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Baja California vote may decide fate of Mexico's conservative party

Mexico's National Action Party has held the state government since 1989. But internal squabbling has weakened the party, which may be doomed by a loss.

July 06, 2013|By Tracy Wilkinson
  • Campaign billboards tower over a road in Ensenada, in the Mexican state of Baja California, which will pick a governor Sunday. The National Action Party, which has held the Baja governorship since 1989, is in danger of losing the post to a candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, a blow that could be irreparable to the party.
Campaign billboards tower over a road in Ensenada, in the Mexican state… (Alejandro Zepeda, European…)

MEXICO CITY — The year was 1989. The Berlin Wall came down. Czechoslovakia was experiencing its Velvet Revolution. Chinese were demanding democracy in Tiananmen Square.

And in Mexico, the first cracks emerged in what had been more than six decades of one-party rule. For the first time in its history, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had molded modern Mexico, lost a state government, in Baja California, to a small opposition faction.

Baja became the launching pad for that group, the National Action Party, or PAN, to eventually rise to national power, ousting the PRI from the presidency in 2000 after 71 years. The PAN has held on to the governorship of Baja ever since.

On Sunday, elections will take place in Baja California as well as in 14 other states. The PRI, in ascendancy, having returned to the presidential palace last year, is now fighting mightily to take back Baja California.

The PAN, by contrast, is rife with internal squabbles, weakened by electoral drubbings and in danger of losing its prized post. Defeat in Baja California would be a potentially irreparable blow to the party.

"Baja California is a highly emblematic challenge for us," said Cesar Camacho, national president of the PRI. Although the PRI lost other states after 1989, they've been recovered, he said. Not Baja California.

"Saying you want to win everything sounds anti-democratic," Camacho added, but "the PRI wants to win everywhere."

The westernmost state also has strategic economic importance for whoever wins. It contains some of the busiest and most lucrative crossings between Mexico and California and prospers from trade, the maquiladora sector and tourism.

As might be expected, the campaign, which formally concluded last week, turned ugly. The PAN's candidate, former Tijuana Mayor Francisco Vega de Lamadrid, and former Sen. Fernando Castro Trenti of the PRI have traded insults, recriminations and charges of illegal personal enrichment, each citing the other's vast real estate holdings, including homes in the San Diego area.

Most seriously, Castro Trenti found himself fending off accusations that his brother once worked for the Tijuana drug cartel.

The accusations, splashed across the front pages of newspapers here in the final days of the campaign, were contained in a federal investigation that recounted testimony from drug kingpin Francisco Javier Arellano Felix. Testifying as a "protected witness," Arellano was quoted as saying he paid Castro Trenti's brother Francisco $20,000 a month to ease drug shipments through Tijuana in the early 2000s.

Francisco Castro Trenti, currently the top police official in Rosarito Beach, has denied the allegations.

The PAN's 1989 victory permanently altered Mexico's political landscape, introducing authentic democratic competition and converting Baja California into a bastion for the conservative party. But the party has suffered a dizzying decline since its defeat by the PRI in the July 2012 presidential election. Many members have abandoned it, and the leadership is badly divided.

"This election is not just about Baja Californians; it's about Mexican politics and how we will build democracy in the future," Vega said. "Our victory will be a turning point in containing the PRI. We cannot allow the PRI, once again, to paint all of Mexico red," a reference to the party's color.

Castro, in stump speeches, counters, "The people are tired of the PAN and 24 years of neglect."

Victor Espinoza, an analyst at the College of the Northern Border in Tijuana, said the PAN's clubbiness and closed structure has stunted potential growth. The PRI, by contrast, is more "big tent" as parties go and has been steadily building its comeback in Baja California, regaining a handful of mayorships in recent years.

Further vanquishing of the PAN even has implications for President Enrique Peña Nieto's broad agenda of reforms aimed at improving the economy. Losing Baja California could force the resignation of national party leader Gustavo Madero, who has been generally cooperative with Peña Nieto's programs, and, instead, boost a large, dissident faction of the PAN that would withhold its support for the president.

For passage of his initiatives, the PRI's Peña Nieto has relied on the so-called Pact for Mexico, a formal agreement by the major political parties to find consensus on legislative reforms. If the PAN were to ditch the Pact for Mexico, a much-anticipated overhaul of the state oil monopoly, among other bills, would be jeopardized.

Madero has complained bitterly about PRI campaign tactics, suggesting the party has reverted to its old-school ways when, for decades, it gave away food, money, building materials, credit cards and other gifts in exchange for votes. Police in Tijuana last week said they arrested a PRI operative whose car was full of food packages he was giving out to voters.

"The dinosaur's claws are showing," Madero said.

Only Baja California is electing a governor Sunday. Voting for mayors and local legislatures, more than 1,300 posts in all, will take place in 13 other states, and a special election will be held in a 15th state, Sonora, to replace a federal congressman who was slain, allegedly by a political rival. All told, the elections involve about a third of Mexico's electorate.

wilkinson@latimes.com

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