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Council Helps Make History by Observing Mexican Elections

A 15-member team representing the Council of Freely Elected Heads of Government was among the first group of international visitors ever to witness a national election in Mexico. The Council, an informal group of 24 leaders from the Western Hemisphere, is chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and based at The Carter Center. The Council has monitored and mediated elections in eight countries in the Americas, including Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Guyana. It has followed election issues in Mexico since 1986.

The Aug. 21 election also was marked a high voter turnout (78 percent) and major reforms in the electoral process. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) retained its 65-year hold on power with the election of candidate Ernesto Zedillo as president by slightly more than 50 percent of the vote.
Delegation coordinator Jennifer McCoy, senior research associate in the Center's Latin American and Caribbean Program, said the election represented "an important step in the democratic development of Mexico."

The Carter Center group was part of an 80-member, multi- national delegation organized by the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. Jim Wright, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, served as President Carter's personal representative at the election. Former Costa Rican President Rodrigo Carazo, former Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo, and former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark led the Council delegation. Delegates divided into 34 teams deployed throughout Mexico on election day to observe the balloting process.

"I was very impressed. The Mexican government went to great pains," said Mr. Wright. "There was an honest effort to create a climate conducive to a fair and free election."

"The Council delegation concluded that while there were some election-day irregularities, they were not sufficiently serious or widespread to have affected the outcome of the presidential race, won by a vote margin of about 20 percent," Dr. McCoy said. "Nevertheless, further reforms are needed to raise credibility and address the unequal campaign conditions in future elections."

Irregularities cited included isolated incidences of intimidation of voters, partisan behavior by some election officials, and a systematic problem throughout the country at special casillas (polling places) for individuals traveling outside their home district on election day. A limit of 300 ballots at each special casilla meant some prospective voters were turned away.

In addition, the delegation suggested Mexicans address issues of bias in broadcast news campaign coverage, the use of state resources to advance the campaigns of the governing parties at the national and state levels, and the high ceiling on campaign finance limitations that in effect permit the governing party to use significantly more resources than those of other parties in the election.

Nonetheless, the delegation stressed that the 1994 presidential election was the most secretive for voters, the most open to observation of the process, and the most competitive for political parties in the nation's history. Process improvements included a new computerized register of voters, curtained voting booths, transparent ballot boxes, sequentially numbered ballot packets, a state-of-the-art voter identification card, better indelible ink applied to voters' thumbs after their ballots were cast, and a double lottery to ensure impartiality in the selection of polling site officials.

The process reforms stimulated unprecedented citizen participation. Some 80,000 domestic observers, thousands of representatives of the three major parties, and nearly 1,000 foreign observers were dispatched to the 96,415 polling stations throughout Mexico, where people waited in line sometimes for several hours to vote.

The Council delegation published a final report on the Mexican election in December.

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