Why it was so often a dead cert for the PRI: The ruling party is notorious for relying on a wide variety of dirty tricks to stitch up results in rural areas, writes Phil Davison

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CARLOS ARIOLA refused to take charge of the polling station in his south-east Mexican village of Santo Domingo for yesterday's national elections. He was still upset about the last elections in 1988, when he presided over the same village polling station of 780 registered voters.

'It wasn't so much the fact that my father was listed as having voted for the PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has ruled Mexico for 65 years),' said Mr Ariola, a taxi driver. 'He had always been stubborn. But the fact that he had been dead for 12 years aroused my suspicions.'

Mr Ariola, 43, found many cases of dead or unknown people having voted in a village where everyone knows everyone else. He refused to sign the final voters' list, rendering the ballot invalid. 'Nevertheless, the result was later announced by the provincial authorities. The PRI scored a massive victory in the village,' he said.

Mr Ariola's case is a microcosm of the massive fraud committed by the PRI in 1988 and which helped deliver 'victory' to the current President, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. In the state of Chiapas, people from all walks of life, except the wealthy, insist that they voted against the PRI. Yet the party swept the state with about 90 per cent of the vote.

Mr Salinas, whose successor was to be chosen in yesterday's vote, said the elections - for president, parliament, Senate and governor of Chiapas - would be the cleanest ever. Many Mexicans read that as meaning the 'least dirty'.

There were worrying signs that the PRI had prepared a sophisticated technological fraud, aimed at gaining a stay of execution for what analysts believe is a mortally wounded system.

Mr Salinas announced electoral reforms to wipe out what he implicitly admits used to be blatant fraud. Ballot boxes were to be transparent and numbered. That was to prevent the notorious practice of 'taco', by which PRI militants would roll up fake ballot slips and stuff them into the box.

New election credentials, for the first time including photographs, were designed to end the PRI's favoured 'carousel' system, which allowed voters to leave through the back door and return through the front, to vote time and time again.

Poor workers, peasants and others in the state of Chiapas admitted after rigorous questioning that they had been offered cash incentives, or were threatened with pay cuts or dismissal, if they did not vote for the PRI.

In outlying areas there are no curtains, so there is no voting privacy. Where there are curtains, many peasants, often illiterate, believe the PRI, the caciques (land owners) or their so- called guardias blancas (armed guards) will be able to find out how they have voted.

'They're offering us a cow if we vote for the PRI,' a farmer in the state of Oaxaca said. Landless peasants who poured into Mexico City last weekend on buses to cheer the PRI presidential candidate, Ernesto Zedillo, admitted they had been threatened with docked pay or dismissal. Tens of thousands of government workers were told in writing it was 'obligatory' to attend Mr Zedillo's rally.

More than 20,000 supposedly independent observers, including about 1,000 foreigners and a United Nations team, monitored the vote. Some of the UN observers, however, have been living in luxury in Mexico City's most expensive hotel, where the PRI has set up an office to push its image. Journalists have seen more foreign observers sipping margaritas at the PRI's expense than at polling stations or in the slums.

Mr Salinas has made much of the fact that the new Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) is apparently, for the first time, independent of the government. He is playing word games. The IFE in Spanish is pronounced 'iffy' and that's precisely what it is.

The Interior Minister, Jorge Carpizo, is its boss. The IFE has built a sprawling headquarters in the south of Mexico City for the elections and has turned it into a bunker-cum-press centre. That cuts journalists off from what is happening around the country. Despite Mr Salinas's 'assurances,' the possibilities of what Mexicans call 'alchemy' (fraud) are greater than ever.