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Exit Polls Show Mexican Elections Too Close to Call

Resurgent PRI claims victory in Tijuana. PAN leads in tight race for Oaxaca governorship.

August 02, 2004|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

TIJUANA — The Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century, was battling to retake Tijuana and cling to the governorship of Oaxaca as voters cast ballots Sunday in state and local elections that could shape the 2006 presidential race.

After an evening of counting, both contests looked too close to call and were generating disputes over alleged irregularities that could take days to resolve.

In Tijuana, both leading mayoral candidates -- gambling magnate Jorge Hank Rhon of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as PRI, and Jorge Ramos of President Vicente Fox's National Action Party -- claimed a narrow victory on the basis of rival exit polls. With 84% of the vote counted, Hank was leading by less than 1 percentage point.

With half the ballots counted in the southern state of Oaxaca, an alliance backed by Fox's center-right PAN led the PRI by a mere 5,000 votes out of 480,000 tallied, with the gap closing as results came in from villages.

Both sides in both races staged tentative victory rallies. In Tijuana, Hank's supporters danced to mariachi and rock bands in the parking lot of the greyhound racetrack he owns. Fifteen blocks away, Ramos' partisans discoed outside the city's bullring.

As the count neared completion, Hank appeared before supporters and said: "Our lead is irreversible now. The PAN's era of domination in northern Mexico is over." Yet the PAN insisted that the race was a technical tie.

With Fox's party losing strength nationwide, the two races were a test of the resurgent PRI's ability to shore up its rural heartland base, which encompasses thousands of poor, indigenous communities in Oaxaca, and its attempts to erode the PAN's urban strongholds in northern Mexico.

Official returns from one of Sunday's other elections showed PAN candidate Luis Armando Reynoso Femat trouncing the PRI in the gubernatorial race in Aguascalientes, a small, industrial state in north-central Mexico that has been run by the PAN since 1998.

For six decades, every state election went to the PRI, by fair means or foul. The party lost its monopoly in 1989, ceding the Baja California statehouse to the PAN. Fox completed the transformation in the 2000 election, ending the PRI's 71-year domination of the presidency.

But Fox's inability to deliver on promises to make Mexicans safer and more prosperous has put his center-right party on the defensive against the PRI and the smaller Democratic Revolution Party. Both gained in last year's midterm congressional elections, and the PRI remains the largest, best-organized party, holding most statehouses and a plurality in Congress.

Roberto Madrazo, a former governor of Tabasco, has steadily rebuilt the PRI electoral machine since he became party boss in 2002. But his heavy-handed leadership has alienated rivals in the party as it gears up for the race to succeed Fox, who is limited to one six-year term.

PRI candidates in Oaxaca and Tijuana were handpicked by Madrazo, making Sunday's elections a test of his ability to dominate the party and gain its presidential nomination.

In Tijuana, Mexico's fifth-largest city, Hank's candidacy intrigued the 1.2 million residents and galvanized the party for its first serious run on city hall since the PAN's statewide sweep in 1989. Hank started the race in the spring 25 percentage points behind the PAN's Ramos, 36, a former city council member, but narrowed the gap substantially in final pre-election surveys.

One of Mexico's wealthiest men, Hank is a son of the late Carlos Hank Gonzalez, a PRI powerbroker who built a business empire while in office. He often brandished the motto "A politician who is poor is a poor politician."

The younger Hank, 48, is a political novice, an eccentric multimillionaire who has 18 children by four women and boasts a private zoo of 20,000 animals.

Hank's campaign was a surprise hit, especially in the poor colonias, where he paid for public works and other giveaways. He outcharmed his foe in debates and wooed voters with promises to fight crime.

Yet Hank was plagued by his association with the 1988 murder of a Tijuana journalist -- a crime for which two of his bodyguards were convicted -- plus allegations that he has laundered money for a drug-smuggling ring and statements by a federal prosecutor naming him as a suspect in the June 22 slaying of a crusading local editor.

Hank denied those allegations and no charges have been filed against him.

Although Madrazo's choice of Hank in Tijuana helped unite the PRI, the party leader faced internal opposition in Oaxaca and Aguascalientes.

By tapping Ulises Ruiz as the PRI candidate to govern Oaxaca, Madrazo turned to a loyal 46-year-old former federal senator who had helped engineer his rise to party leadership.

Madrazo's opponents in the party backed Gabino Cue, believing that an upset of the PRI in a state it had never lost would derail the party leader's drive for the presidential nomination.

Fox's party set aside disputes with the Democratic Revolution Party to join it in backing Cue, 36, who won the Oaxaca city mayor's post three years ago after defecting from the PRI.

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Times staff writer Chris Kraul in Oaxaca contributed to this report.

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