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Welcome Mexico to the New Year, which effectively starts today Jan. 8, 2018. Over are the fiestas that traditionally start on Dec. 12 with the celebration of the nation’s spiritual mother, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and ended last Saturday, Jan. 6, with the celebration of the Three Wise Men fiesta.

Naturally, over the holidays, there was some time to ponder the shape of things to come in the 2018 presidential elections that are already underway. One conclusion was that, beyond political parties, thousands of candidates for over 2,000 political posts are vying for power. And the stiff competition and tight schedule of the National Electoral Institute (INE), responsible for all procedures leading to electoral results on July 1, will make for a complex political year.

There are more problems than one with the very nature of the INE. First, given the results of the past 2012 and 2015 elections, the institute now boasts a fading credibility that has dropped in recent polls, with up to 56 percent of Mexican doubting the neutrality of the organization. Those polled say that they distrust the INE and its relation to the still-governing political Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), led by President Enrique Peña Nieto.

A major problem arose in the 2017 election for the governor races in the states of Coahuila and the State of Mexico (Edomex). In Edomex – President Peña Nieto’s home state, which he governed from 2005 to 2011, the PRI came out badly burned (politically speaking) from the  election. It was blatantly clear, not to say obvious, that the president used his full powers – including appointing cabinet members as PRI officials to run key districts. But in the end, despite public protest, the victory of the PRI candidate, Alfredo del Mazo, was recognized.

But that was not the case in the northern Mexico state of Coahuila.

A key problem, which is a mystery to most voters, is that there are two different institutions governing the outcome of elections. In addition to the INE, there is the Electoral Tribunal of the Judicial Branch of the Federation (TEPJF), an organization linked to the INE but that only interferes when a disgruntled political party files suit as indeed the National Action Party (PAN) candidate in Coahuila Guillermo Anaya did.

Within the INE organizations, there is a national structure that oversees the elections in 32 states. However, each state has its own State Electoral Institute that runs things locally.

In the case of the Coahuila election, after a very close race between Anaya and Miguel Riquelme, the Coahuila Institute gave a slight majority to PRI’s Riquelme. Anaya filed suit with the Federal Electoral Tribunal proving – Anaya claimed – that the PRI and Riquelme spent millions of pesos illegally buying votes. The Coahuila Electoral Institute gave the victory to the PRI and Riquelme, but in overseeing the accounting of the election, the INE, headed by Lorenzo Córdova, decided to call for a runoff election.

The Federal Tribunal toppled the INE decision and decidedly awarded the victory to Riquelme.

The result of this was that the tribunal officials were discredited, but  they have since issued a legal order to the INE to recognize the result of the election.

The outcome of this rift in decision making was that, ultimately, the INE – as the visible electoral organizer – ended up discredited because all other political parties blasted the “election rigging” by the PRI and condemned Peña Nieto for the pressure he placed on INE officials to do his bidding, particularly Córdova.

The question now is whether the INE officials are morally fit to organize the 2018 election? But that question is mute. It doesn’t matter whether they are qualified because it will be these same officials who will bear the brunt of responsibility for the outcome of an election in which the candidates are already decided and in which it is clear that the playing field is not even. The political dice are loaded in favor of President Enrique Peña Nieto and his PRI.

Another humongous problem the INE is facing is the federal legislation under which it operates. Thus far, both houses of the Mexican Congress have failed to come up with a clear and solid regulatory framework, a reality that lends itself to murky doings by all political parties.

INE officials have had to come up with their own set of regulations to control, for instance, the monitoring of the number of media spots every party gets, auditing the expenditures of parties and their candidates during this weary seven-month-long campaign. And on top of all that, the INE has the duty of “censoring” every ad the candidates to come up in order to ensure that it complies with INE allowances and prohibitions.

Of course, this is merely a bird’s eye view of the mammoth nature of the INE and the convoluted way the party-cracy influences its operations so that Mexicans can enjoy a democratic system that is as transparent and clean as it can possibly be.

But for now, the task at hand for the INE – and its proven juridical hurdle, the Electoral Tribunal – is overwhelming, not just because of the size of the enterprise, but because the shadow of suspicion is looming over these two key institutions, which will be the eye of the upcoming Mexican electoral political hurricane.

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