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Elections Give PRI Hopes a Boost

The former ruling party's candidate, a gambling tycoon, appears to have won the Tijuana race. Oaxaca battle looks similar.

August 03, 2004|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

TIJUANA — A gambling tycoon with a populist streak and a shadowy past appeared Monday to have won the narrowest of victories in Tijuana's mayoral election, giving the Institutional Revolutionary Party a major upset in a border city it has not governed for 15 years.

The apparent triumph here of Jorge Hank Rhon, coupled with a cliffhanger defense of the party's control over the southern state of Oaxaca, breathed life into its campaign to recover the presidency -- an office that the party, known as the PRI, monopolized for 71 years before Vicente Fox's election in 2000.

Other parties refused to concede defeat in either race after unofficial returns put the PRI 1 percentage point ahead in Tijuana -- a margin of fewer than 3,000 votes out of just over 200,000 cast -- and 2.7 percentage points up in the Oaxaca gubernatorial contest. Losing candidates began mounting legal challenges that could drag on for weeks.

If the results hold, they will vividly demonstrate the PRI's ability to shore up its traditional rural base and erode the urban strongholds of Fox's center-right National Action Party. Victories would also boost the presidential ambitions of Roberto Madrazo, who has revived the party machinery and engineered both apparent victories Sunday.

The collapse of Fox's party here was stunning. Baja California was the first state captured by the party, known as the PAN, in the Mexican opposition's epic struggle against one-party rule. The statehouse and Tijuana's City Hall have been under PAN control since 1989.

Hank's flamboyant, well- financed campaign overcame a wide lead by Jorge Ramos, the lackluster candidate of a PAN establishment that in the view of many voters had grown ineffective, corrupt and arrogant. The campaign followed a formula the PRI hopes to duplicate in other state and local races ahead of the 2006 presidential election.

"My party is coming back in 2006, and I will do everything to help it," the 48-year-old Hank said in an interview Monday at his office at the city's greyhound race track, part of his multimillion-dollar business empire of off-track betting parlors, hotels and shopping centers.

Amigo, a black German shepherd, wandered into the office during the interview, one of an estimated 20,000 animals Hank keeps in a private zoo at the racetrack. On the walls were a group photo showing most of the 18 children he had by four women and a portrait of his late father, Carlos Hank Gonzalez, a PRI power broker whose accumulation of wealth in public office came to symbolize the corruption of the old order.

"People used to say our party was bad, our party was crooked, our party was the worst," Hank said. "But in my campaign, I asked them, Who paved the river banks? Who opened the theater? Who built the dams? Who gave you water and light? And they understood that it was my party, not the ones in office now. Those guys had not done anything lately for the people."

Hank's coattails were long enough to bring a PRI-led statewide coalition close to winning mayoral races in Ensenada and Mexicali, two other PAN strongholds in the state. The PRI kept control of Tecate, the only municipality it had controlled in Baja California, while the PAN easily won in Rosarito.

The PAN expanded its plurality to regain majority control of the Baja California legislature. But the PRI's total vote in the five municipal races fell just 262 short of the PAN's -- in a state where the PRI had been moribund for years.

"Baja California will be up for grabs in the 2006 election," said David Shirk, director of the Transborder Institute at the University of San Diego. The PAN's loss in Tijuana comes on the heels of its July 4 drubbing in Ciudad Juarez, a border city the party had controlled for 12 years.

A global economic downturn and Fox's inability to deliver on reformist promises to make Mexicans safer and more prosperous have put PAN candidates on the defensive against the PRI and the smaller Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD. Both gained in last year's midterm congressional elections.

The PRI remains Mexico's largest, best-organized party, holding most statehouses and a plurality in Congress. Its sway over poor villages in wide swaths of rural Mexico is unmatched.

In the Oaxaca governor's race, which the PRI has never lost, an opposition alliance of the PAN, the PRD and smaller parties built an early lead Sunday on the basis of urban returns, only to watch it vanish overnight as rural precincts weighed in for the PRI's Ulises Ruiz.

Opposition candidate Gabino Cue, a PRI defector, charged that the dominant party was up to its old tricks. Some rural districts, he said, reported returns from more than the number of their registered voters. "I don't have the slightest doubt that we won," he said.

The Tijuana race offered a different view of the PAN's weakness, as well as demonstrating the PRI's resilience and the potency of a big-name candidate.

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