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Mexico's Polluted Politics

To clean up the electoral system, President Salinas will have to do more to loosen his own party's grip on money and power

THE border state of Chihuahua continues its celebration of the opposition party's victory in the governor's race - the second state-executive spot given up by Mexico's ruling party since the 1917 revolution.

Chihuahua will now be led by the conservative National Action Party (PAN), which charges that the governorship was stolen from it in an earlier election by the dominate Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

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Despite the results in that state, the conclusion of the summer elections demonstrates an important fact of political life in Mexico: The dominate party's time-tested tactics are functioning as well as ever. Among those methods, the best one is money:

* Though it lost in Chihuahua, the PRI campaign spent $52 for each vote cast in its favor, compared to about $2.60 per vote spent by the PAN.

* In the governor's race in Michoacan state, where the PRI narrowly won despite strong support for the opposition, money again was a factor. There, the PRI spent nearly $80 on each vote, versus $2.30 for the opposition.

With an average wage in Mexico of about $4 a day, the money spent on campaigning and voting is extravagant.

An investigative weekly journal, Proceso, alleges that PRI officials in Michoacan siphoned off thousands of dollars from the registration of foreign-plated cars to help pay for the campaign. Owners paid the "fees" but never received documentation; few would officially complain since many of the cars were not supposed to be in the country.

Certainly the PRI has built support among voters with the government's successful "Solidarity" program - a massive public-works effort that combines federal, state, and local funds with private support. In Mexico, as elsewhere, public-works projects are great vote getters.

Solidarity's banner colors are the same as the PRI's official colors; each PRI candidate has eagerly wrapped himself in Solidarity's flag.

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Opposition candidates claim that in an Aug. 2 gubernatorial election in Veracruz, Solidarity funds were funneled to important districts in order to help PRI candidate Patricio Chirinos.

President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who took office in 1988 amid charges that the election was stolen by the PRI, pledged to take on his own party and reform the political system that put him in control.

President Salinas has demanded reform - if not for the benefit of his countrymen, at least so that the ongoing negotiations for a North American Free Trade Agreement would not be sidetracked by allegations of election rigging in Mexico.

While certain changes have been undertaken, other institutional problems remain.

Under the Mexican Constitution, 80 percent of the state electoral commissions are to be comprised of elected officials from the dominant party - traditionally the PRI - leaving opposition candidates with a feeling that administrative relief is out of reach.

Salinas has stepped in on several occasions to save the country's voters from the misdeeds of state and local PRI officials.

In Baja California in 1990, the president tossed out his party's candidate and gave the PAN its first governorship. Allegations of electoral fraud by the opposition in Guanajuato and San Luis Potosi in 1991 forced Salinas to order new elections.

Those were difficult decisions, and the ones ahead will not be any easier. In order to further clean up elections and reduce the cries of fraud, Salinas and his government need an election-reform laundry list. For example:

First, restrict the participation of government employees in political campaigns. Control of information and policy decisions must be wrested from PRI officeholders. While not all government employees are abusing their positions, this step would remove temptation and possible conflict of interest.

Second, curtail government financing for the general operations of all parties. The PRI, a very wealthy machine, plus all smaller parties receive government money based on the votes they receive. This system helps the big parties get bigger and keeps smaller opposition parties from developing financially. Some fringe parties will have trouble surviving without official support, but there will be success stories. The Democratic Revolutionary Party, for example, has developed a broad base of support withou t significant help from the Mexican treasury.

Third, a fixed government grant should be the sole funding for campaigns. Each candidate should receive an equal amount of government money for his campaign, and all other sources should be shut off. Public audits could monitor the cash flow, and documentation could then be published in newspapers.

Finally, the electoral commissions must be overhauled before the next round of elections. Constitutional changes are needed to limit the roles of elected and party officials in the decisionmaking process, thus reducing conflicts of interest.

Mexicans feel that progress is being made to reform the election process, but their frustrations could once again reach the boiling point if continued action is not taken.

Salinas has shown he is able to stand against entrenched political forces, particularly in his own party. His work, unfortunately, is far from over.

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