LAT op-ed: what’s Mexico hiding?

The Chiapas daily Estesur Sept. 24 noted a “bad weekend for Lopez Obrador,” with PRD founder Cuauhtemoc Cardenas dissenting from his declaration as Mexico’s “legitimate president,” and a tough struggle looming for the PRD candidate in next month’s Tabasco gubernatorial race. But this Sept. 22 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times should make him feel a little better—and certainly provides a challenge to those who would dismiss his claim as merely “spurious” (to use Lopez Obrador’s favorite word for rival Felipe Calderon’s victory).

What’s Mexico Hiding?
The Federal Electoral Institute’s refusal to allow access to ballots from the contested presidential election taints the country’s march toward democracy.

by Irma Sandoval and John M. Ackerman

MEXICO now has two presidents-elect. One officially recognized by the electoral authorities — Felipe Calderon — and the other proclaimed the “legitimate president” by millions of followers — Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. There is one way to settle this crisis. As in the aftermath of Bush vs. Gore in the 2000 U.S. presidential election, a group of Mexico’s newspapers should be allowed to conduct their own canvass of the ballots.

Unfortunately, the Federal Electoral Institute, which organizes the presidential elections, has announced that it will not open up the ballots to public scrutiny. The institute appears bent on repeating the government’s performance after the 1988 presidential election, in which the computers “malfunctioned.” It is widely believed that massive fraud allowed Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, to mysteriously overcome the early lead of the leftist candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. To cover its tracks, the government then quickly burned the evidence.

Mexico’s freedom of information act, enacted in 2002, is one of the best in the world. It gives full priority to transparency, stating that everything should be made public except when disclosure might harm economic stability or national security. But even this “reserved” information must be made available after 12 years have passed.

Mexican law does keep confidential personal information, including names, photographs and sexual orientations of particular individuals. But, of course, secret ballots don’t contain any of this material. Although the institute is required by law to destroy the ballots eventually, there is no need to do so immediately. And it would be illegal to carry it out prematurely for the purpose of avoiding the freedom-of-information requests.

To his credit, Calderon has asked the institute to “preserve the ballots for as long as possible” in the interest of ensuring the “certainty” of the electoral results. This is a positive step, but it does not get to the heart of the issue. Preserving the ballots will do no good if no one is allowed to examine them.

Even worse, Calderon’s National Action Party voted Tuesday against forming a special congressional commission to keep watch over the ballots, placing doubt on PAN’s commitment to transparency. Calderon and his party should explicitly state that the ballots should be opened to public scrutiny and take measures to ensure this takes place.

There is a larger issue. If the Federal Electoral Institute is permitted to hide and prematurely destroy the ballots, this would open the door to widespread flouting of the access-to-information law by other government agencies. The institute has argued that the ballots are not “documents” but only the “material expression of electoral preferences” and therefore not subject to the information law. Such ad hoc re-categorizations for the purpose of avoiding disclosure are punishable by law, and allowing it here would set a dangerous precedent in this fledgling democracy.

Mexico’s Federal Institute of Access to Public Information, which has the mandate to promote compliance by all government agencies to the access-to-information law, also has maintained a worrisome silence on this crucial issue. It is high time for a public pronouncement by its commissioners backing up the information law. Such a statement also would help dispel concerns about the personal ties and any conflict of interest between the chief commissioner and Calderon

IN GENERAL, the electoral authorities have needlessly encouraged suspicions about Calderon’s victory. The Federal Electoral Tribunal, which certifies the election results, announced that Calderon won. But it failed to disclose details of its partial recount, which showed widespread irregularities in the computation of the votes. And even though it condemned illegal campaign advertisements and the intervention of President Vicente Fox, it failed to assess their overall impact. In an election decided by only 230,000 votes out of 41 million cast, even small discrepancies could have made a big difference.

The Florida ballots from the 2000 U.S. presidential elections were not destroyed. They are available for public viewing and research for generations to come. Recently, Ohio delayed the destruction of its presidential ballots from 2004 to allow further study of irregularities.

Mexicans deserve no less. They have a right to know what actually happened on election day. We are at a crucial moment in Mexico’s transition to democracy. After 70 years of electoral fraud under the PRI, Fox’s PAN government must ensure absolute integrity in the process through which he passes power to Calderon, his PAN successor. Burning the ballots would set back Mexican democracy 20 years. Full access to the ballots — and then a full recount, if it’s deemed warranted — by reputable civil society organizations in the manner of Bush vs. Gore would restore credibility to Mexico’s damaged electoral institutions.

Irma Sandoval and John M. Ackerman are professors at the Institute for Social Research and the Institute for Legal Research, respectively, at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. They advised Proceso magazine, whose request for access to the ballots was rejected this month.

See our last posts on Mexico and the electoral crisis.