Foreign 'guests' to monitor Mexico vote


MEXICO CITY -- The eyes of Shanti Avirgan will be watching.

Her part in the federal elections that take place here Sunday will be small, but a factor nonetheless in the attempt to keep things clean.

Ms. Avirgan is from Silver Spring. She is one of the foreign "guests" invited to Mexico to be on hand for the event.

Strictly speaking they are not "observers." Mexican law prohibits that. But observing is what she will be doing, and if she spies a fraud, or obvious vote rigging, she will report what she sees.

"I think it's unrealistic to think we will see fraud taking place," she said. "But we will get an idea of people's sentiments where we are going; and if the results are different from those sentiments, we will include this in our report, along with things like whether people have been threatened with job loss, or bribed."

Ms. Avirgan is 18, the youngest in a group of about 110 Americans and Canadians sponsored by Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based education organization. She is a student at the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in Latin America studies.

Donna Mandel put together the group from 30 states and provinces in the United States and Canada.

"We have a lot of teachers and a lot of lawyers," she said. "We have business people, students, farm workers, artists."

Ms. Mandel, 35, moved this year from Tacoma Park to San Francisco, the headquarters of Global Exchange. She has done this work before. She organized and led a group to observe the elections in El Salvador this year.

"The Mexican government insists on calling us visitors, or guests," she said. "But we know why we're here."

Ms. Mandel will work in Michoacan state. She and 30 of the Americans will link up with national observers, and remain in the state until three days after the election. Ms. Avirgan, who lived 10 years in Costa Rica, is the group translator.

Asked why she does this work Ms. Mandel said: "I'm an internationalist and believe people in different countries have common interests. By being here we will probably deter some fraud. There is a strong and growing movement for democracy here and we want to support that effort."

She added: "We want to be a witness, to come back to the States and say what we saw. Considering how close Mexico is to us, I think the reporting in the media is inadequate. We want to have 110 people who can go back and tell what is going on."

Sunday's election will be the most thoroughly monitored balloting in Mexico's history. Tens of thousands will be watching the process, Mexicans and foreigners, both famous and otherwise.

Former presidents and prime ministers, prominent political figures from other countries are coming to Mexico this week. Joe Clark, the former Canadian prime minister, will be here, and Sen. John S. McCain, R-Ariz., former House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas, and former Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo Arevelo.

The big names are joined by hundreds of the not-so-well-known in delegations dispatched by organizations such as the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, organs of the two major U.S. political parties.

In all, about 900 foreigners, most from the United States, have been invited to attend as Mexicans choose a new president and Congress.

Global Exchange will work in four states. In addition to Michoacan, they will be in Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas. The latter, in the south, was the site of January's violent uprising by the Zapatista rebels.

The rebellion has been interpreted as an extreme expression of the general disillusion with the course of national life in Mexico, a malaise revealed in polls which show that 70 percent express no faith in the country's political institutions.

That helps explain the national obsession with assuring that the vote is fairly counted. Many times in the past it has not been.

In 1991, the election in Guanajuato state was ostensibly won by the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI. But the "victory" was protested so vigorously by the opposition Action National Party (PAN) that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari annulled it and conceded the state's governorship to the PAN.

But mainly, it was the outcome of the 1988 election that has inspired all the efforts to put objective observers at the polling places. Many believe the PRI rigged the count after crashing the central electoral computer in Mexico City when it showed that Cuauhtemoc Cardenas was defeating Mr. Salinas.

Fraud was never proved, but the widespread determination to prevent anything similar happening has given birth to numerous private, non-partisan civic organizations. They intend to watch and to shout fraud if they see it.

The government itself has promised to assure a fair election, and a number of new procedures have been approved to ostensibly guarantee it. These include new tamper-proof voting cards, transparent ballot boxes and indelible ink to prevent multiple voting.

The government even permitted the controlled television networks to provide more coverage to opposition candidates. The improved balanced coverage was noted through June and July.

But the balanced coverage ended in August, said Miguel Acosta, of the Civic Alliance, the largest of the non-government election monitoring organizations. Mr. Acosta reported Tuesday that the PRI candidate got four times more television coverage than the others in the first two weeks of this month.

Also, Marta Perez, executive secretary of the Alliance yesterday protested to the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), contending that only about 1,200 of its 15,000 national poll watchers have been given credentials, even though all of them have been trained and qualified.

Even if all prospective poll watchers are eventually credentialed, there may not be enough of them, official or unofficial, or "guests" like Ms. Mandel and Ms. Avirgan, to cover the whole country.

Over the weekend IFE, which is officially charged with running the election, said it had 32,133 observers to deploy. Since there are 96,421 polling places, only about every third booth will have an official observer, leaving most unattended.

This has generated fears that a fraud might still be put over, especially in the remote, rural districts where the PRI is well organized.

Others dismiss this fear. They insist there are enough unofficial observers to discourage irregularities, and not just the foreigners.

Many of the nine parties contesting the election will deploy their own observers. The three major parties will marshal thousands. They, plus the official observers, the foreigners, and the poll watchers of organizations like the Alliance might produce here and there, as one commentator suggested, more watchers than voters.

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