Mexico wondering if its electoral process should be improved

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

MEXICO CITY -- Voters complain about the millions of dollars the federal government spends on Mexico's long political campaigns, while political parties spend months exchanging allegations of abuse and misconduct.

Three years after President Vicente Fox's historic election christened Mexico as officially democratic, residents and politicians alike are wondering if the country should do more to protect and streamline its electoral process.

"Mexico, because of its historic problems, went overboard in creating an electoral (system) and spent billions of dollars in cleaning up its election process," said M. Delal Baer, a Mexico specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Now it's time to find ways of having reliable elections without tying one's hands six ways."

Faced with an angry populace and growing demands for a democratic government, Mexico in the early 1990s began laying the foundation for open elections and a strong, multiparty system. Former President Carlos Salinas -- widely criticized for allegedly stealing the presidency from leftist candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas -- created the Federal Electoral Institute.

The next president, Ernesto Zedillo, strengthened it, giving officials more independence and money.

That cleared the way for clean elections in July 2000, and Fox was able to rise to the presidency, ending 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

Yet in the wake of Mexico's July 6 midterm elections -- the first national balloting since Fox's victory -- residents are wondering if there isn't room for improvement.

'It's like a tic'

One problem is the lingering cultural tendency to contest every election that is even remotely close.

"It's like a tic," Baer said. "It's like a bad habit."

The country's two main political parties are now fighting over two of the six governors' races, and the Federal Electoral Institute cannot publicly release the winners of 200 of the 500 seats in Mexico's lower house of Congress because several races are being disputed.

Still, final results indicate that the PRI won 224 seats in the Chamber of Deputies -- 27 spots short of a majority -- while Fox's National Action Party lost a quarter of its representation, falling to 153 seats. The leftist Democratic Revolution Party nearly doubled its stake, winning 95 spots, and the remaining 28 seats will be divided up among smaller parties.

Mexico's main political parties are wondering if the nation should trim the size of its Congress, eliminating the chamber's 200 seats that are not elected directly but awarded to parties based on vote percentages.

The so-called at-large seats were created to help build opposition parties at a time when the PRI was the only party in town.

"Proportional representation was used as a crutch in the very, very early years of Mexico democratization to try to create a multiparty system," Baer said. "It is no longer necessary, and it is now contributing to the weakening of the parties."

Then there is the amount of money spent on elections. Under Mexican law, the government provides the money for political campaigns, and parties received $500 million for races leading up to July 6. The Federal Electoral Institute spent another $500 million to prepare and carry out the races, an amount officials argue they need to follow the many safeguards created to protect against fraud.

But lawmakers decide how much money is handed over for elections, and there is little political will to cut their parties' budgets.

Officials also are debating whether to establish absentee balloting for the millions of Mexicans living in the United States. But that would take even more money, and legislators are divided on who would be allowed to vote and how.

In another move to try to streamline the process, federal electoral officials would like to consolidate local, state and federal elections into a few key dates -- but they have to persuade local officials to make the changes. With elections held every few months, it is hard to get parties to work together.

"Political parties, for one reason or another, are always in contention," said Gaston Luken, a member of Mexico's federal electoral board.

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