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Mexico Is Winding Up Its First Vote Without Horse-Trading : Elections: A central computer is keeping precinct-by-precinct tally, negating the traditional back-room dealings.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Sunday after elections traditionally has been the day that the doors to smoke-filled back rooms opened and representatives of the ruling party and opposition emerged with the vote tallies, the product of intense negotiations.

This Sunday, however, Mexicans expected to hear the final tally of a vote count that has been added up publicly throughout the week as returns rolled in--a tally that can be checked precinct by precinct on a central computer, to assure that the results reported are the same as those counted at each polling place.

They already know that 42-year-old economist Ernesto Zedillo has won the presidency for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), but by the smallest margin in the party’s 65-year history: 48.77% of the vote.

Rather than waiting for the outcome of private talks, for the past week Mexicans have watched the quite-public marathon session of the Federal Electoral Board discussing whether the proper procedures had been followed in specific polling places and which violations were severe enough to nullify a precinct’s votes. The complaints of irregularities by the conservative National Action Party (PAN)--all 13,108 of them--have been debated in front of the entire nation.

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Those talks are not expected to substantially alter the election results that left second-place Diego Fernandez de Cevallos of the PAN with 25.94% of the vote and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) in third with 16.6%. The rest of the ballots were either cast for six minor parties or spoiled.

If the 2.82% of spoiled ballots--usually a form of voter protest--are not counted, Zedillo would receive a slim majority of 50.18% to 26.69% for Fernandez and 17.08% for Cardenas.

But even if the wide margins between the candidates mean the debate will not change the election’s outcome, analysts said the public sessions are important because they are establishing an important precedent of legality and transparency.

“The winners and losers are being determined by means of the election,” said Jose Woldenberg, one of the six citizen-members who hold the majority of the electoral board’s seats. The board is the governing body of the Federal Electoral Institute, a quasi-independent agency that runs elections. “In other countries, that would seem obvious, but based on the tradition we come from, it is very relevant.”

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The Mexican tradition is to make a deal.

For example, in 1976, Alejandro Gascon, candidate of the Stalinist Popular Socialist Party (PPS) and mayor of the Nayarit state capital of Tepic, won the majority of votes for the governorship of that Pacific Coast state.

Party Chairman Jorge Cruickshank was summoned to the campaign headquarters of the PRI.

“I caught them,” recalled former Excelsior reporter Carlos Ferreira, who saw Cruickshank talking animatedly with Porfirio Munoz Ledo, then a PRI official and now chairman of the PRD. They emerged after several hours, with Cruickshank conceding Gascon’s defeat.

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A few months later, the PRI allied itself with the PPS behind Cruickshank’s Senate bid in Oaxaca state, making him the first opposition senator in modern times.

The tradition of negotiating votes has intensified during the six years that Carlos Salinas de Gortari has been president. During his term, opposition militants have taken to the streets to protest election fraud while their leaders cut back-room deals for interim governorships or city halls.

“We saw this in Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi and Yucatan,” said Santiago Creel, another citizen board member. Fraud-ridden gubernatorial elections in San Luis Potosi and Guanajuato led to such drastic protests that the states became ungovernable, forcing Salinas to appoint compromise interim governors.

When a similar situation developed in Yucatan, local PRI leaders refused to accept defeat, forcing national party leaders to instead offer the opposition the mayor’s seat in the capital of Merida.

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The PAN has become especially adept at such negotiations, to the point that many PRD activists believe that their party has been damaged by Cardenas’ refusal to cut deals. But Cardenas may prove to have been ahead of the national electoral trend.

From taxi drivers to intellectuals, Mexicans are becoming increasingly indignant about elections that are decided after the voting rather than by the voting.

Ironically, since the PPS negotiated away its victory in Nayarit, voters have become disenchanted with the radical leftist party. Last week, it received less than 1.5% of the vote, the minimum needed to maintain a federal registry as a legally recognized party.

“There is a serious inertia, a culture of resolving problems through negotiation instead of institutionally,” Creel said. “This has to change. We cannot continue deciding electoral issues in the street and over the bargaining table.”

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In this election, the real test of the nation’s commitment to making electoral decisions in the voting booth may be the fight over the mayorship of the industrial city of Monterrey.

In voting that coincided with the federal elections, the PRI and PAN candidates have alternated first place as the votes have been tallied. With 120 precincts left to count, the PRI candidate was barely 5,000 votes ahead. If the PAN wins, Monterrey, capital of the state of Nuevo Leon, will become the largest city ever turned over to an opposition mayor. Further complicating matters, the races for the Nuevo Leon legislature are also close.

Under the old system, conditions would be perfect for negotiation. One party would take the mayorship, the other the legislature.

How party leaders resolve the race will tell a lot about their commitment to respecting the voters’ will, analysts said. In such a close race, negotiation is still possible, especially because the decisions are being made by a state and local electoral boards that are less closely scrutinized than the federal body.

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The PAN has documented a variety of electoral code violations that could nullify the votes in dozens of precincts.

“One party could protest the vote in certain polling places and the other could allow those precincts to be nullified,” Creel said. “That would change the tally.”

Electoral authorities cannot impose election results if the parties are determined to keep settling close elections by negotiating, he said, adding, “It depends on the political will of the parties.”


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