MEXICO CITY—Mexico's bitterly contested presidential election has cast a negative spotlight on the Federal Electoral Institute, an unfamiliar position for an agency so respected that U.S. officials sought its help in training Iraqis on how to run an election.
The electoral body, known by its Spanish initials IFE, is under fire for failing to give a promised quick count of election results on Sunday and then waiting until Tuesday to publicly reveal that about 3 million votes hadn't been included in preliminary results.
Both issues allowed the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, to all but accuse the IFE of electoral fraud by providing counts that favored conservative Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party, or PAN, over the PRD's Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
On Wednesday, the official count seemed to be going in Lopez Obrador's direction, and observers such as Sergio Sarmiento, editorial board director for the TV Azteca television network, were predicting that the IFE would emerge with even more prestige.
"My feeling is the IFE has shown they were perfectly right in every major decision they made," he said.
For decades, Mexico was dogged by a reputation for fraudulent elections, helped by the dominance of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, whose presidential candidates won for seven straight decades. Since 2000, and the victory of the PAN's Vicente Fox, the IFE has evolved into a clean and sophisticated arbiter that has trained election workers in Iraq, Haiti, Panama, Ecuador, Colombia, Algeria, Morocco, Zambia and Guatemala.
There's no evidence that the IFE engaged in deliberate efforts to favor one party over another Sunday night. Observers blamed most of the confusion on too little communication from the IFE on why it had made certain decisions.
"You have to over-communicate at all times and at all levels," said Ray Kennedy, a veteran elections expert who works under contract for the United Nations in sensitive elections around the world.
The IFE's biggest mistake appears to have been failing to clearly tell Mexicans that roughly 2.6 million votes had yet to be counted when it posted on its Web site that 98 percent of the vote had been processed. In reality, the number of votes counted totaled only 86 percent. Millions of ballots hadn't been included for procedural reasons.
"When the issue came up, it took them hours and hours to come out and explain that this is in fact what happened," said Kennedy.
"I would not criticize the IFE for making that kind of mistake," said Pamela Starr, a Mexico analyst for the Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy. "It's the kind of mistake you would hope the IFE would make since it should be in an institution that does the technical" vote collection and recording.
The IFE is run by Luis Carlos Ugalde, 40, a U.S.-trained political scientist with a doctorate and a master's degree from New York City's Columbia University. After Ugalde took command of the IFE in 2003, a number of officials left the agency and were replaced by young, well-educated technocrats.
Among the IFE's functions is distributing public finances for federal campaigns and overseeing campaign practices. It has a huge operational budget for a Mexican government agency, almost $1.1 billion this year.
It trained almost 914,000 citizens who operated more than 130,000 polling stations across Mexico and 1,992 other volunteers who serve on 300 district-level electoral councils.
During this election campaign it ordered Calderon to pull ads off the air that called Lopez Obrador a danger to Mexico, saying they were inflammatory.
Mauricio Merino served on the IFE's governing board from 1996 to 2003. He said he believes the electoral body is getting a bad rap. It could have communicated better, he said, but the blame lies on politicians and not election authorities for the tension that exists.
"You should put the blame where it belongs. Felipe Calderon and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador abused their political powers ... to confuse public opinion," he said. "It's lamentable because one of the two will be president, and they will arrive having caused grave confusion in public opinion. I don't blame the IFE, but the candidates."
(Root reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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