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Anxious Mexicans Await Day of the Vote : Elections: Despite government vows to keep balloting honest, many fear fraud, even unrest.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the final week before today’s crucial national elections, a municipal work crew appeared with pickaxes and sledgehammers on the steps below Mexico City’s guardian angel, the towering bronze independence monument that is a traditional site of political protest.

The workers chopped the steps to rubble, threw up a plywood fence and sealed the angel off from the public--and from any possible post-election unrest.

“Just look how clever our government is,” an angry taxi driver said as he wheeled around the shrouded angel one day last week. “They’ll do anything to control the people. For 65 years, they have had all the power. It’s time to fight back. It’s time for change. This year, for the first time, I’m voting against them.”

The sequestered angel was a telling image on the eve of elections the government has promised--and spent $2 billion trying to ensure--will be a departure from the decades of authoritarian, one-party rule.

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With a civilian army of independent poll watchers, a $730-million computerized voter-registration system and other modernizations, the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has invested a fortune--and Salinas’ personal legacy--in electoral reforms. He vows that these improvements already have guaranteed that the balloting for a new president and most of a 628-seat Congress will be Mexico’s cleanest, fairest elections since his ruling party took power in 1929.

But, as tens of millions of Mexicans pour into voting booths from the Sierra Madre to the Gulf of Mexico, it is clear that the 45.7 million registered voters, and many in the government, share a skepticism as well as a fear of what changes today’s democratic experiment may bring--especially at a time of unprecedented uncertainty.

For many, the primary fear is of fraud--the traditional manipulation by the ruling party or outright election-day theft that has become known here as “the black hand.”

“We’re going to see fraud; we’re going to see the black hand under the table,” said a well-educated lawyer who asked not to be identified, reflecting opinion polls that indicate most Mexicans doubt the elections will be free from fraud. “The government has promised many reforms, but at the moment of truth there will be ballot boxes stuffed and ballot boxes stolen, and votes will disappear.”

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Opposition leaders, backed by civic groups, have charged that already the election deck has been stacked against them. One highly detailed study of the largely pro-government media by the Civic Alliance watchdog group stated last week that during the weeks before the election, television viewers and radio listeners were twice as likely to see and hear Ernesto Zedillo, the presidential candidate of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, as to see or hear any of his rivals.

There also are widespread reports of physical intimidation. The Civic Alliance, an umbrella group of pro-democracy activists, announced that its volunteers and staff have been attacked and threatened. The opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party asserts that as many as 200 of its members have been killed nationwide in the past several years, among them three aides to their candidate for governor of the southern state of Chiapas in a mysterious traffic accident last month.

And on Thursday, local officials banned at the last moment a rock concert the Civic Alliance had scheduled at the capital’s Monument of the Revolution as a “Music Festival for Peace and Democracy.”

Fueling the suspicions are decades of pent-up frustration over corruption, coercion and recent economic reforms that have widened the gap between Mexico’s handful of rich and its masses of poor, according to half a dozen scientific opinion polls and interviews with scores of Mexicans.

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The election comes against the backdrop of an economy in which 37 families control about half the wealth while 35 million people live in poverty, a reality that most voters said will drive their choices among nine political parties today.

There is a deep fear that cuts across the country’s economic and political lines. In a year that has seen Mexico’s first assassination of a presidential candidate in more than half a century and a guerrilla uprising in Chiapas, it is an anxiety that the mere perception of fraud will unleash a torrent of unrest--one that some analysts speculate could lead to all-out insurrection.

As a hedge against such a scenario, the government has gone far beyond sealing off the capital’s angel of independence, a project that the city mayor’s office refused to comment on despite repeated requests.

The nation’s police and army were standing by Saturday. Tens of thousands of additional forces have been deployed throughout Mexico City and potential trouble spots in the countryside. In a controversial purchase that the government attributes simply to “modernization,” the army and security forces acquired about $90 million worth of sophisticated riot-control equipment in the months leading up to the election. And, amid the uncertainty, many Mexicans said they plan to return home from the polling booths and stay there until they are certain of a peaceful result.

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“This is very serious,” said a 74-year-old woman near the capital’s Plaza of Three Cultures, adding that she has voted in every election since World War II. “Before, I could be content with the election (results). But now, I’m worried.

“Everyone wants a change, but this change will be very costly.”

Hopes for fundamental change of the system that many voters believe was corrupted during more than six decades of monolithic rule are almost universally shared. That one-word theme--"change"--has been the single common thread through the months-long campaign.

Power-sharing and political reform have been the clarion calls not only of the two leading presidential challengers but of the ruling party candidate as well. Zedillo, 42 and U.S.-educated, has vowed to change his party from within.

