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THE WORLD | ELECTIONS

Globalism May Bring Mexico's Politics to American Soil

July 05, 1998|Sam Quinones | Sam Quinones, a reporter for Pacific News Service, is a recipient of a 1998 Alicia Patterson fellowship

MEXICO CITY — How can Mexicans living abroad, including millions in the United States, vote in their presidential elections in the year 2000? The question spotlights a dilemma that economic globalism may pose for a country's domestic politics.

The issue grows out of a 1996 constitutional reform. Mexicans living in the United States or elsewhere abroad always had the right to vote. They just had to return to the districts where they were registered to do so. The 1996 reform allows Mexicans to vote away from their home districts, which means, for the first time, outside Mexico.

But what the reform didn't spell out was the logistics of such a precedent.

No reliable study has been made of the number of potential Mexican voters living in the United States. Estimates range from 2.5 million to 7.5 million, with one-third of them believed to be undocumented. That's the equivalent of between 5% and 15% of Mexico's 53 million registered voters. (Only Mexicans who have not taken foreign citizenship would be eligible to vote, and then only in the presidential race.)

In May, a commission of 13 experts on politics, law, information technology and demographics was formed to study the numbers and array of questions surrounding how such a vote would be accomplished and how much it would cost. Their recommendations are due in November. Then the Mexican Congress must decide whether it wants to proceed and, if so, what regulations and budget to establish.

The issue has taken on special urgency. The year 2000 will mark the first modern Mexican presidential race with true electoral competition. Recognizing this, more and more Mexicans in the United States are clamoring to vote.

The presidential race already is heating up. The campaign seems sure to include at least three, maybe four strong candidates. Conceivably, a contender could win with only one-third of the vote, with the others trailing by low single digits. So Mexicans voting in the United States could determine the outcome.

In such a case, the winner would likely be an opposition-party candidate. Studies, polls and symbolic votes dating back to 1981 show that immigrants in the United States would vote strongly against the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the party that has dominated Mexico's politics for 69 years.

Before an opportunity for that to happen, Mexico must decide some questions it has never considered before. For example: Can it fashion a law applicable in a foreign country? Will Mexico be able to mount a voter-registration drive in a foreign country, as likely will be needed? Will foreign citizens, businesses and lobbyists be allowed to contribute to Mexican campaigns? Would use of foreign media be restricted?

The voting issue goes to the heart of a global economy. In a world with fewer and fewer closed economies, workers, like capital and goods, cross borders with greater ease and frequency. In this post-border economy, what political and voting rights should immigrants have in their native lands?

Many countries allow their citizens abroad to vote. But Mexicans in the United States represent an extreme case. No nation has more compatriots working in a foreign country than Mexico has in the United States. Thus the voting-abroad issue brings with it some special problems and possibilities.

One is that the United States likely will become bitterly contested Mexican campaign territory. Candidates from other countries--the Dominican Republic is one example--have campaigned hard for their countrymen's vote in the United States, but only in selected neighborhoods of a few cities.

Already, the United States attracts Mexican candidates. Since immigrant dollars support thousands of destitute Mexican villages, many of the villagers consult with their native sons in the United States on how they should vote. Their opinion is decisive. The vote in some far-off village in Durango might well be decided in Dallas, and Mexican politicians know this.

Ricardo Monreal, gubernatorial candidate for the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in Zacatecas, a major immigrant-sending state, is one such politician. When visiting Los Angeles, the Bay Area and Napa Valley last March, he not only raised money but also sought to persuade immigrants to instruct their families in Zacatecas to vote for him. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, mayor of Mexico City and the PRD's most probable candidate for president, traveled to Chicago for Cinco de Mayo celebrations there. That same day, Vicente Fox, governor of Guanajuato, and a leading contender for the center-right National Action Party's (PAN) presidential nomination, met with businessmen in Dallas.

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