ARTURO RAMIREZ emerged from the voting station Sunday morning near his home in Mexico City flashing a smile and showing off his brown-stained thumb.
``It's my badge of democracy,'' Mr. Ramirez said, proudly displaying the dark smear of indelible ink designed to prevent voters from casting more than one ballot. Ramirez is one of millions of Mexicans who turned out in record numbers to vote in what is considered the most important and perhaps cleanest presidential and congressional elections in Mexican history.
Preliminary results show that the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, will be the next president of Mexico. With 23 percent of the vote counted, Mr. Zedillo has a commanding lead with 47 percent of the total. As expected, the conservative National Action Party (PAN) captured about 31 percent of the vote, and the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) came in with about 16 percent of the vote.
This is the smallest margin of victory in the PRI's 65-year unbroken hold on the presidency. But the ruling party defied political pundits' predictions by apparently maintaining its majority in both houses of the Mexican Congress. The final vote tally is expected later this week.
But as important as who won is the verdict as to how they won. Mexican elections have long been marred by allegations of fraud. Pushed by opposition parties, the Mexican government has made sweeping electoral reforms and spent about $1 billion to prevent fraud.
Still, opposition parties have threatened civil unrest if fraud is discovered. As PAN presidential candidate Diego Fernandez de Cevallos put it early yesterday morning: ``We're now entering the qualification stage.''
Few irregularities cited
Crucial to qualifying the elections are the more than 80,000 Mexican observers and 1,000 foreign poll watchers stationed around the country. Initial reports by observers indicate that irregularities seen were not widespread enough to alter the outcome.
One of the largest Mexican observer groups, Civic Alliance, reports that such practices as ballot stuffing, last-minute changes in the location of voting stations, and failure to mark thumbs with indelible ink occurred in less than 4 percent of the voting stations.
But PRD candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano called upon his supporters to rally in the main plazas around the country at noon yesterday.
``We will be making a direct and intransigent defense of the vote for all citizens,'' he vowed. Depending on the turnout, this may be the first in a series of demonstrations designed to provoke negotiations and some sort of power-sharing arrangement.
One recurring problem that sparked anger and small-scale protests in nearly all Mexico's 32 states: a shortage of ballots for special cases.
To accommodate voters away from home (on vacation or business) and those who had voter-identification cards but whose names didn't show up on the voter roll, 637 special voting stations were set up, with 300 ballots each.
The number of ballots was limited to prevent ``the carousel,'' a practice of shuttling voters to various precincts to vote more than once. But the huge turnout meant thousands of citizens (out of 45.7 million registered voters) who tried to vote at the special booths were turned away.
Many of the special voting stations ran out of ballots before noon. Furious voters complained that policeman, city officials, and soldiers (in the southern state of Chiapas) used up most of the ballots.
Some angry voters marched on the federal electoral offices, others gathered in the town squares demanding their right to vote. The ballots cast in three voting stations in Chiapas were reportedly burned by disgruntled citizens.
``If this is happening on a national level, it looks very suspicious,'' says Israel Vidal, a Mexico City resident who could not vote because his name was absent from the roll.
Mr. Cardenas seized upon the problem as evidence supporting his party's claim that 15 to 20 percent of the electoral roll is bogus. Independent audits and the PAN have certified the roll as about 95 percent reliable. The ``shaving'' of opposition voters and other irregularities put at risk the entire credibility of the electoral process, Cardenas said.
In Chiapas, where at least 145 people died in a Mayan Indian uprising in January, the United States observer group Global Exchange reported the presence of military vehicles in one town and a government official video-taping voters in another town.
Overall, however, Mexican political analysts are impressed by the massive participation in this election. In past elections, less than 50 percent of the registered voters turned out. This time, an estimated 70 to 75 percent of the voters cast a ballot.
``The phenomenal turnout is a sign of the citizens' desire to participate in their own government,'' says political scientist Soledad Loaeza.
``They will pay more attention to how their government acts. And the government that doesn't comply with the voters' wishes will have to pay a price. That's a crucial change,'' he says.