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Taking the lead from Salinas-- who handpicked Zedillo after Luis Donaldo Colosio, the PRI’s original presidential candidate, was assassinated at a Tijuana campaign rally in March--Zedillo has promised to separate the ruling party from the government apparatus for the first time. He says he will open the party’s furtive selection process for future candidates and respect the autonomy of a new Congress that most analysts expect will have a stronger opposition voice than in the past.

The two other leading presidential candidates have promised somewhat more radical changes. Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, the bearded, quixotic candidate of the center-right, pro-business National Action Party (PAN), ran with the slogan, “The only secure change.” He vowed to dismantle the entire corrupt political system of government without abandoning its free-market economic reforms.

Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, a former PRI member who left the party nearly a decade ago to lead a new leftist political alliance, has identified himself more with the indigent--pledging populist reforms to close the gap between rich and poor. Cardenas, now running under the banner of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, believes that massive fraud cheated him out of the presidency in 1988, a view shared by many voters.

The final opinion polls released before a deadline 10 days ago showed Zedillo with a comfortable lead over Fernandez and far ahead of Cardenas. But the polls are rife with contradictions, and experts suspect that fear tainted people’s responses. The surveys that showed Zedillo well ahead also identified the key issues as poverty, unemployment, personal security and other matters on which an incumbent party is traditionally vulnerable.

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The surveys, in fact, were as unprecedented and unproven in Mexico as the exit polls and quick, independent counts that the government will permit for the first time ever after the last voting sites close at 6 p.m. today.

Conducted at the 94,000 polling stations nationwide, the exit polls will try to give a projection of the winner within hours of the close of voting.

But critics and opposition leaders warn that the exit polls will not be as independent as they may seem. One count that is likely to be showcased tonight, they said, has been commissioned by the nation’s largest television franchise, the National Chamber of Television and Radio Broadcasters, which is led by the pro-PRI Televisa network.

Another quick count will be produced by the Civic Alliance, which is sponsoring many of the tens of thousands of Mexican poll watchers and helping to coordinate the nearly 1,000 foreign “visitors” the government is permitting to watch the voting for the first time.

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The first official results will be released by the government’s new, quasi-independent election commission, the Federal Electoral Institute, once it has counted at least 15% of the vote--not likely until after midnight tonight.

The commission is headed by a Cabinet secretary appointed by the ruling party, but it includes representatives from all the opposition parties. It has said it hopes to have enough results by midday Monday to project the official winner. The institute also will conduct its count based on satellite links with key voting stations.

Among the government’s unprecedented vote safeguards are laminated identity cards that include holograms, computer bar codes and thumbprints. And a Mexican technical institute developed an indelible ink that will be placed on voters’ thumbs to prevent double voting. Polling station officials were selected at random in a double lottery, and the election commission has built several backup systems into its central computer to prevent the “crash” that tainted the last presidential elections, in 1988.

In the final days before the vote, Mexicans interviewed randomly offered a wide range of contradictory opinions that reflected one of the most striking findings of the pre-election opinion polls: Just 10 days before the election, at least a quarter of all registered voters either said they were undecided or refused to state their preference for Mexico’s next president.

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The lower-middle-class neighborhood surrounding the Plaza of Three Cultures illustrated that uncertainty and the history behind it.

One monument on the plaza--a vista that includes ancient Aztec ruins, a Spanish colonial church and mid-20th-Century apartment complexes--marks the spot where, according to engravings at the site, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes’ battle with the 16th-Century Aztec king led to “the painful birth of the mestizo people that is the Mexico of today.”

A monument nearby commemorates another violent watershed in Mexico’s history--the Oct. 2, 1968, military crackdown on student demonstrators that left scores of protesters dead.

“Everyone says something is going to happen during these elections,” said 68-year-old Ana Martinez, sitting in the sunshine near the plaza last week. “Maybe there will be violence. Nobody knows. But we are Mexicans, and we don’t want violence. All I want is that the PRI doesn’t win. The PRI has taken everything and carried away the purse.”

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Rodolfo Rodriguez, a 21-year-old student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and part-time handyman, stopped his bicycle to add his voice. He agreed with Martinez: “There is much opposition to PRI on campus, and people there are much more conscious of politics.”

Both agreed they would probably vote for Cardenas. But when asked how the people in the rural villages might vote, Rodriguez smiled and said: “The people there are asleep. They are not very well-prepared. Some are like sheep. And there will be a lot of fraud.”

On the other side of the plaza, Ricardo Repper Hernandez said he voted for Cardenas in 1988. But he quickly added that he was still undecided last week. And for 80-year-old Hernandez, that was saying something.

He said he has voted in every election since soon after the PRI came to power in 1929.

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“This man from the PAN (Fernandez) seems to be very competitive, very capable, and he’s an exceptionally brilliant lawyer,” Hernandez said. “Cardenas brings the glory of the past. He is the son of our greatest president, Lazaro Cardenas. Zedillo is young, very intelligent, but he lacks experience. But all three candidates are very capable, and any one of them could do a fine job.”

