Thousands to Oversee Mexico Vote : Election: Goal of observers is to deter fraud. Some decry restrictions on first-ever foreign poll watchers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the big questions as next Sunday's presidential election nears is whether there will be room in the polling places for the voters after all the observers arrive.

Scores of fraud-ridden elections over six decades have created a distrust so profound that the only hope of convincing Mexicans that the balloting will be clean seems to be layer upon layer of vigilance.

Each polling place will be staffed by four precinct officers; each of the nine political parties is entitled to have a representative present, and 21,439 Mexican observers are accredited to watch over the voting process. But by far the most controversial of the poll watchers who will crowd into 94,147 precincts across the country are the international visitors.

Not even accorded the status of observers in sovereignty-conscious Mexico, more than 654 visitors from nations as diverse as Haiti and Germany, but predominantly from the United States, will arrive this week to start training as poll watchers.

Some, such as Donald Coan of Sacramento, are veteran observers. The 67-year-old retired Sacramento County welfare department employee observed elections in Nicaragua and El Salvador, which he termed exemplary.

"I'm concerned about U.S. policy in that part of the world," said Coan, who has cultivated an interest in Mexico since 1951, when he spent a year in the tiny Pacific Coast state of Nayarit, working with the American Friends Service Committee.

Others, such as 28-year-old Eric Quezada of San Francisco, will be watching a foreign election for the first time. Quezada said he became more aware of Mexico's importance to the United States when he was coordinating an education program in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood in East Palo Alto, helping students with homework and organizing workshops for their parents.

"It is really important that we as North Americans play a positive role in supporting a movement toward democracy that will help relations between the United States and Mexico," he said.

Then there is the usual list of dignitaries: former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark; Jim Wright, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Hortensia Bussi, widow of slain Chilean President Salvador Allende. The think tanks of the two major U.S. political parties--which are funded by the U.S. Congress--are sponsoring a combined delegation of 60 visitors.

Mexican observers have become fixtures at state elections over the past six years. Opposition parties and citizens groups routinely ask out-of-state intellectuals to tour their precincts, looking for electoral fraud. Their reports have been used with mixed results to bolster opposition claims of foul play on the part of the ruling party.

Political party precinct representatives have also made inroads. At a recent election in the northern state of Sinaloa, a representative of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) insisted that the voting booth in the mountain village of El Verano be set up to assure voters of secrecy.

In that election, for the first time any villagers could remember, two people voted for PAN.

The selection of precinct officers has also become increasingly more democratic, making ballot-stuffing and ballot-burning less likely. For this election, precinct officers were chosen from voter rolls by a double lottery, selected first by birth month, then by first letter of the last name.

But the innovation that has attracted the most attention is the presence of accredited foreigners. Nationalistic Mexicans are deeply divided on whether their government should have authorized foreign visitors.

Cecilia Soto, presidential candidate for the Workers' Party, which with 110,000 members is unlikely to be able to send representatives to all precincts, said the presence of foreign visitors signals that Mexico is bowing to international pressure. Shrugging, she added, "I don't think this is a good idea, but there is nothing to be done about it now."

Others say the restrictions that have been placed on foreign visitors make them all but ineffectual as observers. For example, Mexico's Civic Alliance, an umbrella organization for Mexican election observers, will coordinate the visits of many foreigners as well--on the condition that they do not make any public statements until a joint news conference with Mexican observers after the official announcement of the vote tallies on Aug. 24, three days after the balloting.

In addition, rules for accreditation were strict. Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute rejected only 10 applications outright: four for inadequate proof of identification, four because the applicants were Mexican and two from minors. But others have been left hanging.

"They certainly are not making it easy," said Medea Benjamin, who is coordinating the biggest single contingent, 110 people whose visit was organized by the San Francisco-based Global Exchange Network, which has also organized tours to observe elections in El Salvador and South Africa.

Foreign visitors had less than three weeks to provide the electoral institute with copies of passports, resumes and photographs, she said. Many would-be visitors were unprepared because Mexico does not require passports from U.S. tourists.

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