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Vote Denied to Mexicans Living Abroad

July 02, 1999|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — The Mexican Senate on Thursday quietly let die a proposal to allow millions of Mexicans living abroad to vote by absentee ballot, denying the franchise to a potentially large bloc of voters in next year's presidential election.

Mexican activists in the United States who had lobbied for the absentee vote were furious at being excluded from the 2000 ballot. Many blamed the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which has ruled for 70 years. But other parties also drew criticism for failing to get the bill passed.

The opposition-controlled lower Chamber of Deputies had approved a package of electoral reforms in April, including absentee voting rights for millions of Mexicans who are abroad on election day and who possess valid voting credentials.

But the PRI used its majority in the Senate to block the package of reforms, declaring that the complex bill's many measures contained "very serious technical and legal errors." The bill never came up for a vote in the Senate.

This action prevents the absentee ballot provision in the bill from winning approval at least one year before the presidential vote, as required by the constitution. The election is scheduled for July 2, 2000.

"We are very sad, very resentful," said Laguna Hills business executive Carlos Olamendi in a telephone interview. "What they've done is an act of real political irresponsibility. They have shown a tremendous insensitivity to the millions of Mexicans who so nobly left their own country out of economic necessity and who send $7 billion back home every year to support the Mexican economy."

What especially angered the U.S.-based Mexicans was that Thursday's action came despite a chorus of support for absentee ballot rights voiced recently by all the major parties, including the PRI.

Sen. Eduardo Andrade of the ruling party said the PRI favored the vote abroad in principle, but he said the Chamber of Deputies bill was badly flawed. He said it called on the Federal Electoral Institute to determine how the absentee voting would take place, although the constitution says that electoral practices must be set by Congress.

Andrade said the PRI had made a counterproposal allowing absentee voting by mail. Other parties had insisted that voting booths be set up abroad on election day, which the PRI deems impractical and risky.

Opposition parties dismissed these objections as an opportunistic way to avoid electoral changes that might reduce the PRI's influence over the political system ahead of what is expected to be one of Mexico's most closely fought elections.

"Obviously, there is a major lack of will in the official party to convert itself into a truly democratic party," said Rafael Castilla Peniche, a deputy from the conservative National Action Party and author of the absentee ballot proposal.

Many others, including U.S. citizens living abroad, have long enjoyed the right to vote in their homelands' elections.

"More than 40 countries allow the vote abroad," Castilla said. "The PRI believes their vote could decide the election. It has a great fear of the vote abroad, of opposition coalitions--it has a great fear of losing the presidency."

But Andrade said: "We are favorable to the vote abroad. But we believe that under current circumstances it is just not possible to approve it for 2000."

The bill that the Senate allowed to die would have permitted the narrowest of absentee ballot options.

The Federal Electoral Institute estimated that 10.8 million Mexican adults will be abroad on election day next year, nearly all of them in the United States. Of those, about 2.7 million born in the U.S. of Mexican parents and an additional 1 million Mexicans who have taken U.S. citizenship will have been excluded from voting.

And of the 6.1 million Mexicans living in the United States who retain Mexican citizenship, only about 1.5 million have official voting cards, as required under the Chamber of Deputies proposal. In addition, 883,000 Mexicans will probably be traveling abroad on election day and could have voted under the proposed law.

Al Rojas, a California state government employee in Sacramento and a leader of the absentee vote movement, said supporters planned civil resistance campaigns to pressure Mexican officials to find some way to approve the vote abroad. He said one survey showed 89% of Mexicans living abroad favored the absentee voting right.

Some Mexicans on both sides of the border opposed the absentee ballot provision, saying it could invite ill-informed voting by those who had lived for years outside their native land. Others worried that the prospect of thousands of Mexicans lining up at consulates to vote could fuel anti-Mexican sentiments in the United States.

Luis Pelayo, a pro-vote activist in the Chicago area who heads the Hispanic Council, said the PRI mistakenly feared that voters abroad would favor opposition parties. In fact, he said, polls suggested that the vote would be spread among the major parties along lines similar to those back home.

Olamendi, the Laguna Hills businessman, said he went to Mexico City a few weeks ago to lobby for the bill and received reassuring words from all the parties, including a spokesman for President Ernesto Zedillo.

* ENERGY BATTLE: Mexico angry at lawsuit by U.S. firms that alleges dumping of oil below market prices. C1

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