MEXICO CITY — The Mexican government has asked the United Nations to provide technical assistance to national observers of the Aug. 21 presidential elections and to issue a report on the country's new computerized electoral system.
U.N. officials said they are acting on the request, made in a letter dated May 10 and released Thursday.
This is the first time that Mexico--a country generally acknowledged to be plagued by election fraud--has ever asked for such help.
The request is the latest in a series of moves to improve the credibility of the crucial federal elections.
The government has permitted audits of voter-registration rolls, organized tours of electoral computers and commissioned surveys from pollsters with a reputation for independence.
The aid request to the United Nations comes atop plans to invite international "visitors" to watch the elections, a government official said. The Mexican Congress is now considering constitutional modifications to permit the presence of such foreigners, who would not have the official status of observers.
"Although our constitution and laws grant the right to organize and qualify elections exclusively to Mexicans, we believe that the assistance of the United Nations would be useful in prior phases," Mexican Interior Minister Jorge Carpizo MacGregor wrote to U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
After speaking with the director of the U.N. electoral assistance unit, Carpizo requested a mission of election experts to review the Mexican system and to issue a report on it, as well as providing assistance for national observers who request it.
Scrutiny of computers that will count the votes is important because much of the skepticism surrounding the 1988 presidential election resulted from a system crash that occurred when opposition candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas was ahead in returns. Many Mexicans still believe Cardenas was cheated out of the presidency.
The request to assist national observers was made, a government official said, because "many of them do not know what they are supposed to observe."
Joe Sills, the secretary general's spokesman, described the Mexican request as one "not for verification on conduct of the election. It's a technical assistance request."
Opposition parties called the request a positive step.
Felipe Calderon, secretary general of the right-wing National Action Party, said the United Nations will provide "prestige and moral force."
But "we will see whether the United Nations will base its (evaluation) on the reality of Mexico," said Cardenas, candidate of the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party.
Besides trying to show Mexico's elections are clean and fair, the government has attempted to open up the campaign through efforts such as the first-ever debate among leading presidential candidates Thursday night.
Cardenas opened the debate by borrowing a line used by former President Ronald Reagan in his 1980 campaign.
"We are in a situation in which the majority of Mexicans are not satisfied," he said. "Nobody can say we are better off than in 1988."
Ernesto Zedillo, candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, stressed his government experience and said the Aug. 21 election would be a landmark.
"The elections are about the future of Mexico, of our families, our children," Zedillo said.
About 30 million Mexicans were expected to tune in to the debate, which also included Diego Fernandez de Cevallos of the conservative National Action Party.
Times staff writer Stanley Meisler at the United Nations contributed to this report.