Prof. Jean Mayer, centre, poses outside a voting booth in San Nicolas de los Ranchos in the state of Puebla, Mexico, with other international observers, local officials and the children of one of the officials.|
PHOTO COURTESY OF JEAN MAYER
The media hailed last month's general elections in Mexico as a watershed in that country's move towards becoming a true democracy. But according to U of G political science professor Jean Mayer, who was on the ground in the rural Puebla region acting as an international observer for the elections, the scene wasn't one of unalloyed propriety.
"Definitely, it was business as usual in the outlying regions, with widespread irregularities evident," he says.
Mayer, a specialist on Mexico who lived there as a graduate student in 1996/97, says the illegalities included groups of local supporters of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) party, which had held an autocratic vise-like grip over the country for 71 years, standing next to voting booths while individuals chose their candidates, and more doing the same next to the ballot boxes.
"Some people would emerge from the voting booth and hold up their ballot to a local PRI representative to show how they had voted," says Mayer.
Despite the intimidation tactics, charismatic opposition leader Vicente Fox and his conservative National Action Party swept to power. In becoming president-elect, Fox overturned a regime that, in the eyes of many, had, over the course of decades, institutionalized corruption and bureaucracy across the Mexican landscape.
With the growing groundswell of opposition to the PRI stranglehold on power, the eyes of many foreign observers, governments and members of the media were turned towards Mexico in the weeks leading up to the election, expecting both momentous change and perhaps a violent PRI backlash.
To Mayer's surprise, then, few other groups who had sent observers were interested in the complaints of irregularities that Mayer and his colleagues discovered. Everyone from former U.S. president Jimmy Carter to the rhapsodic media reports dispatched described the elections as "fair and free" and "almost perfect."
"One reporter told me: 'Jean, Canadians are not interested in your side of the story at the moment,'" says Mayer.
He was one of five Canadian academics accredited as international observers by the Mexican election authority. They were supported in the activities by a local NGO, Alianza Civica.
Mayer and his colleagues chose to monitor the elections at four small villages in the rural Puebla state, a volcanic region with a high indigenous population, traditionally PRI-controlled.
"We were quite worried when we arrived the day before the election," he says. "There was a large concentration of heavily armed soldiers making their presence felt. They had automatic weapons and drove around in Hummer vehicles with heavy assault weapons mounted on top. In this part of Mexico, the soldiers live in the town hall, ostensibly to suppress guerillas and local drug activity. Unfortunately, they employ intimidation tactics against the local population, and because they live in the town hall, people become accustomed to their presence and view it as a natural role of government."
Mayer says most of the soldiers retreated on election day, although the local PRI regional "boss" did come to introduce himself to the foreigners and make them feel uncomfortable.
"He asked how we would feel if Mexican observers came to Canada to observe our elections," says Mayer, "and I told him Mexican observers did come and monitor the last Quebec election."
In addition to the heavy-handed party tactics, Mayer also saw instances where men ordered women to vote for a certain candidate, and he noted that services for the native population, who speak Nahuatl rather than Spanish, were almost non-existent.
In the end, the PRI still won by a 2-1 margin in Puebla. Roughly half the population abstained from voting altogether. "It appears the PRI had told people: 'Vote for the PRI or don't vote at all,'" says Mayer.
Despite the challenges, the political scientist believes he had a positive impact.
"At one point, we came back to a village where we had already carried out some monitoring and found three scared people in a corner. I approached them, and they came forward to formally denounce PRI tactics that they claimed had been used on some 250 people. It took a lot of courage for them to do that, and we noted their complaint for our report. My only concern is whether they suffered any retribution afterwards."
Mayer, who joined U of G in 1999 after doing his PhD at Penn State on the Mexican democratic movement and industry, is wary of proclaiming Fox the country's saviour.
"The media in Canada and the United States focused on the election result to proclaim that democracy had arrived in Mexico. But to me, this places too much emphasis on elections, which are a process of democracy, rather than the substance. Fox is a populist and, like many populists, says whatever he thinks will be popular. He says he wants to fight poverty and the absence of educational opportunity for many Mexicans, but then he's also very supportive of business and free trade and has even said he would like to privatize the schools. Also, no one in his party has ever governed at the national level. Can he overhaul the bureaucracy, fight crime and cor- ruption? Remember, Mexico is a place where these institutions and culture are heavily entrenched.
"That said, the PRI recognized it had lost and affirmed it would transfer power peacefully - almost unheard of in Latin American politics. Also, Mexico has a relatively stable economy, an established party system and social organizations that are in the process of restructuring and becoming more independent from the state. Overall, I'm hopeful but not terribly optimistic about the future."