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Weight of PRI's History Undercuts Prospect of a Fair Vote in Mexico

THE polls in Mexico say the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) will win Sunday's election. Such poll results before the vote may make it easier to accept a PRI victory as honest. Polls in Mexico are conducted largely by telephone, as they are in the United States. But the difference is that in the US practically everyone has a phone. Only 1 in 8 Mexicans has one. The polling is a bit like asking Cadillac owners if they favor tax cuts for the rich and then claiming the result represents all Americans.

Writer Carlos Fuentes, long favored by the PRI power structure, says that ``in the eyes of many Mexicans, the PRI has to lose in order for the elections to be credible.'' And Bernard Aronson, a former American assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, warns that powerful figures in the US Congress should not ``imply falsely that only the defeat of the PRI will prove the [Mexican] election legitimate.'' They should defend a PRI victory if the actual voting is ``clean.''

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A clean PRI victory is possible but not plausible. History records so much pre-election unfairness favoring the PRI as to make a mockery of democratic processes. The PRI is the government in most Mexicans' experience. It is painful to say, but only if an opposition candidate wins will there be an improvement in democracy in Mexico. And if the PRI wins on Sunday, it will have power until the year 2000, making its tenure 71 consecutive years, longer than the Communist Party lasted in the old Soviet Union.

Perhaps an analogy might be helpful. Suppose that from the day Herbert Hoover took office in 1929 until today, the Republicans have remained in the White House - and have had huge majorities in the House and Senate.

Suppose that there has been a token right-wing party, analogous to Pat Robertson's group, advocating laissez faire in business and a link between church and state. That would be the National Action Party (PAN). Most of PAN's ideas and programs recently have been co-opted by the PRI to wipe out PAN's growing influence in the conservative northern states.

Suppose that the Democratic Party tries to gain a foothold. This would be the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). Suppose the Republicans quietly finance several other splinter parties to divert and disperse progressive protest. There are nine presidential candidates in Mexico. It is widely believed that the PRI financially supports six of them to divert votes from the PAN and the PRD.

Suppose that there is no CBS, ABC, or CNN - only NBC and some smaller networks. Suppose too that the owners of these networks are openly pro-Republican and that their news programs and political-ad policies reflect their bias. They blatantly refuse to cover any opposition party convention or gathering, or to permit the candidates to be heard.

That has been the situation in Mexico. On the main daily news program, from which the majority of the people get their only news (since less than 10 percent of the people read newspapers), 99 percent of the time the lead item is on the activities of the PRI candidate. Only the PRI can afford television advertising. The print media are relatively free in Mexico, but TV, the dominant influence in all political life, remains unacceptably undemocratic.

Now suppose that this party, with 65 years in office, has become so corrupt and has such a history of lying that the people have lost all faith in it. Since the government, that is, the party, allows only a relative handful of international observers, and since party members are still in charge of election mechanisms, most people believe that elections will be marred by traditional fraud.

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Wouldn't it be helpful for this party to have polls predict a victory for its candidate, so the result would be believed afterward? If you can steal 65 years' worth of elections, steering a few opinion polls shouldn't be much of a trick.

So, if the PRI wins, even with a vote that appears to be clean, does that mean the election will have been fair by minimal democratic standards? I think not. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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