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Mexico gets record number of election observers — but are they enough?

SHARE Mexico gets record number of election observers — but are they enough?

MEXICO CITY — Former President Jimmy Carter arrived here Friday to join 860 foreign observers and 10,000 local poll watchers — a record number — in monitoring this weekend's presidential elections.

The key question for the monitors: Will what they see Sunday be enough to judge the fairness of the vote?

The task is staggering. They'll cover fewer than 10 percent of the 113,589 polling places nationwide — while history suggests that fraud, if it occurs, will be scattered, secretive and confusing. The country's stricter new electoral laws could also spawn new ways of cheating the system.

Polls indicate the presidential race is a tight contest between opposition candidate Vicente Fox and Francisco Labastida, whose party has governed Mexico for 71 years.

"In closer races, problems take on greater significance," said Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute and part of its 40-member observer team.

But Wollack said he has observed elections around the world, and "it is rare" for fraud, by itself, to determine the result of a vote.

Carter received his observer credentials Friday, and was planning to meet with President Ernesto Zedillo and the three top candidates on Saturday.

A wealth of slang terms have developed over decades to describe the traditional forms of fraud here. Opposition candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas told The Associated Press this week: "We know what to look for: the 'crazy mice,' the 'merry-go-round,' the 'ballot tacos."'

The first term refers to changing the location of polling places, making voters run around like crazy mice; the second, to a group of voters who ride around, as on a merry-go-round, from one polling booth to the next, voting at each. A ballot taco is a rolled-up sheaf of ballots — all marked in favor of a single party — dropped surreptitiously into a ballot box.

But that kind of open fraud is probably a thing of the past, according to the Federal Electoral Institute, the independent agency charged with overseeing the vote.

In addition to stiff penalties for such acts, representatives of the major parties will be present at most polling places to detect such practices, and curtains around voting booths will let voters fill out their ballots in secret.

The electoral agency has also instituted a public education campaign to remind Mexicans that their vote is secret.

"We don't expect fraud in the old forms, but we do expect to see more irregularities in rural areas," said Hugo Almada of the Civic Alliance, whose estimated 4,000 poll watchers will be the largest single observer group.