Ruling-party gimmicks leave 'millions' of Mexicans voteless: So-called 'special' polling booths have proved a useful device for the PRI's dirty-tricks team. Phil Davison in Tepoztlan reports

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IT WAS 1.50pm on Sunday in the picturesque Indian market town of Tepoztlan and tempers were getting hotter than the lunchtime sun. 'Polling station closed' read a message scrawled across a board which declared that this was a 'special' polling station, section 0676, district three in the state of Morelos.

An angry crowd of 100 people, some Indian and some middle- class tourists from Mexico City, was chanting 'Fraud, fraud, fraud.' A local electoral official insisted that voting was over. Blue-shirted policemen with shotguns edged closer.

Mexico's polling stations had opened at 8am on Sunday for presidential and parliamentary elections. They were supposed to close at 6pm. As it turned out, tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people caused angry scenes at polling stations which closed earlier than expected throughout the country.

'We are Mexicans. We have the entire territory of Mexico to vote in. This is blatant, shameful fraud,' shouted Jose Luis Rivera, a burly man on holiday with his family from Mexico City. An ageing, bearded hippie produced a book of Mexico's electoral law. He read aloud that every citizen had the right to vote.

Raul Lopez Castillo, the young local official of the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) stood his ground as the crowd pressed forward. He pointed to unused ballot slips. 'This is a 'special' polling station for those from other districts or provinces. We were told only 300 people could vote here. 300 have voted and the booth is closed,' he said.

In the end, several hundred people, many of whom were workers from other states, were turned away. Out of more than 96,000 polling stations in Mexico, 687 were listed as 'special'. They were intended to enable citizens to vote outside their own districts, although only for the post of president. They could not elect deputies or senators. At some polling stations thousands of people were turned away. The left-wing opposition presidential candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, described the early closure as a trick and said the total number of what he called rasurados (those shaved-off) might run into millions.

Mr Cardenas said a new electoral roll drawn up by the IFE - headed by the Interior Minister, Jorge Carpizo, - which Mr Cardenas never accepted as legitimate, had caused the polling station incidents. He said that 8 million legitimate voters had been left off the new roll. People who had found their names missing from their local lists had been sent to the 'special' booths, where they found they were too late to vote.

Although voters had not been informed in advance, the 300-vote limit at each 'special' booth turned out to be legal. It had been agreed upon by all the major parties in February, ironically as a way of preventing the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) from carrying out its traditional ballot-stuffing practices.

The PRI turned the limit to its advantage. At many 'special' booths reporters noted that policemen, soldiers, firemen and state employees formed long queues early in the morning and quickly filled the 300-vote limit.

As disgruntled would-be voters dispersed in Tepoztlan, an IFE observer, Alfonso Torres, said that the count of the 300 votes at the disputed booth had given the PRI presidential candidate, Ernesto Zedillo, 98 votes. It gave Mr Cardenas of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) 97 and Diego Fernandez de Cevallos of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) 75 votes. According to early results, Mr Zedillo had won about 47 per cent of the vote, Mr Fernandez 31 per cent and Mr Cardenas 15 per cent.

The issue of 'special' polling stations was the focus of fraud allegations by the PRD. An overall view of the elections, however, suggests that the surprisingly high PRI vote - although it is still, potentially, the lowest in its history - was partly the result of a well-planned strategy of media manipulation and censorship. Since its foundation in 1929 the party has usually won at least 90 per cent of the vote. This fell to 50.7 per cent in 1988, amid widespread suspicion of fraud.

The IFE, including representatives of the major parties and a handful of respected private citizens, was effectively run by PRI supporters. It controlled the flow of information to the media. Without warning, cable television, which carries American news network bulletins, was cut off for most of Sunday. When Mr Cardenas gave a press conference early on Tuesday, saying some figures suggested he was winning, a private Mexican station, Azteca, mysteriously cut the sound.

Mexicans had no way of knowing what was going on until Mr Zedillo declared he had won the presidency. He read from type- written notes only seconds after the IFE announced the first official results, based on only 15 per cent of votes counted. Mr Zedillo had called a press conference for 2am at the PRI headquarters but waited until an IFE spokesman had read the early results on television at 2.45am before making his entry and statement. He was either prescient or very confident.

Effectively admitting that the PRI had been cheating for years, Mr Salinas and Mr Zedillo turned the fraud issue to their advantage by campaigning on a 'clean election' platform. By allowing 70,000 Mexican observers to monitor voting and inviting hundreds of foreigners, the PRI was able to win widespread foreign support, notably in the US. But many of the foreign observers spent much of their time in the PRI offices in the capital's luxurious Maria Isabel Sheraton hotel. When 48 hours of 'dry law' - a nationwide ban on alcohol sales during the election period - ended at midnight on Sunday, the foreign observers swarmed to the PRI's private bar. It was midnight margaritas all round, almost three hours before any results had been announced.

Mr Fernandez, in a statement which attacked the PRI and declared the old one-party system 'virtually dead', spoke of Mexicans' 'grief and shame' over the PRI campaign. 'Today more than ever a modern system of manipulation of the news, of deformation of the truth, of falsification of information was used,' he said. His words were tougher than those of Mr Cardenas. Yet, confirming the suspicion of many people Mr Fernandez had reached a pre-election deal with the PRI, he said he accepted the results and indicated he would work with Mr Zedillo.

Mr Fernandez, 53, surged ahead of Mr Zedillo in opinion polls after demolishing him and Mr Cardenas in the country's first live television debate in May. But he then eased off campaigning and showed a strange lack of desire to win.

After an unusually short final campaign speech lasting eight minutes last week, he immediately left the stage, saying later that he felt ill.

----------------------------------------------------------------- Provisional results of the Mexican presidential election, with 15 per cent of the vote declared: ----------------------------------------------------------------- Ernesto Zedillo (PRI) . . . . . .47 per cent Diego Fernandez (PAN) . . . . . .31 Cuauhtemoc Cardenas (PRD) . . . .15 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)