Hernandez insisted that, even at his age, he too wants to see change.

“The nation is waking up. The PRI has 65 years in power. It’s a dictatorship,” he said. “Therefore, this time, we think there’s going to be a change. That’s what we hope.”

The retired furniture-store owner reflected on the question of whether the ruling party can, as Zedillo has insisted in scores of campaign rallies throughout the country, win a clean election.

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“Well, it’s like you hear a lot of us are saying these days,” he said. “Better the evil you know than the good you don’t.”

But he also indicated he does not expect fraud: “The reason everybody is interested in these elections now is because they will be credible.”

That grass-roots bottom line would please Salinas, the architect of the reform package that promises so much change.

“We are moving toward one event that has not been seen in Mexico in this century,” the president said at one point during the heated campaign. “Never has the candidate who placed second recognized the victory of the one who placed first. I believe that this will happen in these elections for the first time this century.”

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Meeting the Candidates

ERNESTO ZEDILLO, Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)

* Born: Dec. 27, 1951

* Married: To Nilda Patricia Velasco Nunez; five children.

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* Education: Doctorate in economics, Yale; bachelor’s in economics, National Polytechnical Institute (IPN), Mexico City.

* Career: Member of the PRI since 1971; campaign coordinator for the late Luis Donaldo Colosio; various government posts including education secretary and budget secretary.

* Campaign promises:

--Decentralize government powers and cede more powers to state and municipal governments; separate PRI from the government, ending presidential power to name candidates.

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--Continue current economic modernization, with increased emphasis on small business and jobs; lower taxes.

--Restructure justice system, from the police force to the Supreme Court.

CUAUHTEMOC CARDENAS, Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD)

* Born: May 1, 1934

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* Married: To Celeste Batel; three children.

* Education: Civil engineering degree from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Mexico City.

* Career: Son of late President Lazaro Cardenas and former member of the PRI, was a senator and governor of Michoacan state; presidential candidate in 1988 for opposition coalition; founding president of PRD.

* Campaign promises:

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--Democratic reform to include decentralization of power and restitution of power and restitution of state powers; voting rights for Mexicans living abroad; mayoral elections in the capital Mexico City; regional autonomy for Indians.

--Renegotiate foreign debt; loans and tax breaks for businesses; increase social spending.

--Revoke recent changes to constitution regarding communal farmlands, reinstating prohibitions on their privatization; and stimulate rural and agriculture-based economies.

DIEGO FERNANDEZ DE CEVALLOS, National Action Party (PAN)

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* Born: March 16, 1941

* Married: To Claudia Gutierrez Navarette; four children.

* Education: Law degree from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Mexico City.

* Career: Active PAN member since his youth; various party posts and elected federal deputy; private law practice.

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* Campaign promises:

--Democratic reform and a coalition government; decentralize federal powers to the states.

--Promote free market policies, deregulation and pro-business economy; social services and jobs for the poor.

--Give the church full rights to participate in party politics.

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Researched by Susan Drummet / Los Angeles Times

An Eventful Campaign

Major events during Mexico’s presidential campaign:

Nov. 28, 1993--Campaign opens as Luis Donaldo Colosio, secretary of social and urban development, is chosen presidential candidate of governing Institutional Revolutionary Party.

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Jan. 1, 1994--Chiapas Indians revolt, more than 145 killed in 12 days of fighting. Rebel call to oust ruling party adds to tension. North American Free Trade Agreement takes effect.

Mar. 23--Colosio shot dead at Tijuana rally, throwing presidential campaign into turmoil.

Mar. 29--U.S.-educated economist Ernesto Zedillo, Colosio’s campaign manager and former education secretary, named new ruling party candidate for president.

May 12--First-ever candidates debate won by Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, candidate of National Action Party, opening competitive race.

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June 10--Chiapas rebels reject government peace offer, warn war could resume if vote fraudulent.

June 18--Government invites hundreds of foreign “guests” to observe elections. Mexican pollwatchers and special prosecutor will also monitor vote.

June 27--Eight of nine parties sign an accord for peaceful election, except Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, a left-of-center candidate who claimed fraud robbed him of 1988 election.

MEXICO AT A GLANCE

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PEOPLE--Roughly 92.3 million inhabitants makes Mexico the most populous Spanish-speaking country and second most populous in Latin America after Brazil.

LAND--Covers 764,000 square miles, has 2,000-mile border with the United States and contains central high plateaus and rugged mountains up to 18,000 feet.

ECONOMY--After crisis in 1980s, current administration sold inefficient state industries, got annual inflation down from nearly 160% to less than 8% and negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada. Inflation for 1994 running below 7%.

POLITICS--Became independent of Spain in 1810, republic in 1822. Government difficult to distinguish from ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which was founded in 1929 and has held presidency since.

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