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Vote fraud goes on display, casting plea for reforms


MEXICO CITY -- An unusual cultural exhibit has hit town here. It isn't about Mexican treasures, or Cancun or even the North American Free Trade Agreement.

This one is billed "ExpoFraud."

"It is the story of a government that insists on keeping power despite the will of the people," said Javier Rivas, a leader of a conservative opposition party who helped organize the exhibit in a hotel here. "It is a plea to those in power who truly believe in democracy and who can help remedy the situation."

Election fraud is still widely practiced in Mexico. And results, which almost always favor the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), are usually received with heated and sometimes violent protests by citizens.

For more than 60 years, the PRI has controlled the government.

ExpoFraud documents 10 years of election rigging. Organizers of the exhibit said that in 1983, election fraud was institutionalized when a nervous President Miguel de la Madrid became frightened by the increasing organizational power of opposition parties. That year, the National Action Party (PAN) won seven mayoral races in the southern state of Chiapas.

"The fraud started with very crude techniques and has since become very sophisticated," Mr. Rivas said.

The exhibit is mostly blown-up copies of newspaper articles about election fraud, with headlines such as "In Culiacan There Were More Votes than Ballots." Fake voter cards are on display. There are photos of women protesting election fraud being beaten by police officers and dragged to jail.

And there are detailed accounts about what many consider the most scandalous election of all, the 1988 presidential election. Carlos Salinas de Gortari was declared the winner with a little more than 50 percent of the vote after a night of chaos that climaxed when the computers used to tabulate the votes went down.

Opposition candidates were outraged, especially Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the liberal Democratic Revolutionary Party. He and other election observers claimed that before the computers shut off, Mr. Cardenas was leading the race.

Election officials, all members of the PRI, insisted that the race was clean and fair. Several months later, they held a ceremony at which they burned all the ballots that had been turned in for that election. The documents weighed 10 tons, and government officials said there was no room to store them.

The action "can only be interpreted as an effort to hide a piece of history," wrote columnist Sergio Samiento on Dec. 20, 1988.

Under enormous internal and external pressure, President Salinas has initiated an effort to reform electoral procedures.

The reforms are aimed at cleaning up campaign contributions and spending and getting all political parties more access to television and newspaper advertising. They are supposed to be implemented before presidential elections next July.

Organizers of ExpoFraud say that while Mr. Salinas has been able to stop a lot of the institutional election fraud, election agencies must be radically reorganized to include more participation of people from all political parties if the government intends to wipe out illegal voting practices at polling stations.

In order to impress legislators considering the electoral reforms, the exhibit organizers hoped to set up their show in the lobby of the congressional meeting hall. They were unsuccessful, but yesterday, the Mexican Congress gave preliminary approval to a reform bill that could reduce the power of the PRI.

Mr. Rivas said he has received invitations from human rights groups in Los Angeles. He also plans to take the exhibit to Washington, where the U.S. Congress will soon debate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The agreement, which would eliminate trade barriers between the U.S., Mexico and Canada, is considered the crowned jewel of Mr. Salinas' economic reforms. And many analysts say that NAFTA is an important political victory for Mr. Salinas because it will confirm that he has brought Mexico out of obscurity.

But Mr. Rivas cautioned that the exhibit was not timed to have an impact on NAFTA's journey through U.S. Congress.

"We don't want anyone to blame the democracy fighters for the success or failure of the agreement," he said. "However, we cannot stop people from reaching their own conclusions."

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