August 24, 2007

Baja California News

Sorting Out a Pivotal State Election

Now that the initial clouds of smoke have cleared from Baja California’s August 5 election, political actors and analysts are assessing the local, national and international repercussions of the raucous race. Final results announced by the Baja California State Election Council show the conservative National Action Party (PAN) of President Felipe Calderon as the winner. Not only did the PAN manage to retain control of the governor’s office, but the party re-conquered the city halls of Tijuana, Mexicali and Tecate as well.

The PAN also preserved its majority in the state congress, upping its representation from 13 to 15 seats, while the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) remained with 9 seats and the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) dropped from two seats to one. Two small parties that united with the PAN are also expected to gain seats in the state legislature.

Despite pre-election polls that showed a neck-to-neck race between PAN gubernatorial candidate Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan and principal rival Jorge Hank Rhon of the PRI-led So That You Can Live Better Alliance, the final tallies gave Osuna a large victory margin of 54,000 votes. “The people have spoken,” declared a triumphant Osuna.

In the view of the PRI, however, the election is far from over. State party leader Mario Madrigal Magana announced August 21 that the PRI and two allied parties will file a legal challenge with the State Electoral Council that seeks to annul the election results.

Ironically, the PRI is basing its case on alleged irregularities that were once perfected by Mexico’s former ruling party. According to Magana, police intimidation, vote-buying and the interference of PAN Governor Elorduy Walther during the political campaign all made the election illegitimate.

“We have all the legal elements to challenge the elections with the goal of annulling them,” affirmed Madrigal.

For the moment, however, the PAN’s August 5 victory is sweet relief for a political force that is beset by divisions and which has lost key electoral strongholds in elections in Yucatan and Aguascalientes this year. But Osuna and his fellow Panistas weren’t the only winners. Good old-fashioned political trickery, lavish spending, negative campaigning, voter abstention, and the seemingly unstoppable Elba Esther Gordillo emerged as the other prime victors.

Feared violence did not materialize, but only days after the vote the secretary-general of Tijuana branch of the Mexican Green Party, Fausto Rodriguez was briefly kidnapped by an armed commando. Rodriguez had earlier resigned from the PRI-Green party alliance to protest the imposition of candidates, but it is not known if his kidnapping was in any way connected to the election.

In the days preceding the vote, mutual accusations of unfair campaigning, vote-buying, police harassment, and government coercion at all levels splashed the headlines. On election eve, recordings of police band radio conversations between Tijuana municipal police and alleged drug traffickers were leaked to the media and played on the airwaves.

Allegedly in the possession of the Office of the Federal Attorney General (PGR) since 2004, it is uncertain how the federal police used the recordings prior to their release three years later; the timing of the audiotapes’ leaking, reminiscent of the Carlos Ahumada videotapes which showed PRD politicians accepting suitcases of money in the run-up to the 2006 presidential elections, also raised intriguing, still-unanswered questions. Coupled with PAN campaign spots that implied a connection between organized crime and former Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank, the tapes could have been a decisive, last-minute blow to the PRI’s controversial standard-bearer.

The leader of the massive national teachers’ union, Elba Esther Gordillo, landed another dizzying punch to Hank. Long embroiled in a feud with key Hank backer and former PRI presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo, Gordillo arrived on the scene to rally her troops in a get-out-the-vote drive for Osuna. The PAN’s victorious candidate recognized that hundreds of mobilized teachers contributed to his victory.

Some analysts noted the similarities between Gordillo’s role in the Baja election and her crucial support for PAN presidential candidate Felipe Calderon in last year’s election, a political move that is credited by some for pushing Calderon over the top in his tight race with the PRD’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Undoubtedly, the PAN victory in Baja California reinforces Gordillo’s growing clout on the national political scene, and it will have repercussions in the struggle over the management and direction of the National Education Ministry. In Baja, Gordillo will likely wield influence through the teacher-based National Alliance Party that teamed with the PAN in this year’s electoral coalition.

Used to winning the spin of the roulette wheel, losing PRI gubernatorial candidate and billionaire gaming businessman Jorge Hank expressed no public bitterness at his defeat. Hank’s conciliatory tone contrasted with state PRI leader Madrgial’s vows to overturn the election.

Commenting that “sleeping” would soothe his post-election blues, Hank blamed delays in opening voting booths, popular fear of violence and voter abstention for his defeat. “I didn’t know how to motivate the people,” Hank conceded.

In one press conference with reporters held at his “eccentric offices” outside the Agua Caliente race track, Hank waxed philosophical about the election outcome. Speaking in a room furnished with Mayan effigies in sexual positions, draped animal parts and a large surrealist painting by artist Napiq that depicts scenes of Hank as a clown and a hooded man preparing to decapitate a smiling woman, Hank vowed he’d remain a loyal “soldier” in the PRI’s army.

Reprinted from Frontera NorteSur (FNS)an on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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