Mexico's Turning Point

THIS Sunday, Mexico will hold what could be the cleanest presidential and congressional elections in its history - or ones that continue a pattern of fraud and corruption.

It is no small measure of the justified skepticism surrounding the elections that to some people, the most credible sign of a clean vote will be the incumbent party's defeat. This despite a government investment of $750 million in reforming the electoral system.

All other things being equal, such logic is as destructive to the principle of voting one's conscience as is outright ballot-box stuffing. Unfortunately, all other things have not been equal in Mexican politics. And even if the reforms miraculously proved failsafe, the PRI's power of incumbency, its influence over the media, and its embrace of market economics and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which created and brought into the fold a small-but-burgeoning billionaire class and its campaign contributions, all weigh against an out-and-out victory by opponents.

Perhaps the most that can realistically be hoped for is that the individual experience of voters at the polls boosts their confidence in the reforms and in the value of their votes. One hopeful, if tentative, sign that this is possible comes from the Civic Alliance, a poll-watching group that some in the PRI associate most closely with the campaign of Cuauhtemac Cardenas Solorzano of the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party. The group sent out questionnaires to test public confidence in the new electoral system. In June, 50 percent of the respondents said the system was improving. Last month, 71.8 percent of the 4,790 respondents said likewise. About 47 million out of 50 million voting-age citizens have registered; nearly 46 million have picked up credentials. One of the most basic safeguards against abuse would be a high voter turnout, which would reduce the effect of fraudulent phantom votes.

A United Nations team recently noted that the new electoral system and the audited voter roles are sufficient to allow clean elections. The key, it said, lies in enforcement. The possibility of violence in the face of anything remotely resembling the 1988 presidential fiasco in Mexico is too strong to ignore. It is in the interests of Mexico, as well as the United States, with which it shares a long border, to see that those rules are enforced.

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