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Mexican Coalition Fights Electoral Fraud

Fed up with endemic political paternalism and electoral corruption, Mexican citizens are taking workshops in democracy and volunteering as observers for this week's vote in Chihuahua state

FRAUD fighter? Defender of democracy? That is not how Manola Subia sees herself.

But this mother of five residing in a poor "colonia" of Chihuahua is enlisting to be an observer of the July 12 state elections. "I've never been touched directly by the fraud. But it's there. I'm just doing this because I want these to be clean elections," she explains.

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Mrs. Subia recently participated in one of some three dozen workshops held in the last month by Wave for Democracy, a coalition of human rights and social groups and members of the political opposition.

Electoral fraud is endemic to the Mexican political landscape, where the world's oldest ruling party has held sway for more than 60 years. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a vigorous economic reformer, has been criticized for not pushing democratic reforms with the same alacrity. But a high official of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) admitted recently that today "credible, legitimate elections are perhaps more important than [a winning] vote."

Political analysts say fraud, or the perception of it, creates a feeling among citizens that voting is pointless. That in turn, contributes to low voter turnout.

"Only massive participation by citizens will clean up and change the system. The fewer people who vote, the longer we'll continue with the present corrupt system," says Julio Faesler of the Council for Democracy, a civic association based in Mexico City.

Observer workshops - a relatively new phenomenon - are a step in the direction of boosting voter interest. The Mexico City-based Mexican Academy of Human Rights did the initial training for the courses here and in Michoacan state. The Academy also helped train citizens prior to state elections in San Luis Potosi last year. And observer groups were set up to watch state elections in Tabasco, Mexico City, Guanajuato, and Morelos.

For years opposition parties have complained about fraud. But the evidence was often haphazard. Groups such as Chihuahua's Wave for Democracy aim to systemize their monitoring by training credible observers, scrutinizing the entire electoral process, including media access and campaign funding, and making proposals to reform election laws.

"Fraud starts long before the election," says Luis Nava, coordinator of the Citizens Movement for Democracy. "If you wait until election day, you've lost the opportunity to clean things up."

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Mr. Nava, son of Salvador Nava, gubernatorial challenger in the August 1991 San Luis Potosi election, speaks from experience. The voter "anomalies" collected by observer teams in San Luis Potosi were an important factor in the Mexican government's decision to overturn the official PRI victory there, many analysts say.

The Wave for Democracy offers two courses: one on democracy, the other on observing. Church groups, school teachers, professional organizations, and labor and farmers associations are among those who have invited the Wave to give the seminars. The goal is to place about 400 observers around the state, covering about 15 percent of the polling stations.

The first course starts off by asking participants to define democracy. "The majority say they don't know how to," says Jesus Guillen Loya, a small businessman who teaches some of the sessions. "Then, we ask them to think about their lives, local problems and how the government or political parties have responded to their needs," he says.

The classes are participatory. Attendees initially stand up to talk about themselves, their jobs, their families, and their best quality. Later, they begin to define what democracy is: "an opportunity for equality and respect," "participation," "to be able to express my ideas without being afraid," "freedom to exercise my rights, to believe what I want...."

"There's a strong sense of paternalism in Mexican society which the government has used to its advantage. But this course has a psychological impact in that it develops self-confidence and helps them recognize their own freedom to act," says instructor Jorge Carrera Robles.

Oscar Ortiz of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights says people in rural and poor areas are particularly responsive. "There's a lot of fear coupled with a hunger to know their political rights. They worry about what happens if it's discovered that they voted for a party other than the PRI. They've been told they could lose their land or access to the health clinic or credits to grow crops."

The observer course is often given to the same group at a later date. It begins with participants explaining why they think there's a need for observers. "Many have suffered some election injustice. The most common complaint is being unable to get an election credential or being left off the electoral roll," says Mr. Carrera.

Then participants learn about the election day process: What time the voting booths should open, what officials should be present, when the results should be tallied. The observers have no legal power. Their job is simply to watch and to fill out a 120-point checklist. "Some people feel they should be more active in stopping fraud when they see it. But they've got to stay within the law for their work to be credible," says Carrera.

Unlike Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Haiti, Mexico rejects foreigner election observers. President Salinas describes it as an affront to Mexico's sovereignty. Political scientist Aldolfo Aguilar Zinser disagrees, but notes that "we have something unique in Latin America - more than a year of civic organizations acting as election observers. Each time we do it, we're more effective." But he adds, "while we're learning from experience, the PRI is learning too."

Indeed, Hugo Almada Mireles, director of the Center of Regional Studies and Alternative Communication in Ciudad Juarez, believes crude ballot-stuffing is on the wane. But fraud continues in a more sophisticated manner, he says. "The modern form of fraud is done principally via the computerized electoral rolls."

The PRI's chief opposition in Chihuahua, the conservative National Action Party (PAN), has reviewed the electoral rolls. Although it found fault with the slow delivery of voter credentials, it only turned up 7,806 errors in the voter list, or less than 1 percent of the total voting population. Mr. Almada says the PAN made "significant mistakes" in its audit. Almada says he will release a study this week showing the electoral roll is biased toward PRI voters and excludes a significant portion of the votin g population.

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