As Mexico’s political season rapidly unfolds, attention is focused on the candidates and their political parties. But beneath the glare of the media spotlight, the nuts-and-bolts work of organizing the July 1 elections is quietly taking place without much fanfare. Unlike the United States where each state is in charge of carrying out national elections on the ground, the federal contest in Mexico is organized and conducted by a national institution, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE).
Established in 1990 as part of Mexico’s experiment in political reform, the IFE is in charge of recruiting and training election officials, setting up and running the polls on election day, monitoring media publicity round-the-clock and levying fines for campaign violations. The IFE does not have legislative authority, but it wields a great degree of power in interpreting the law and laying down the ground rules for elections.
Despite the ongoing violence associated with the so-called drug war, the voting will go on as planned, an IFE official told Frontera NorteSur. In terms of election-day mechanics, “the problem of security is minimal,” insisted David Delgado, president of the IFE council for the southern state of Guerrero. To make sure people will be able to vote, the IFE plans to “work with the state government and the country’s security forces,” Delgado said in an interview.
Considered one of the most violent regions of Mexico, the state is currently the scene of the multi-agency Operation Safe Guerrero. Heavily armed patrols of masked Mexican marines and other public security forces have been widely deployed in recent days. But in Guerrero, perhaps bigger challenges in selecting electoral personnel and holding elections revolve around high illiteracy and out-migration rates in some parts of the state, Delgado said.
In Guerrero and elsewhere in Mexico, the IFE is wrapping up the selection of election supervisors, trainers and observers. From Feb. 15 to March 15, personnel from the autonomous federal institution will take to the field to scope out and pinpoint voting sites. The mounting election preparations were on the agenda at a recent IFE Guerrero District 3 meeting held in Zihuatanejo. The district covers a large coastal and mountainous area from the border of Michoacan almost to the doorstep of the old tourist resort of Acapulco.
Known as the Costa Grande, the region is a study in contrasts. The socio-geographic landscape ranges from the luxurious vacation homes of Mexico’s elite in Ixtapa to the far-flung, frequently incommunicable communities way up dirt roads in the mountains. Basic infrastructure is still lacking in broad swaths of District 3.
Six non-partisan citizen councilors as well as representatives of political parties participated in the public meeting. Under the IFE’s rules, the citizen councilors were named after a public invitation process concluded last year. The non-partisan officials have voting power while political party representatives can speak out on their positions and concerns but not vote. At the Zihuatanejo meeting, the PRI, PRD, PAN, PANAL, PT and Citizen Movement parties all had representatives present for the beginning of the session. Well into the discussion, the proceeding was interrupted to swear in a late-arriving substitute representative for the PVEM (Mexican Green) party.
The process of hiring election supervisors was grist for debate. Both the center-left PRD and PT parties, which are part of a national alliance backing presidential hopeful Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, questioned the ability of the IFE to keep political parties from sneaking operatives into key election posts.
“How can the IFE detect an aspirant’s membership?” asked Victor Buenrostro, PT (Labor) party representative for Guerrero District 3. “I think there is going to be a lot of infiltration of political party members,” he said, expressing pessimism that applicants would admit their party affiliations. Buenrostro also contended that the criteria used in the personal interview portion of the selection process were unclear and not available in print for the public to read.
Ignacio Mora, District 3 Council president, countered that the IFE was cross-checking lists of party memberships with those of election supervisors to prevent the potential for partisan tilting. If party militants are detected, they are not “going to be contracted,” Mora vowed. Citizen Councilors Angel Barrientos and Brenda Escobar defended the interview process, saying they had received intensive training on interviewing criteria and were committed to a transparent election. “I think there are adequate interview parameters,” Barrientos said. “We are trying to do the best thing possible in evaluating the interviews.”
For their time, IFE election supervisors are paid about $600 per month while assistant election trainers earn approximately $465 a month. Both positions also pay expenses, varying according to the zone of residence. The officials hired will ultimately be in charge of voting booth personnel who are selected by a lottery depending on date of birth. Somewhat similar to the selection of jury pools in the U.S., the polling personnel are expected to comply with a duty of citizenship.
The management and staffing of voting booths was a major point of contention in Mexico’s 2006 post-election conflict. According to the Guerrero District 3 office, 557 polls are expected to be set up in the district alone. Political redistricting based on the 2010 Census is scheduled to happen in 2013, Guerrero IFE chief David Delgado said.
Delgado discussed new election rules and requirements that flowed from post-2006 political reforms. The 2012 campaign period is much shorter than previous ones, officially commencing on March 30, though the barrage of media interviews, public appearances and street posters give another impression. In 2012 the IFE’s budget has been trimmed back, creating some challenges in paying for travel expenses to remote voting sites while complying with new accounting regulations, Delgado said.
A 21-year IFE veteran, Delgado reviewed polemical rules on defamation and personal degradation, bans on public posting of campaign propaganda, restrictions on government publicizing of public works during the 94-day campaign period, and the IFE’s ability to fine violators.
Since the Mexican Constitution prohibits fixed fines, the IFE has ample discretion in assessing monetary penalties, according to Delgado. “It isn’t the same thing for a national television network to violate the rules as it is for a university radio station,” Delgado said. “The resources of each one are different.”
In Guerrero, another important twist is that federal and state elections will occur on the same date for the first time-July 1. The combined voting day requires the IFE to work closely with a separate but similar institution, the Guerrero State Electoral Institute (IEEG), to ensure a smooth and reliable process.
“This is the first time in Guerrero,” Delgado said, “and it implies a cultural change”. Currently the IEEG is seeking applicants for the election supervisors and assistant election trainers needed for the state legislative and municipal contests. Similar to IFE requirements, candidates must be in good moral standing and not hold party membership. However, state election supervisors and trainers are nominally paid more than their federal counterparts.
In addition to national economic and public safety-related issues, several local ones will likely play into the results of both the federal and state elections in Guerrero. Among the hot issues are the continued clamor over the police slaying of two protesting students in the state capital last December; teacher protests against a nationally-mandated educator’s exam; opposition to the privatization of Zihuatanejo Bay and nearby Barra de Potosi; and the mass movement of farmers and fruit growers for government compensation from the mammoth, coal-fired electricity plant in Petacalco Bay, a federal facility blamed for environmental contamination and serious health problems.
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico
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