In Mexico's closest race, bribes gall

A week before presidential elections, officials are accused of trading bikes, blenders for votes.

Ernesto Zedillo must be getting tired of all the e-mails.

But he did ask for them. The Mexican president is promising to deliver the cleanest elections in Mexico's history. And like never before, Mexicans are holding press conferences and sending e-mails denouncing campaign irregularities and illegal acts of voter coercion in the run-up to Sunday's presidential election.

For example, at PEMEX, the state-run oil company, employees can earn 500 pesos ($50) for voting for the ruling party's presidential candidate Francisco Labastida, some employees claim.

Several governors of states controlled by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) are handing out everything from bags of food, bicycles, and blenders to washing machines. One PRI candidate for mayor of a suburb of Mexico City has been offering a free circus since April.

The complaints come against a backdrop of one of the closest races in Mexico's history and a long tradition of vote-buying and electoral pressures, particularly on the part of the PRI.

Yet while many observers say the attempts at vote influencing are actually less common than in the past, attention to such practices is stronger this year with the real possibility the PRI could lose Mexico's presidency for the first time in 71 years. Polls show center-right opposition candidate Vicente Fox running neck and neck with the PRI's Labastida. Given the closeness of the race, democracy advocates and PRI opponents are on the lookout for suspicious acts that might illegally, or at least unethically, throw a few votes in the PRI's favor.

In recent days, Mexicans have seen a rise in public accusations. Many of the new citizen-watchdogs are emboldened by an adamantly nonpartisan Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) - the independent national board responsible for organizing and overseeing elections - and by Mr. Zedillo himself. Pro-democracy groups and newspapers on the lookout for irregularities are also drawing on citizens' eyes and ears.

The whistleblowers are using letters, media, and protests to get their complaints out. Many are turning to the Internet.

"I bring to your attention the electoral anomalies that have taken place in the Secretariat of the Controller and Administrative Development," begins a "public servant" in an open letter sent to Zedillo last week. The e-mail was also sent to newspapers and foreign journalists in Mexico City. The letter goes on to accuse the undersecretary in charge of the Controller office of requiring employees to sign a form - and attach their voter ID number - "with the purpose of inducing and conditioning our vote in favor of the presidential candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party [PRI], Francisco Labastida."

In the PEMEX bribery example, employees claim that under the plan - actually a practice known here and elsewhere in Latin America as "the carousel" - participants are to sneak a premarked ballot into the voting booth, and bring back the unmarked ballot issued at the voting place in exchange for the 500 pesos.

President Zedillo, who wants to leave office with a reputation for having strengthened Mexico's democracy, insists the electoral process is beyond reproach. He qualifies such incidents as "isolated" and not of a volume to blacken the whole process. IFE Director Jos Woldenberg agrees, saying all the attention to some minimal anomalies risks leaving the impression that the chance of election fraud with an impact on results is much greater than it really is.

"Democratic ethics do not allow the unjust and even less the deliberate weakening of institutions, they do not generate distrust in the law, or use isolated incidents to disqualify the whole process," Zedillo said last week. In response to criticism, Zedillo says he wants more attention paid to how the opposition's elected officials are promoting their parties.

Democracy advocates say Zedillo is missing the point that many employees, especially in the PRI-dominated public sector, still feel vulnerable to their boss's political pressures. And they point out that many of Mexico's poor, especially in rural areas, still associate government assistance with the PRI, and are thus vulnerable to officials conditioning that aid on a PRI vote.

In any case, most of Mexico's new citizen-watchdogs claim they are on Zedillo's side - that they are not out to weaken Mexico's democracy, but to strengthen it by drawing attention to what they believe are undemocratic practices.

Still, one public servant who dared to bring his accusations of political coercion into the open is finding that the life of the whistleblower has its risks.

Ramiro Berrn, technical coordinator for PEMEX's oil exploration division in the oil-rich Gulf region, caused an uproar when he went public last week with his claim of a voter coercion plan within PEMEX. Now he says he's being followed, his phone calls are tapped, and his reputation is being smeared.

With a small stack of signed petition-like forms, Mr. Berrn asserts that upper-level employees of PEMEX's Villahermosa, Tabasco, offices were pressed to participate during work hours in a pyramid-style scheme to commit voters to voting for Labastida.

Berrn says the plan, presented verbally to PEMEX managers in late May, was designed to get 2,300 participants to sign up 10 voters each - a total of 230,000 votes.

But PEMEX Director General Rogelio Montemayor says there is no evidence of "pressure on any executive or worker to promote or undertake a political activity."

Berrn's case has been criticized by PRI officials as part of a push to privatize the publicly hallowed PEMEX, and by Labastida as part of an orchestrated effort to disqualify Sunday's results. And despite Berrn's 21 years with the company, Montemayor now describes his employment status as "problematic."

But he refuses to be silenced. "We're afraid," Berrn says, referring to his family, "but we're not going to take one step backwards."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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