Missing Numbers, ‘Soviet’ Precincts Leave Bitter Aftertaste in Mexico

<i> Jorge G. Castaneda is a graduate professor of political science at the National University of Mexico in Mexico City. </i>

Carlos Salinas de Gortari has finally been ratified as Mexico’s president-elect and will take office on Dec. 1. The Mexican electoral process is over, although its effects and consequences will be with the country for a long time. This will also be the case with the discussion over the election’s actual results and their interpretation, since few of the doubts that surfaced on July 6 were laid to rest by the ensuing ratification and review process.

There are three basic debates still lingering with regard to the election numbers themselves. The first one has to do with the publication of the final results, and why so much statistical information is still missing. The right- and left-of-center opposition, which together received virtually half the popular vote, has repeatedly denounced the fact that the tallies for the presidential election in nearly 25,000 of the 55,000 precincts were never made public. The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and the government have argued that those results were made available to opposition parties at each precinct on election night, and then on other occasions during the counting and ratification process.

Nonetheless, at the end of August the authorities did make public the numbers for the congressional elections in the missing 25,000 precincts, thus acknowledging that the existing information was insufficient.

We will probably never know the final official presidential result in those 25,000 precincts. Having already paid the political cost of not publishing those statistics when the opposition and public opinion were clamoring for them, it is doubtful that the government will do so now. But the damning effect on the election’s credibility will endure.


Second, there is a great deal of discussion and reflection in Mexico today regarding what really happened on election day. A series of calculations or estimates, based on the available official results, have come forth, casting some light on the mysteries surrounding the vote. One of the left-wing opposition parties carried out a review of the precinct-by-precinct data for the presidential election in the available 30,000 precincts. A number of discouraging conclusions emerged.

Of the 30,000 precincts in question, there were 1,762 in which Salinas obtained 100% support--a half-million votes. In 5,968 precincts, or roughly 20% of the polling places, Salinas received more than 85% of the vote. From those precincts he received a total of 1.84 million votes, or 36% of the 5 million votes that he obtained in the 30,000 precincts as a whole. While the PRI has argued that such abnormally high tallies do not necessarily imply tampering, the fact is that there is nearly a perfect correlation between these so-called “Soviet” precincts and the precincts where the opposition was not able to place poll watchers.

In addition, the PRI’s absolute refusal to allow a ballot-by-ballot recount of even these precincts, much less of the election as a whole, has led many to wonder how “real” were the votes that Salinas won. It is worth noting that the final difference between Salinas and second-place finisher Cuauhtemoc Cardenas amounted to 3.7 million votes. If the “85%-for-Salinas” precincts were as common among the unrevealed precincts as they are among the known precincts, the combined votes in all “85% precincts” would equal 3.5 million,or about the same as Salinas’ margin of victory over Cardenas.

Another interesting exercise was carried out by pollster-analyst Francisco Baez Rodriguez and published in the last issue of Mexos, the country’s most important monthly journal. Its editor and many contributors have been identified with the progressive and reformist wing of the Salinas candidacy. The author constructed three samples, of 300 precincts each, based on the existing 30,000 precincts tallied. He then proceeded to “clean” the “dirty” precincts--in other words, to replace the figures for the precincts that appeared in the samples in which Salinas received more than 85% of the vote, with “reasonable” results from adjoining precincts. The purpose of the exercise was to have an idea of what would have happened on election day if only marginal tampering had taken place.


Depending on the way in which each sample was designed, Salinas obtained from 38.2% to 41.3% of the vote while Cardenas’ total ranges from 38.1% to 38.7%. Given the roughly 3% margin of error that such a formula inevitably implies, the July 6 election, on the basis of this estimate, ended more or less in a dead heat. While this certainly does not buttress Cardenas’ claim that he won, it certainly questions Salinas’ claim of victory by nearly 20 percentage points.

Finally, there is a pending discussion in Mexico on who voted for whom. The problem here is that the authorities prohibited exit polling, particularly an attempt scheduled by Gallup of Mexico. In addition, since the precinct-by-precinct tallies are unavailable, there is no way of knowing what the breakdown of the vote would show concerning rural and urban areas, among the affluent middle class or the poor. While many analysts have said that Salinas was elected by Mexico’s rural vote, the PRI has argued that such statements are false. The party notes, for example, that Salinas won in the north--Mexico’s most advanced urban region.

For now, the only statistics that one can go by are those published by the PRI in Mexico’s newspapers in mid-August, the origin of which is unclear. They are nonetheless revealing. In a nation where only 30% of the people and registered voters still live in communities of fewer than 2,500 inhabitants, Salinas received 47% of his vote in rural areas, Cardenas 25% and Manuel J. Clouthier, the National Action Party candidate, 19%. Conversely, Salinas obtained 53% of his total in urban areas, Cardenas 75% and Clouthier 81%. If one keeps in mind that these figures are based on PRI data that probably paints Salinas in the best light and his opponents in somewhat less than that, it does appear that Salinas was the candidate of the countryside, and that his opposition was much more urban based.

In view of all these figures and estimates, it is not surprising that many Mexicans have a bitter aftertaste from the election and that they will continue to vent their rage against the government, as they have done since July 6.