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Opposition Hoping to Sink Roots in Baja : Election: Voters will decide today whether the PAN party will retain its hold in a Mexico that has struggled for decades under single-party rule.

August 06, 1995|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TIJUANA — The official motto of Tijuana expresses the pioneering spirit of a border state that is primed for a political showdown in today's gubernatorial election: "This is where the nation begins."

Six years ago, this is where a peaceful revolution began.

In the 1989 elections, Ernesto Ruffo Appel, a diminutive and cheerful reformer, became the first opposition party governor in the history of Baja California and Mexico. Propelled by a wave of popularity known as "Ruffo-mania," his triumph broke six decades of heavy-handed ruling party domination and launched the rise of the opposition National Action Party (PAN) to its status as a full-fledged national contender.

Nonetheless, this summer's battle for Baja has proved surprisingly competitive. Mexican law bars Ruffo from running for reelection, but he has still overshadowed the race to the point that he reminded the public in a recent advertisement: "I am not a candidate."

The voters will not only choose between two parties, they will also pass judgment on Ruffo's tumultuous tenure in a state that has served as a laboratory for democracy.

"He remains the most charismatic politician in Baja California," said Victor Alejandro Espinosa, a political analyst at the College of the Northern Border. "But in 1989, Ruffo-mania was very strong. The PAN had not been in office for six years. He did not have enemies pointing out errors. There is a lot of political wear and tear with six years in power."

Baja's recent history presents two starkly opposite visions of Mexico's future. The state has been a progressive showcase of political reform, freedom of expression and economic and cultural modernization. Simultaneously, it has endured a nightmare of violence attributed largely to the drug cartels that threaten the nation's stability: assassinations, street combat between corrupt police forces and a string of unsolved murders.

The PAN wants to overcome those problems with the candidacy of Hector Teran Teran, who leads in most polls, and make history again in its first try at retaining a governorship. The opposition now controls four states, posing a genuine challenge to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which is an aging behemoth wounded by corruption and economic crisis.

The PRI has fought hard for an upset victory in Baja that would pack a symbolic punch. The party leadership yearns to reconquer this quintessential opposition stronghold, a hub of international commerce, migration, tourism and media that has the highest north-of-the-border profile of any Mexican state.

The PRI hopes to duplicate its recent unexpected win in legislative elections in Chihuahua, another opposition-run border state. Moreover, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo grew up in Baja and could use even an indirect political victory--though the president has stayed out of the fray, citing his intention of breaking with politics-as-usual.

Francisco Perez Tejada, the PRI candidate, has taken aim at the opposition's business-oriented, middle-class image, accusing the state administration of insensitivity, intolerance and neglect of the urban poor--his party's traditional power base.

Known by the nickname "Pancho," the folksy, 46-year-old mayor of Mexicali suggests that the return of his party to power will bring more federal funds after years of conflict with the central government in Mexico City. He has emphasized classic populist issues such as lower water rates and massive public works projects.

"We will support the neediest with a social program of regularized property holdings, electrification, water, sewers and the promotion of working-class developments with affordable services," Perez told thousands of supporters at a festive final rally in Tijuana last week.

But the past may be a difficult obstacle for Perez to overcome.

The stage for the opposition breakthrough in Baja six years ago was set by the scandal-plagued rule of former Gov. Xicotencatl Leyva Mortera, whom then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari ousted from office in early 1989. Perez served as secretary of development in the Leyva administration.

Leyva embodies the old-school "dinosaurs" of the PRI; despite reformist protestations by the party, his political group survives and remains closely aligned with the current candidate, according to analysts.

"The people surrounding Perez are the dinosaurs," Espinosa said. "The party has not renovated itself. . . . It depends on the ability of Perez to reject them if he wins. If they return, it would be lethal. The public is tired of the old vices."

Teran, 64, also comes from another generation. He was elected the PAN's first federal senator in 1991, a former perennial candidate during decades when the opposition made token and futile bids for office. He presents himself as a gentlemanly leader who will expand citizen participation by holding direct elections for the now-appointive offices of attorney general and human rights ombudsman, as well as unprecedented ballot referendums.

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