Can High Tech Gizmos Deliver A Clean Vote In Mexico?

Political analyst Adrin Lajous recalls his first voting experience in 1940 with a mixture of amusement and dismay: "I was a year short of legal age, but there was no official voter registration list, so I walked around Mexico City and voted eight times. It was utter chaos, and naturally the official party won through outright fraud."

That was then. This year's Aug. 21 presidential election will be vastly different--at least on the surface. The government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is spending nearly $1 billion on high-tech gizmos that promise to deliver a clean vote. Tamper-proof photo-identification voter-registration cards produced by Polaroid de Mexico have been issued to 44 million Mexicans on a list compiled with the assistance of IBM de Mexico.

Officials have also devised a quick-count vote-tallying system, using 6,600 handheld, point-of-sale computer terminals to send preliminary results from the country's 300 voting districts to Mexico City. Thus, they hope to avoid a repeat of the 1988 election, when a seat-of-the-pants early result system helped fuel suspicion of fraud.

HALF-HEARTED. This is all part of a huge, hasty effort by Salinas to convince his North American Free Trade Agreement partners and an electorate made even more skeptical by the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio that the vote will be free and fair.

But political analysts and opposition party members say the government's eleventh-hour conversion to fair elections is half-hearted. "They haven't become instant converts to democracy," says Lorenzo Meyer, a political scientist at Colegio de Mexico. They just want to avoid a fiasco "that could unravel investor confidence."

Indeed, only when guerrilla warfare broke out in Chiapas in January did officials realize that more substantive progress toward democracy had to be made. Recent reforms, approved in May, create a new civilian-dominated, supposedly neutral body governing the Federal Electoral Institute, which oversees elections. New rules also mete out jail terms for funneling government funds to parties, and other election crimes.

However, it will be tough to enforce these rules--especially in backward rural areas, where local political chieftains can intimidate voters. Although ballot boxes will for the first time have small screens, voters may still not feel their choices are private. The PRI will also likely use its sizable financial resources to dominate the media.

SURPRISES? Still, Mexicans are getting excited as they realize that these elections could be the most open ever held. In May, the presidential candidates from the three leading parties participated in the first ever debate, which was broadcast on TV and radio. The surprise "winner" was Diego Fernandez de Cevallos of the National Action Party (PAN), whose bold debating style catapulted him from third place to a leading position in some polls. The "loser" was left-leaning Cuauhtemoc Crdenas of the PRD, who came close to winning the 1988 election against Salinas. While the PRI candidate, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Len, didn't "win" the debate, he did gain plaudits for suggesting it.

There could be other surprises in the coming months--perhaps in a follow-up debate. For the first time, there is a possibility the PRI could lose a national election. That chance, though, is slight. The party is very powerful, with all the advantages of incumbency. Unless the opposition makes huge strides, the PRI is likely to win even a largely clean election, with voters choosing a familiar face over the unknown.

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