September 30, 2005

Landmark State Election Held

Voters in the border state of Coahuila went to the polls on Sunday, September, 26, to elect mayors, state legislators and a new governor. A big victory for Coahuila’s long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) did not surprise anyone, but the election showcased new voting procedures, election reforms and get-tough-on-crime measures that could be adopted elsewhere in Mexico.

Preliminary results showed the PRI’s candidate for governor, Humberto Moreira, winning office with a whopping 55.48 percent of the vote compared to the nearly 33 percent gained by his closest opponent, Jorge Zemeno of the center-right National Action Party (PAN). Three other gubernatorial candidates lagged far behind. The center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution’s Juan Pablo Rodriguez registered 3. 48 percent of the votes; Ramon Diaz of the Labor Party a scant 0.84 percent; and Ana Patricia Reynoso of the Mexican Green Party a bare 0.63 percent.

“The election is over and now we have to turn the page,” said governor-elect Moreira, who will replace Enrique Martinez as Coahuila’s new chief executive. Moreira announced that one of his first initiatives will be to send legislation to the state congress mandating life sentences for kidnappers, rapists and drug traffickers.

In last Sunday’s mayoral races, the PRI also claimed 29 of 38 city halls, recuperating 10 municipalities in the process. In contests for state legislators, meanwhile, the PRI was expected to win 15 of 20 districts, while the PAN could take the remainder.  

Distinguishing Sunday’s election from previous ones were two innovations. For the first time, 42 electronic voting machines were used to cast ballots. Also new was the election of the state’s mayors to four-year terms instead of the traditional three-year periods prevalent in Mexico.

Debates preceded the electoral reforms. Marco Antonio Kalionchiz Rodriguez, the general director of the Coahuila Electoral and Citizen Participation Institute (IEPC)

contended the $1,500 dollar electronic machines were “absolutely reliable,” justifying the apparatuses as more time-efficient than paper ballots. Kalionchiz said the machines could save public money. “If we take into account that this equipment might be used in future electoral processes, the operating costs of elections could be notably reduced, since ballots might not have to be printed,” Kalionchiz said.

The experimental electronic voting machines were reserved for use in the municipalities of Saltillo, Torreon, Monclova, and Piedras Negras on the Coahuila-Texas border. About 62 percent of Coahuila’s nearly 2.3 million people reside in the four municipalities. 

In 2000, the Coahuila state congress approved a constitutional reform that extended the term of mayors to four years. Many Mexican political analysts contend that 3-year terms are not enough time to carry out a political project, and frequently result in city halls being in a perpetual state of chaos as succeeding local governments change personnel, priorities and policies.

Others see dangers emanating from the four-year term. Greogorio Contreras Pachecho, a state legislator with the Democratic Unity Party of Coahuila, cautioned that the reform could force citizens to be stuck with “screw-ups” for four years instead of three. Contreras proposed that a mid-term referendum be held after two years to decide whether a mayor should finish three years or four years on the job. 

Scattered irregularities like alleged vote-buying by different political parties were reported during Sunday’s election. The night before the balloting, 63 heads of polling station heads suddenly resigned, prompting Homero Ramos Gloria, the president of the IEPC’s general council,  to denounce the surprise resignations as “suspicious.”  

Early in the vote-counting, Esther Quintana Salinas, the state leader of the PAN, warned that her party might not recognize a PRI victory. Additionally, two of the 42 new electronic voting machines did not function but officials blamed the failures on human error instead of internal flaws in the machines. Paper ballots were reportedly substituted at the last minute.

Sunday’s election turnout was estimated at about 53 percent of registered voters. Overcoming the bane of voter non-participation was one declared goal of the 2006 Coahuila state election. Toward this end, 500 restaurant owners offered 10 percent discounts to voters. The adult election was preceded by a children’s election on Friday, September 23, during which students from 3,600 public and private schools voted on the rights of children.

Reprinted from Frontera NorteSur (FNS): 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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