IN the rich lexicon of fraud, the dark side of Mexican elections seems more like a carnival outing than the systematic abuse of democracy it represents.
Election day might start with a free tamale breakfast, courtesy of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), as it did for tens of thousands of Mexicans in 1991. Next might come a ride on the ``carousel'' - the term for a bus, often government-owned, that takes people around to different locations to cast multiple votes for the PRI. For particularly adept voters, PRI ``tacos'' are handed out. These are not tortilla snacks, but two or more votes rolled up to be deposited as one.
``Apart from the names, there's nothing original about it. All the tricks we use were used a century ago in the United States,'' says Juan Molinar Horcasitas, an electoral expert at the Colegio de Mexico, a leading private college.
But these old techniques, Mr. Molinar says, have assisted the PRI in securing an uninterrupted 65-year reign. The longest-ruling party in the world, the PRI has never lost a presidential election, and until 1989, had never officially lost a governor's race.
PRI officials will openly admit to fraud - as a practice of the past. Yet accusations of vote tampering are still as plenteous as the ``reforms'' to electoral laws. A March 2 poll by Market Opinion and Research International shows 43 percent of Mexicans do not believe the government will respect the true election results.
That distrust, and the growing threat of political instability, appears to be pushing Mexico to a democratic turning point. Curbing fraud may not be as dramatic as impeaching a president over corruption, as has happened in Brazil and Venezuela. But in the last six months, international and domestic pressure to clean up Mexican elections has reached new levels.
What scares PRI party hard-liners fighting reforms, and gives opposition parties hope, is that the elections scheduled for Aug. 21 might actually be the most credible in Mexican history.
``We live under an authoritarian regime, in which many people have been struggling for democracy for many years,'' Molinar says. ``Democracy may now be within our grasp.''
Last fall, the PRI reluctantly agreed to a series of electoral changes, indirectly prodded by US congressmen who balked at ratifying a free trade pact with a nation with questionable democratic practices. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is a crucial element of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's plan to attract foreign investment, and he convinced the PRI that changes were needed.
On Jan. 1, the day NAFTA went into effect, President Salinas's moment of glory was stolen by an armed Mayan Indian uprising in southern Mexico. The uprising in Chiapas State shattered the carefully built image of Mexico as a stable and economically progressive home for investors.
Among the rebels' chief demands were ``truly free and democratic elections.'' They hit a sympathetic chord that resounded throughout Mexico, prompting calls from other political and social groups for democracy.
``Chiapas clearly shows that if credible conditions don't exist whereby citizens - Indian or mestizo [mixed race] - can participate in deciding their political destiny, more violence could follow,'' says Jose Luis Torres, National Action Party (PAN) electoral committee director.
Salinas responded by appointing Jorge Carpizo McGregor, former national human rights head, as interior minister to oversee the federal electoral agency. Mr. Carpizo involved parties in talks that reached a Jan. 27 pact to boost the credibility of elections.
But leftist opposition parties demanded changes to the Constitution. Tens of thousands of Mexicans participated in the Feb. 13 finale of a 100-hour protest march around Mexico City's central plaza to highlight demands for clean elections. Last week, police clashed with about 1,400 demonstrators demanding more electoral reforms.
On March 23, the Congress approved some constitutional changes. The January pact and constitutional reforms establish:
* A more independent governing board of the Federal Electoral Institute. Six of 11 directors organizing elections will now be citizens without party affiliation.
* Tougher sanctions for electoral crimes, including jail time for officials who use government resources to support a party or press subordinates to vote for a particular party.
* A legal framework for Mexicans and foreign observers to monitor the election. Some 500 Mexican civic groups plan to field 10,000 observers in August.
* Agreement for the federal attorney general to name a special prosecutor to investigate electoral crimes.
* An independent audit of the national voter list.
``These reforms are an advance. The government won't have all the electoral reins in its hands this time around,'' says Javier Gonzalez, an official of the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD).
Luis Donaldo Colosio, PRI's presidential candidate who was assassinated last week, had joined the popular call for ``elections strictly by the law, with credibility.'' But opposition party leaders worry that PRI hard-liners will seize on his death to demand more ``stability'' and stop the reform process. Who the PRI chooses to replace Colosio will signal its commitment to reform, local political analysts say.
Even if national PRI leaders back the transition toward more democracy, local PRI-party faithful may not. ``Changing attitudes at the grass-root level is harder,'' the PAN's Mr. Torres says. ``The PRI isn't used to losing.
``The PRI representative on your block will come by the day before the election and offer you money, a meal, or a new roof if you vote for the PRI. He'll say, `Here's your name on the list. Sign here to verify your vote for the PRI,''' Torres explains. ``When the very poor are told to vote for PRI or the water won't come, they believe it, because that's the way it's always been in Mexico.''
Another concern is the voter roll. For the first time, voters will use photo-identification cards. Still, opposition parties estimate that about 10 percent of the list will be incorrect. ``It's far better than three years ago, when we estimate 30 to 40 percent of the list was bad,'' Torres says.
The audit of the list of 46 million registered voters will help, but will not be sufficient to prevent fraud, says Javier Livas, a PAN party member who last year helped organize an exhibition of fraud cases. Mexican electoral fraud is becoming more computer-oriented, he says.
``The list we're given to review now will probably bear no resemblance to the computerized list used on election day,'' Mr. Livas says. He cites a voter list used in a 1985 election in the state of Nuevo Leon. After every 10 names, a computer program selected a name from another state roll and inserted it, giving the false voter a local address.
Molinar says the solution to stopping fraud is stopping the impunity. Complex bureaucratic procedures make fraud difficult to prove, and the final arbiter has always been an electoral agency run by PRI officials. Consequently, only three people in Mexico have ever been convicted of electoral fraud, according to Torres. But Molinar is encouraged by reforms that should ease fraud investigations.
Some PRI officials say elections are already clean, and that their struggle is to correct outdated perceptions.
To achieve credibility, Molinar says, the latest reforms are half the battle. ``The other necessary condition for credible elections is that the loser accepts the outcome. If the main opposition party says the election was dirty, in the minds of the public it's dirty.''
The historic electoral reform pact in January was an important step toward getting the opposition to accept the outcome, Molinar says. But only half the PRD leadership is blessing the reforms ratified by Congress last week. The PRD presidential candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano, wants more changes.
PRD officials warn that fraudulent elections in August could spark violent protests. And, given the Chiapas uprising and Colosio assassination, the threat of political instability if the elections are not credible remains a serious concern for the government.
* Last of a five-part series. Earlier stories appeared March 2, 9, 16, and 23 in the domestic edition and in the last 4 world editions.