Juan Antonio Gonzalez Zambrano doesn't particularly care for any Mexican political party, or for politics in general. But the 52-year-old owner of a rotisserie chicken eatery in downtown Mexico City has a new hero, and an unlikely one at that.
"There will always be a table here for the IFE," he says of Mexico's electoral watchdog, the Federal Electoral Institute. The IFE recently handed down a staggering fine against one of the country's major political parties and is investigating Mexico's president for campaign-spending violations, all in an effort to clean up politics here. "They can eat all the chicken they want - for nothing," he adds.
Mr. Zambrano is not alone. Recent public-opinion polls show that of the countries most respected institutions, three consistently top the list: the church, the Army, and the IFE.
"And it's not always in that order - they change places," says Gastón Luken Garza, one of nine council members that make up the IFE's decisionmaking board.
Mexico's strange affinity for this bureaucratic acronym reflects the depth of disdain citizens here have for the corruption that often plagues Mexican politics. Last month, the IFE slapped a $100 million fine on the country's political powerhouse, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The fine is the largest levied against a political party by any such organization in the world, and a brazen strike against the almost mythical power that dominated the country for 70 years.
For many Mexicans, the giant fine signaled that the culture of corruption and impunity may be on its way out.
Mr. Garza speaks proudly of his organization, citing its strong sense of purpose. The rank and file at the IFE headquarters use phrases like "mission" and "sacred duty" to describe their jobs. Walls of their offices are covered with slogans and posters that tell Mexican voters, "Your vote is secret and free!" and "Your voice is Mexico's future."
"It's hard for Americans to understand, because you have democracy in your blood," says Manuel Carrillo Poblano, IFE's coordinator for international affairs. "You understand that your vote counts and you assume that your election will be fair. But here these are new concepts. We have to begin at the basics."
In fact, it is common to hear Mexicans refer to their democracy as being merely three years old, dating from the 2000 election, when for the first time in seven decades a party other than the PRI won the presidency. And this landmark event too was due in no small part to the IFE.
Ironically, it was the PRI itself that created IFE. It was obliged to do so, amid tremendous public outcry following the fraudulent elections of 1988. Until that point, the government - the PRI itself - organized elections, and was often criticized for using state funds for its continually successful reelection campaigns.
In 1996, sweeping electoral reform included the introduction of nearly total public campaign financing - administered through the IFE. The system gives the IFE remarkable latitude and oversight power compared with more decentralized systems in other countries.
"It's like comparing a hot dog to a missile," jokes Poblano.
In the few short years of its existence IFE has launched a fury of activity, creating the basic necessities for free elections - a national registry of voters, secure locations for polls, and a transparent and verifiable counting system - while also embarking on a massive civic education program aimed at instilling new confidence in the Mexican voter.
It has also been involved in party-building - trying to provide credible alternatives to the PRI.
As recently as 1985, the National Action Party (PAN), the party of current President Vicente Fox, was in a state of disarray, according to Joseph Klesner, an expert on Mexican politics at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, who attended a PAN rally that summer.
"It was a fiasco," he says. "They didn't even have a working microphone. And these people were trying to convince us that they could run the country."
Even though the entrenched PRI is a natural target for the IFE's pronounced activist approach, Miguel Angel Yunis, PRI representative to the IFE, speaks with nothing but reverence for the institution itself. He complains instead about what he considers bias in its recent judgment against his party.
The PRI's Pemex scandal, named for the state-owned petroleum giant that allegedly channeled money to party leaders, has brought down the maximum fine allowed by law - enough to bankrupt the party through this year and half the next. Garza calls it " a boost to the rule of law - something we've missed here in Mexico."
Meanwhile the PAN is also under investigation for allegedly receiving illegal funds from foreign interests, including American businesses. The IFE is also looking into whether Mr. Fox exceeded spending limits in his 2000 campaign. If true, it could mean even more serious sanctions, including the rescinding of the PAN's party license.
Mr. Yunis points out the danger of undermining the IFE's credibility if it is perceived to be partisan. But on this point, at least, there seems to be agreement. Since the resolution of Pemex there has been renewed energy and new lines of investigation opened in the PAN case, and the IFE has committed to finish it before midterm elections in July.
The result could be the crucial test for the IFE in the minds of Mexicans, as well as for the relatively new, fragile democracy it represents.