MEXICO CITY — For more than seven decades, Mexico's elections had the dubious and often well-deserved reputation of being "fixed." The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, has won every national election, and its political operatives invented such ploys as "pregnant" urns (ballot boxes filled with pre-marked ballots) and "taco" balloting (bundling ballot slips). Yet, for the July 2 elections, things have changed dramatically.
Next Sunday, close to 60 million Mexicans will go to the polls to elect a president, Congress (500 deputies and 128 senators), three governors and lesser officials in state and local races. The presidential race among PRI candidate Francisco Labastida, Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) is considered Mexico's tightest. Whatever the outcome, there is an almost universal belief among Mexican voters, parties, authorities and electoral officials that the election will be the freest and fairest ever.
"This election ought to clear out a lot of myths about current Mexican elections," says Jose Woldenberg, president of the independent Federal Electoral Institute and the man upon whose shoulders rest the hopes and fears of all Mexicans. With an annual budget of some $900 million, the institute, known as the IFE, is responsible for registering voters, organizing elections and tallying the vote at each of Mexico's 114,000 polling stations.
Born in Monterrey, Mexico, Woldenberg, 47, studied political science at Mexico's National University, earning a master's there. While teaching at his alma mater, he became one of the most visible leaders in the drive to unionize college teachers. He is the author of several books on labor and political issues and still occasionally writes for newspapers and magazines. His essays on the need for electoral reform in Mexico were so widely read that, in 1996, when the Mexican Congress chose the current electoral council, it named Woldenberg as its president and charged him with cleaning up Mexico's electoral process.
Woldenberg is recently divorced from Julia Carabias, secretary of the environment in President Ernesto Zedillo's Cabinet. They have a teenage daughter. He was interviewed in his office in Mexico City.
Question: Can you say without a shadow of a doubt that elections in Mexico are as clean and transparent as possible?
Answer: Yes. I do not mean that there may not be an occasional irregularity. But the votes of the citizens will be respected, and those who win elections will do so legitimately. Before 1994, there was always a post-election conflict; since IFE has overseen presidential elections, however, there has hardly been a post-electoral conflict.
Q: Does the IFE operate without interference from the government?
Q: Will the Mexican people believe the election was clean if the PRI wins the presidency?
A: Mexico has gone through an enormous transformation. The opposition to the PRI rules in half the territory, and no party has an absolute majority in Congress.
Q: Is the process fair for opposition parties?
A: Yes. Regarding campaign financing, the 1996 electoral-reform laws established that virtually all campaigns would be publicly financed, and there are limits to private contributions.
Sergio Munoz is an editorial writer for The Times.
Q: Do the media cover the candidates of all parties equally?
A: The media are now open to all parties, and the IFE gets free radio and TV time to pass on to the parties. The main national TV and radio networks have fairly covered the three main presidential candidates, yet, unfortunately, there's still some media in some rural areas that have not followed suit.
Q: Some of the old vices of the political system--vote coercion and handouts to voters--still exist. What can be done to eliminate them?
A: Let me put this phenomenon in its proper perspective. Mexico is a very poor country with enormous disparities and where some people have very serious needs. It is true that for a lot of people, one kilo of sugar or beans is more important than a vote. We must also acknowledge that there are unscrupulous political operatives who know these needs and will find ways to capitalize on them. These are facts of life, and we work very hard to get rid of them. First, our media campaigns tell the people that their vote is secret and free. We warn them against vote buying and coercion, telling them they should not feel beholden or intimidated. We also tell them that when they go to vote, they will do so in an individual booth. We assure them that no one will be able to see how they vote. So, by election time, even people who received gifts will know that nobody else will be able to tell how they voted.
Q: How much does coercion or vote buying influence an election?