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NEWS ANALYSIS : Mexico Poised for Political Reform : Elections: Special session of Congress expected to pass measures to help prevent ballot stuffing and to stiffen penalties for fraud.

March 19, 1994|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Growing pressure from its citizens, epitomized by a Jan. 1 Indian uprising in the southern state of Chiapas, is forcing Mexico's government to match the strides made toward opening the economy with similar advances in the notoriously closed political system.

A special session of the Mexican Congress has been called for next week to consider far-reaching political reforms that include turning over control of the institute that runs elections to citizen groups and toughening legislation to punish electoral fraud.

The reforms are assured of passage in a legislature controlled by the highly disciplined Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has ruled Mexico for 65 years.

But more important is the assurance that the measures will be implemented by Interior Secretary Jorge Carpizo MacGregor, whose integrity is widely regarded.

The package heading toward Congress is the third in the five years of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's administration; by far, these measures are the most profound.

They include provisions for revising and correcting voter registration lists and voting forms that will help prevent ballot stuffing.

Despite earlier indications from unnamed government officials, they stop short of giving international observers a formal role. They do, however, contemplate that "foreign visitors" will call on polling places on Election Day.

Mexicans have viewed their election process with skepticism for decades, widely suspecting the PRI, as the ruling party is known, of alchemy: magically transforming votes for the opposition into votes for the PRI.

In the 1988 presidential election, the computer tallying system mysteriously crashed, leading many Mexicans to suspect that Salinas did not receive a majority.

Throughout Salinas' term, the administration has resisted significant political changes, even as it implemented wide-ranging free-market economic reforms.

Numerous state elections have been so marred by fraud and citizen marches on the Zocalo--Mexico City's main plaza and the site of frequent political demonstrations--that the administration has been forced to install interim governors and call new elections.

But what forced the government to propose the latest round of political reforms was an uprising in Chiapas that left at least 145 people dead, political analyst Jorge Castaneda said. "They thought that if there were charges of fraud, it would be just the same old guys in the Zocalo. But now, it's guys with guns," he said.

The rebel demands include guarantees of clean elections or the resignation of Salinas.

The government has refused to negotiate national political issues with the guerrillas, who call themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army. The proposed reforms, however, clearly address many of the guerrillas' concerns.

Rebel spokesman Subcommander Marcos said earlier this week that the Zapatistas will end the current cease-fire unless they see substantial signs of a move toward greater democracy.

"There is an overall fear of major turmoil after the (presidential) election" on Aug. 21, Castaneda said. "They are scared that the whole place will go haywire if any candidate contests the results."

Those fears have been fed by the kidnaping this week of Alfredo Harp Helu, chairman of Mexico's largest financial group, he said. While the kidnaping--which sent the national stock market plunging--is apparently unrelated to the Chiapas uprising, it provides an additional indication of instability, Castaneda said. One of Mexico's key attractions for foreign investors traditionally has been its stability.

The proposed reforms are the result of negotiations among the country's nine registered political parties and Carpizo.

While they represent the most substantive changes in decades, the reforms stopped far short of proposals to:

* Allow Mexicans living abroad to vote.

* Revive coalitions among different parties, a tactic that opposition presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas used to build a coalition in 1988.

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