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Exiting the Labyrinth

From: Journal of Democracy
Volume 11, Number 4, October 2000
pp. 20-24 | 10.1353/jod.2000.0083

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Journal of Democracy 11.4 (2000) 20-24

Mexico's Victory

In November 1992, a group of Mexican leaders representing a wide political spectrum was invited by the Carter Center and the state of Georgia to observe the U.S. presidential elections. The Center's ulterior purpose, which was not unknown to the Mexicans, was to elicit a reciprocal invitation to observe Mexico's 1994 presidential elections.

The Mexicans visited numerous polling sites in Georgia and were surprised by the decentralization of the voting (each county has its own system), by the brevity of the regulations, and by the dearth or total absence of poll-watchers. At one point, one of the Mexicans commented: "In Mexico, to prevent fraud, we have thick books of regulations, thousands of election monitors, and a tightly centralized system. In comparison, U.S. elections would be so easy to manipulate!"

I asked: "Then why is there so much fraud in Mexico and so little in the United States?" One of the group mused: "Perhaps all the laws and monitoring in Mexico cannot compensate for the lack of confidence in the electoral process."

I remembered that exchange when former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and I visited Vicente Fox, the presidential candidate of the National Action Party (PAN) and the Alianza por Cambio (Alliance for Change), at his campaign headquarters at 4 p.m. on July 2, the day of Mexico's presidential election. The PAN had blanketed the entire electoral process with party loyalists looking for instances of election fraud. Using state-of-the-art technology, PAN cadres roamed the entire country, dispatching complaints regularly by e-mail and mobile phone to party headquarters. Yet even this vast system of surveillance did not reduce the nervousness felt by PANistas, who suspected that the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was one step ahead of them.

Fox handed us a table with about eight exit polls from the media, newspapers, and the major political parties. The numbers differed, but they all showed that Fox was leading. Yet Fox was not celebrating; he was not even exhilarated. "There are two hours before the polls close," he said. "This is the moment when the PRI machine will steal the election!" We told him that we were going to PRI headquarters next.

We went next to PRI headquarters, where we met with Francisco Labastida, the PRI's presidential candidate. The atmosphere was subdued. Senior PRI officials did not acknowledge that their exit polls showed them losing, but their smiles had disappeared and the somber look on their faces suggested that they were absorbing the unthinkable -- the pillar of PRI power was crumbling. The unstated fact was that the PRI machine had run out of gas; they were not going to steal the election.

How Did It Happen?

A decade ago, anyone who had suggested that the PRI would accept a fair election or the loss of the presidency would not have been taken seriously. Indeed, a public-opinion poll taken before the election of Carlos Salinas as president in 1988 found that 87 percent of the voters did not believe that the PRI would respect the wishes of the electorate. Thus, while many Mexicans were disappointed when the ballot count in 1988 was interrupted on election night, few were surprised. Yet the PRI was an unusual party that combined heavy-handed authoritarianism with responsiveness to public opinion. The year after his own questionable election, President Carlos Salinas accepted the first election of an opposition governor. The next year, he transferred the machinery for conducting elections from the Ministry of Interior (Gobernación) to a new Federal Election Institute (IFE). Although Salinas made sure at that time that Gobernación would still manage IFE, a process had begun that would culminate a decade later in one of the most professional and effective election commissions in the Americas.

How did that happen? The first breach in the armor of the hegemonic party-state occurred before the 1988 election with the defection of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas (the former PRI governor of Michoacán and son of the great president Lázaro Cárdenas) and Porfirio MunÐoz Ledo, the party's former...



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