Mexico Election: Fraud Around the Fringes : Zedillo has potential to rise above the limited irregularities

The final ballots from Mexico’s historic elections of Aug. 21 have come into Mexico City from the isolated hinterlands. The rural vote did not help Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, avoid the dubious distinction of being the first Mexican president in this century elected with less than 50% of the vote.

That will not be a point of pride for the PRI, a political machine that has not lost a presidential election in the 65 years since it was founded. But it can be a matter of pride for Zedillo.

When the vote count was completed, Zedillo had 48.77% of the vote. Diego Fernandez de Cevallos of the rightist National Action Party took 25.94% and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party got 16.6%, with the balance spoiled or divided among six minor-party candidates. Zedillo’s winning margin is the lowest ever for a PRI presidential candidate. In 1988, when outgoing President Carlos Salinas de Gortari defeated Cardenas in a tight election that many Mexicans believe was tainted by fraud, he eked out his controversial victory with 50.47% of the vote.

There were many impressive numbers in the Mexican election in which that nation can take pride--a 77.5% voter turnout; $730 million spent by the Salinas administration to create an ultramodern and largely fraud-resistant system of voter registration and identification; more than 35,000 Mexican citizens and 1,000 foreign visitors dispatched to far-flung areas of the country to watch the voting process and attest to its honesty.


For now, Zedillo’s winning margin of 48.77% is not a number that belongs on that list, for it is tainted by fraud around the fringes. To cite just one of many troubling examples, the largest of the Mexican observer groups, a coalition of prominent citizens dubbed the Civic Alliance, reported that in 34% of the precincts its observers visited, ballots were not cast in secret. In rural areas of Mexico, especially, that leaves open the possibility that voters would have been subject to retaliation by local political bosses if they did not vote the “right” way.

To be sure, the Civic Alliance and most other independent election observers agree with the assessment of James Jones, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, that there was not enough fraud or voter intimidation to discredit Zedillo’s victory. But enough voting irregularities were reported to pose a challenge to Zedillo, who pledged during his campaign to eliminate such blatant official corruption.

If he does nothing else in his six-year term but end corruption, Mexicans would regard Zedillo as a great president. Most Mexicans--and the many foreigners who care about that nation--fervently hope that Zedillo will be able to rise above these voting irregularities to become just that--as his predecessor, Salinas, was able to. In moving toward that goal, it would be well for Zedillo to remember that many great and widely admired political leaders, from Abraham Lincoln to Margaret Thatcher, did not get more than 50% of the vote in winning public office.