On Observing Elections and Magistrates’ Faces

by | Oct 25, 2001

Where votes were traded just last year for brand new bicycles and sewing machines, the 2001 offering price in Yucatán State’s May gubernatorial election was rumored to be a pitcher of beer or a half-kilo of meat. Given Mexicans realization in July 2000 that they could vote for and elect an opposition president, the offerings were paltry indeed. The commercial hub of Mexico’s Mayan empire was going modern.

The Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI), which monopolized Mexican national politics from 1929 to 2000, would still be power brokers in Yucatán, with a continued strong presence in the state legislature and virtual control of the judicial branch. And in backwaters like Tepakán (population 3,000), where the Fernandéz family had passed the mayor’s sash between father and sons for 15 years, fear of reprisals for voting against the PRI remained. But anti-PRI sentiment beat out vote-buying and electoral fraud, as another of Mexico’s state dominos fell to the opposition. Even the more leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD endorsed center-right National Action Party (PAN) candidate Patricio Patrón, showing a greater interest in ridding Yucatán of PRI machine boss Victor Cervera, than in who actually took his place.

The ceiling on giveaways of cardboard roof laminate and PRI-poured concrete floors for Tepakán shacks was plainly evident as my party of electoral observers – diplomats, professors, and civil society leaders from Mexico City and beyond – sought to corroborate allegations of pre-election vote-buying. After a couple of hours and a dozen interviews, José Antonio Crespo, a pioneer of Mexican electoral observation, noted that we had failed to catch any red-handed mapaches [literally raccoons – signifying electoral bandits for their masked identities and nocturnal habits]. Instead, we had found only second-hand allegations that mayoral legacy Livia Fernández (the first daughter to hold the post) had gone door-to-door offering soft drinks and Tupperware containers. After a decade of electoral observation, I’m giving it up, he exclaimed from the back seat of the sedan we drove past bike-pedaling campesinos. There’s nothing extraordinary to observe anymore.

Mexico’s colorful electoral lingo was disappearing faster than corner stores after NAFTA. Vote tacos and pregnant ballot boxes had given way to numbered and triple-checked ballots. The shaved list had been replaced by a federally-collected and party-audited voter list. Mexico’s rural, southern states still needed electoral observation, but strengthened opposition parties had formed their own bands of mapache hunters. And increasingly, they practiced their craft in Mexico’s courtrooms rather than in the country’s rapidly-draining political swamps.

Fraud-free but mundane elections may be one fair, albeit procedural, definition of democracy. However, my own best estimate of Mexico’s democratic development has been reflected through the eyes of the magistrates I have observed over the last eight years. A researcher in the archives of the federal electoral court since commencing my dissertation research there in 1993, I have seen these gazes change from suspicious to inviting. To me, facial expression opening has been tantamount to political opening.

On my first pre-doctoral summer grant, I sat at the table of a run-down office in one of Mexico City’s faded glory neighborhoods. Workload-challenged magistrates and their clerks looked on suspiciously from outer rim offices, which all opened to the central meeting room, where I sat alone for days at a time, taking notes on dozens of files, until I summoned the courage to fight for photocopies.

The electoral court president, a long-time friend of a researcher at my university, had seemingly pledged support for my harmless project and even authorized me to photocopy. But since the president’s office was out of sight and out of mind on another floor, and his hovering lieutenant looked disdainfully on me with legal eagle eyes, it took me several bureaucratic moves (and well over half of my visit) to translate this paper permission into practice. I did win the respect of some sympathetic law clerks upon winning the copy wars; that and a constant willingness to practice English allowed me to break into Federal Electoral Court water cooler gossip circles, but only during the final of my six weeks.

Returning in 1995 with my Fulbright for a whole year of water cooler ethnography, I found the electoral court president just as positively disposed to my research – in theory – as he had been during my feasibility trip. The saccharine-smiled magistrate wrote the requisite letter for my fellowship application, promising access and photocopies to my heart’s content. The electoral court had gone upscale; they had a plush new building on the south side of town with landscaping and a fountain, and a remote location the water cooler conspirators argued was to dissuade demonstrators from protesting electoral results outside. The eagle-eyed lieutenant had a new suit, a formal archive to manage, and glistening new high-speed copiers. When I met him again, he made an indirect reference to the sweaty old days at the big table with the pool table green covering. We’re going to get along fine, he intoned icily, segueing into Mexico’s proximate Day of the Dead.

Again I had permission to use the archive, and had even hired undergraduate research assistants to help me code the all-important quantitative sample of electoral court cases. However, week after week passed with my morning ritual of calling the lieutenant’s lieutenants to see when I could start. The president’s people always extended just enough hope to keep me from giving up. Six weeks passed as I awaited the all-powerful president’s bureaucratic laying of hands which would open the archive. My research assistants and I grew restless as the Day of the Dead started blending into the Day of the Mexican Revolution (November 20).

Finally, I called an NGO lawyers group interested in studying the electoral court records and promised to share my findings if their famous emeritus law professor would help me enter the archive. We all had a pleasant coffee with the electoral court president around his private meeting room’s majestic stained wood table. The president feigned surprise at my inability to gain physical access (despite the dozens of messages I had left for him), and the lieutenant nodded.

That was the PRI-led federal electoral court of the early 1990s. By 1997, important reforms had further leveled Mexico’s electoral playing field, and the PRIí­sta electoral court president had found more suitable employment as Sub-Secretary of the Interior, at the epicenter of the regime’s internal policing and intelligence-gathering operation. Another judge had left the electoral court and was elected to Congress by the PRI, and still another had used the electoral court as a political springboard to the Supreme Court. The most outspoken magistrates did not win re-appointment. But several others, law professors who had labored quietly gaveling cases into precedents and doctrine, were reappointed. In fact, their caseloads increased dramatically as the political parties actually started taking them seriously.

A seasoned and unflinching magistrate, originally nominated by the PAN, was named electoral court president for 1997, and the archive was opened by federal law. The water cooler whispers grew into hallway conversations. I continued offering English on demand, and gained a reputation by translating Eagles song lyrics at archivists requests. The former president’s nodding lieutenant was promoted, and instead, I liasoned with savvy wwwebbed librarians, international relations directors, and a jovial magistrate who ingratiated this researcher with a hearty laugh and a healthy disregard for the formality of Mexico’s hermetic legal community.

In one of those moments when things just fall into place, even in government bureaucracies, this magistrate with soft gravitas and accountability-exuding eyes was named president of Mexico’s federal electoral court in 2000. He has had to formalize his demeanor out of respect for the institution he leads, but unlike the early 1990s, there is an institution to respect. The federal electoral court has withstood challenges to its authority by intransigent governors, and issued landmark rulings which have drawn lines in the sand for the endangered mapaches.

From a personal standpoint, the only problem with the court’s post-2000 success is that it has left me without a mission. My court-watching activities are being led to Professor Crespo’s Yucatán conclusions by the tedious regularity of rulings, the lack of a sporting challenge in the faces I observe, and my own professional imperative to search for more varied phenomena to study. And the dearth of new Eagles songs hasn’t helped.

Fall 2001, Volume I, Number 1

Todd A. Eisenstadt, who teaches political science at the University of New Hampshire and consults for the US Agency for International Development, continued studying electoral justice in Mexico as a 2000-01 visiting scholar at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.

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