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Irregularities Unlikely to Affect Mexican Vote : Election: Government cites flaws at 11% of polling places. Observers note urban-rural political gap.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Electoral monitors continued to enumerate voting irregularities Thursday, although virtually no one here--except opposition party activists--said they believe the problems were serious enough to substantially change the outcome of Sunday’s federal election.

Among the issues surfacing was the government’s recognition that flaws in 11% of the 96,415 polling places were serious enough that those votes will not be included in the preliminary tally, which shows the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) sweeping the election.

And election monitors noted difficulties in the voting Sunday that illustrate some of the major challenges of democratizing a country that has been governed for six decades by a single political party.

For example, despite massive publicity about election procedures, many Mexicans, particularly in rural areas, did not know how to mark their ballots--nor did they realize they had the right to make their choices in secret.

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That contrasted sharply with the growing political awareness in cities, creating a split in the Mexican electorate as deep as the more obvious economic gap between rich and poor.

“The modern concept of a democratic culture, in which one may choose freely between political parties, has not penetrated as much into rural areas as it has in urban centers,” said Rodolfo Stavenhagen, a noted Mexican anthropologist and human rights activist. “But behind that is a whole system of violent repression and class bias.”

In the past decade, city dwellers have grown increasingly more involved in civic groups and neighborhood organizations fighting for change. The government, especially in the capital, has tolerated peaceful sit-ins and marches.

But in the countryside, peasant leaders are still regularly assassinated and protests are repressed violently. And the countryside is where the PRI consistently wins the most votes.

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“That is the contrast that observers saw on election day,” Stavenhagen said.

Medea Benjamin, a coordinator for Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based group that organized travel plans for more than 100 foreign poll watchers, observed: “There was a huge difference between the rural and urban areas. The cities were well monitored by educated, Mexican observers. In the countryside, there were often no observers except us.”

In Mexico City polling places, walls were hung with colorful posters that showed the steps in voting, from checking credentials against registration lists to stamping voters’ thumbs with indelible ink to prevent repeat balloting.

Obviously well-trained precinct officers explained procedures to each voter. As required by law, party representatives watched ballot counting in the upper-middle-class Colonia del Valle neighborhood without participating, except to acknowledge that all votes were properly removed from the three ballot boxes--one each for president, senator and deputy.

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That contrasted sharply with rural areas, where precinct officers often appeared as bewildered about procedures as voters, observers said. More than a third of the poll watchers fielded by the Civic Alliance, an umbrella group for Mexican observers, said the secrecy of the vote was not respected in the precincts they covered. Voters did not bother to fold ballots before dropping them in the transparent boxes. Some even took friends or relatives with them into voting booths.

At times, the problem was cultural. “In the (northern) state of Sonora, among the Yaquis, and in the (southern) state of Oaxaca . . . the custom is that women do not go (into the voting booth) alone,” said Salvador Ordaz Montes de Oca, director of the National Assn. of Election Observers, another umbrella group for poll watchers. “We saw that the husband went with her and told her how to vote. But this is part of their tradition.”

Other times, the problem was ignorance. Voters “knew the credential was power. They just weren’t educated to know how to use that power,” said Loreto Curti, a San Francisco resident who was a poll watcher in Altamirano, one of the towns occupied by Chiapas rebels on Jan. 1. “People not being educated was one of the biggest problems of these elections.”

But often the line between aiding peasant voters and intimidating them blurred.

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“In some cases, (ruling party officials) were legitimately helping people who did not know how to vote,” Benjamin said. “In others, PRI representatives were showing people how to mark their ballots.”

Even foreign visitors watching the election under strict guidelines not to interfere in sovereignty-conscious Mexico sometimes could not resist the temptation to help. In one rural polling place, a poll watcher ended up counting ballots because none of the four precinct officers could do so, Benjamin said.

The result of all this? A far-from-perfect election day, symptomatic of the obstacles to bringing democracy to the countryside, analysts said.

“The culture of domination has deep roots,” Stavenhagen said. “This system has been maintained for more than 60 years. It is a machine.”

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* DRUG LINK ALLEGED: Testimony suggests drug lords linked to Colosio slaying. A6


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