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  • A Mexican Milestone
  • Sergio Aguayo Quezada (bio)

In March 1994, seven Mexican nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that had spent years working to promote democracy and free and fair elections organized a national coalition to conduct a comprehensive observation of the August 21 presidential election. Known as the Civic Alliance, the coalition quickly grew to embrace hundreds of NGOs, labor unions, and social movements, and mobilized nearly 20,000 citizens throughout the country. The observation carried out by the Alliance, which provided an accurate picture of the electoral process that resulted in the victory of Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, marked a milestone in the history of citizen movements in Mexico.

The Mexican Revolution of 1910 gave rise to a regime that was presidentialist, authoritarian, centralized, and closed to the world. Beginning in the 1960s, the failure of the regime’s favored economic model forced the country to come out of its isolation, and authoritarianism began to wane; simultaneously, the number and the [End Page 157] importance of social movements and NGOs increased, and the links among them grew stronger. Most of these independent organizations, while supporting democracy and human rights, viewed the electoral process with indifference or even suspicion. In general, elections were seen as a meaningless ritual whereby the ruling party gave a gloss of legitimacy to its reshufflings of personnel.

This began to change during the 1980s, when elections became more competitive. Epitomizing the shift was the presidential contest of 1988. Although Carlos Salinas de Gortari was the official winner, there was enough evidence to substantiate the claim that his victory had been the result of fraudulent practices. There thus began a reassessment of elections, which eventually came to be seen as a tool that could help put an end to the authoritarianism that still suffocates Mexican society.

As part of that process of reevaluation, various NGOs began to give more emphasis to the promotion of democracy and of free and fair elections. It was by chance that their attention was drawn to election monitoring. In 1990, I was invited by the Council of Freely Elected Heads of Government, a group chaired by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and composed of former and current heads of state from throughout the Western Hemisphere, to join a delegation of international observers about to set off for Haiti. Monitoring by outside observers seemed to me an effective way to promote fair elections, but I found that exercise expensive, and not enough in any case to consolidate a culture of democracy. The logical alternative for Mexico was electoral observation by the country’s own citizens.

Following that reasoning, the Mexican Academy of Human Rights and the Potosino Center for Human Rights mobilized three hundred Mexicans to observe the 18 August 1991 gubernatorial election in San Luis Potosí. That same day, the Arturo Rosenblueth Foundation and the Council for Democracy organized a “quick count” for the Federal District election in Mexico City. Deploying hundreds of volunteers, they managed to project the results the very night of the election. The San Luis Potosí and Federal District experiments were critical to the development of a civic movement in Mexico. Both experiences revealed the enormous complexity of elections geared in many ways to favor the candidates of the PRI. It became evident that participation in public affairs held great interest for Mexicans, and that there was considerable receptiveness to the idea that political rights are human rights.

The events of August 1991 also revealed the difficulty of detecting all the mechanisms that had been created to distort the will of the citizens. The most important lesson was the inadequacy of limiting observation to election day itself; in order to construct an accurate picture of what went on, it was necessary to monitor events before, during, and after the day on which the ballots were cast. Hence the proposal that the observation of the 1994 presidential election be [End Page 158] “comprehensive.” Also in 1991, the two pillars of the Mexican civic movement emerged: NGOs and groups of prominent citizens. The cooperative interaction of activists and academics would become one of the most distinctive features of the Civic Alliance.

Finally, 1991...

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