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A ‘Fair’ Vote Doesn’t Have to Be 100% Pure : Mexico: If the overall conduct of Sunday’s election is honest, and if all parties respect the law, the outcome should satisfy democratic standards.

<i> Theodore C. Sorensen practices international law in New York City. This article is based on a study he conducted for Mexico's Business Coordinating Council. </i>

Recognizing that another tainted and suspect election would undermine hopes for domestic harmony and international investment, Mexico has installed a new unmatched system of electoral safeguards. Measured against the generally accepted international standards endorsed by international bodies and election observer teams, the long-overdue reforms provide solid hope for a free, fair and honest election on Sunday.

No system on the books is better than its actual implementation on election day; but Mexico’s nonpartisan election administrators now have the tools to assure compliance, under the watchful eyes of the first international observers in the country’s history. No doubt, cries of fraud or coercion will still emanate from the losing side, whatever the outcome and integrity of the election. But the double, triple and quadruple checks and balances built into the new system at great expense--such as photo identity cards, thumb stains, computerized voter rolls and other guards against multiple voting--appear likely to prevent most attempts at manipulating the outcome.

Even so, the Mexican electoral system is not perfect. The inherent advantages enjoyed by incumbent political parties everywhere have been limited but not eliminated. Equal and impartial media coverage of all nine parties--in terms of quality as well as quantity--has been unrealistically mandated and, not surprisingly, unachieved. Sharply reduced caps on campaign spending are neither low enough to equalize the strong and the weak nor subject to timely audit. Scattered reports of voter and poll watcher harassment continue.

But perfection is not required. Irregularities, inadequacies and isolated incidents that could not offset enough votes to alter the outcome do not invalidate an election under international standards. In the United States, courts have been reluctant to overturn election results in the absence of systemic fraud or intimidation so flagrant as to cast doubt on the electorate’s true choice. In South Africa, widespread abuses were deemed insufficient to challenge the finding of a “substantially” free and fair election.

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Abuses should not be tolerated. Mexico now has an independent special prosecutor and a new list of electoral criminal statutes to enforce, an appeals tribunal empowered to annul victories and a multilevel election administration controlled for the first time by unaffiliated private citizens. For Sunday’s election to be accepted as legitimate, all of these agencies must evenhandedly apply the law.

A good-faith effort to pursue wrongdoers and correct the system’s remaining flaws, even if only partially successful, goes a long way toward satisfying the world community. (International observers were impressed when South Africa, for example, seeing certain constituencies face disenfranchisement because of voting station inadequacies, promptly extended the voting period in those areas.) Under the customary international observer guidelines, shortcomings are measured not in isolated and absolute terms but in the light of the entire system’s overall design and efficacy and in comparison with past practices.

A deep cynicism regarding Mexico’s past practices will keep some skeptics unconvinced unless and until the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) loses. The PRI’s 65 years in power do in fact give its fund-raisers and canvassers a competitive advantage. But a string of successes is no more proof of an unfair election in Mexico than in, for example, the state of Georgia, which has known only Democratic governors for more than 100 years. The legitimacy of any election is determined not by history, good or bad, but by the will of the people.

Politics in Mexico today remains a culture of mistrust. Despite their extraordinary collaboration in formulating the new electoral reforms, Mexico’s major parties and concerned non-governmental organizations remain suspicious of each other’s intentions. All agreed in recent conversations with me, however, that Sunday presents a critical test. If the conduct of this election enables a consensus of voters, observers and party leaders, winners and losers alike, to promptly and responsibly accept the outcome as a credible reflection of the true will of the people, then Mexico can look forward to democratic tranquillity and prosperity. But if the new reforms fail to produce that consensus, the outlook for America’s most populous neighbor would be justifiably gloomy. The United States will be watching with hope and concern. Fortunately, with the safeguards now in place, there is every reason for hope.

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