in southern Mexico during a siege that began on New Year's Day, is taking the accord to their indigenous supporters for approval.

The 32-point agreement, the result of peace talks that ended Tuesday night, addresses demands ranging from land rights to health care in Chiapas. But the most significant reforms for the nation, analysts say, concern changes to the national electoral laws that the Zapatistas demanded before and during the talks but consented to leave out of the peace pact.

A presidential initiative that would open August's presidential elections to foreign observers was set yesterday to go before the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), the government agency that oversees elections.

``This is something we've been anxious to see for a long time,'' says Julio Faesler, director of the Council for Democracy, a Mexico City nonprofit advocacy group.

The move is considered a major concession to opposition politicians who have alleged that the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party has held power for 65 consecutive years via voter fraud. Until now, the PRI and government officials have staunchly opposed foreign oversight as a violation of sovereignty.

The Mexican government will also present proposals that would reconfigure the IFE board to prevent the PRI from having a majority vote and increase opposition party broadcast media access time ``by 100 percent,'' said a government spokesman.

These moves come on top of agreements between the IFE and Mexican political parties earlier this week that provide for increased penalties for voter fraud, an independent counsel to investigate fraud claims, and a commission comprised of 10 prominent citizens with no political affiliation that will hire auditors to check the validity of the voter list.

THE changes, says Mexico's Interior Minister Jorge Carpizo McGregor, show the ``government's commitment to ensuring elections that are legal, impartial, definitive, objective, and fair.''

Mr. Faesler is skeptical. While President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's intentions may be to have fair elections, he says, PRI campaign workers at the local level may not share those intentions. ``The PRI and the government are doing everything possible to make these elections credible. But whether they'll be legitimate is another question.''

While the Chiapas rebels left national political reforms out of the peace pact, they remained vocal on the subject. ``We demand credible elections with real freedom and democracy,'' rebel negotiator Subcomander Marcos said this week. ``If there is not ... there will be no peace.''

The rebels said they will not turn in their weapons until they see results.

Many analysts believe the government is moving with alacrity on electoral reform to shift attention away from the popular rebel leader.

In the accord, the government promised to present reforms in the next 30-90 days.

Among key government commitments are:

* Infrastructure and social services programs that call for roads and health clinics, and supply water and electricity to the poorest areas of Chiapas.

* A new federal Indian rights law that strengthen state powers to settle land disputes and divide large landholdings.

* The creation of more districts with the goal of improving Indian representation in municipal- and state-elected offices.

* A new state law that grants semiautonomy to indigenous towns, including legal recognition of traditional Indian authorities, customs, and sanctions.

* A 90-day study of the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement on the state and particularly Indian communities.

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