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Column 082905 Emmond

Monday, August 29, 2005

 

Controlling Mexico’s election monster

 

By Kenneth Emmond

 

It’s always election season in Mexico. Every few months there’s another state or municipal election.

 

Campaigns start long before Election Day and legal challenges from the losers drag on for months afterwards.

 

Among the peaks and valleys of this perpetual exercise, July 2, 2006 stands as the granddaddy of them all. That’s when Mexicans will choose a new president and fill hundreds of vacancies in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.

 

Politicians who’ve been jockeying for position for years are shifting into high gear as internal campaigns reach a crescendo and parties pick their candidates.

 

As in America in the 1960s, Mexican politicians discovered in the 1990s that television is an effective, nay, indispensable tool for winning elections. Putting a candidate’s face into millions of living rooms via television spots provides what marketers call “brand recognition,” and there’s no substitute.

 

Television spots are expensive, so campaign costs are spiraling out of sight.

 

Political analyst Jose Antonio Crespo thinks Mexico’s democracy is the most expensive in the world. He estimates that votes in 2006 will cost 290 pesos, or more than US$25.00, each.

 

In 1991, he says, it was three pesos per vote. But anyone tempted to think those were the “good old days” should remember that back then the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ran the show — elections of the PRI, by the PRI and for the PRI.

 

Nowadays an independent body, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), which was created in the 1990s, runs elections. Each state also has its own electoral institute.

 

The IFE has improved election management by an order of magnitude despite its limited legal powers, while further improvements must await a new round of electoral reforms. And passing them will not be easy, for the politicians who legislate the changes are the ones who benefit from the current shortcomings.

 

To carry out its 2006 mandate, the IFE wants a budget of $12.9 billion pesos — more than US$1 billion. That seems like a lot until you look at the cost breakdown.

 

In a partly successful effort to level the playing field, the IFE provides funds on a proportional basis to each of the eight officially registered parties. More than $4 billion pesos, nearly 40 percent of the budget, are earmarked for that item.

 

It doesn’t work perfectly. The rules allow parties to raise a matching amount from private contributors, but controls are inadequate and sometimes parties ignore the spending cap. In the 2000 presidential election, all six parties that fielded candidates were fined for going over the top.

 

Television station owners are accused of giving discounts to their favorite party for spots, but as yet there’s no audit mechanism to monitor this.

 

For Election Day the IFE must set up voting booths throughout the nation, and safeguards to minimize hanky-panky.

 

It must fund its appeals tribunal, which is costly because the losers always cry foul.

 

As well, part of the IFE’s mandate is to encourage Mexicans to register and show up at the polling stations on Election Day.

 

Happily there’s a new budget item: $1.2 billion pesos to enable about 4.2 million expatriate voters to cast mail-in ballots.

 

It’s too late to improve the system this time around, but a few changes would raise Mexico’s future electoral process to the next magnitude level.

 

Congress should pass measures to ensure even stricter accountability of party spending and private contributions.

 

Because the stakes are so high, parties should be fined even more heavily for cheating on the spending cap. They should face a real prospect of having elections annulled or reversed if the winning party is found guilty. This should be monitored in real time and enforced during the campaign.

 

Major election years are windfall times for television revenues. The IFE should require television stations to offer advertising to all parties at the same price as part of their licensing agreement. They should also provide a minimum number of low-cost spots to each party.

 

Given the abysmal attendance during legislative sessions, measures should be taken to encourage politicians, once elected, to actually take part in the nation’s business. They should be fined heavily for attendance levels below some reasonable threshold, and for abusing their privileges.

 

Good electoral reforms will pave the way for better elections, not only at the national level but also as state and local election campaigns are played out during the never-ending election season.

 

Yes it’s expensive, but there would be few takers for an offer to return to the days of three-pesos-a-vote elections.

 

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Kenneth Emmond, an economist, market consultant and journalist who has lived in Mexico since 1995, is also a columnist with MexiData.info.  He can be reached via e-mail at Kemmond00@yahoo.com.