June 15, 2007

Political News

The Battle for Baja California

Amid a charged political environment, candidates for state and municipal offices in Baja California are blazing the campaign trail. Leading up to the August 5 election, a whirl-wind of negative campaigning, controversial court rulings, accusations of government interference, church- state flirtations, allegations of attempted vote-buying, and conflicts between election authorities and the state government have so far marked the process. Stirred into an already hot pot is a re-warmed dash of the Roberto Madrazo- Elba Esther Gordillo rivalry that split the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the run-up to last year’s presidential election.

Easily grabbing the most attention is the contest for the governorship. The two leading candidates are gaming czar and former Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon of the awkwardly - named So that You Can Live Better Alliance, which also includes the Mexican Green Party and the local Baja California State party, and longtime politician Jose Guada-lupe Osuna Millan of the Alliance for Baja California, a formation made up of the National Action (PAN), New Alliance (PANAL) and Social Encounter parties.

Three other candidates, including two women, are also competing for the governor’s post. They include Enrique Hurtado Mendoza of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), Carmen Garcia Montano of the Alternative Social Democrat Party and Mercedes Maciel of Labor Party/ Con-vergencia alliance.

Similar to the current campaign for the Ciudad Juarez city government, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s 2006 national coalition has not held together at the local level, with the PRD and Labor Party/Convergencia fielding rival candidates in the 2007 Baja gubernatorial election.

A Hank triumph would be a sweet victory for the PRI, ending 18 years of PAN domination of the governor’s office. An Osuna win is a must for the PAN, which lost the Yucatan state election on May 20. Early polls showed Osuna comfortably ahead of Hank, but some recent reports suggest that the controversial PRI candidate is closing the gap in the race.

In an effort to make sure Hank doesn’t lose, the national PRI has sent in professional advisors from the state of Mexico as well as the party’s losing 2006 presidential candidate, Roberto Madrazo, who has reemerged on the national political scene and is promoting his new book entitled The Betrayal. A Hank win would represent political revenge for Madrazo, whose arch-enemy, national teachers’ union chief Elba Esther Gordillo, is reportedly backing Osuna.

Hank, Osuna and even the PRD’s Hurtado kicked off their official campaigns May 24 with masses in Roman Catholic churches. Exiting the Mexicali Cathedral, Hank quipped, “We ask the blessing of the Lord to bring luck to the proposals we will make to society.

Hank promises to purge the police, provide free education to Baja’s residents and make English a mandatory subject in schools. Osuna vows to pave more roads, promote a new power plant for Mexicali and pay attention to the controversy over the United States’ planned construction of a parallel, cement-lined canal to the existing All-American Canal on the Mexico-US border.

In an exchange perhaps worthy of a sequel to “The Sopranos,” both the Osuna and Hank camps are implying that their opponent has ties to organized crime. In response to a pointed PAN spot, Eduardo Bernal, campaign coordinator for Hank’s coalition, contended that his candidate seeks to end the alleged relationship that exists between the state government and drug traffickers.

Charges of campaign irregularities and worse have surfaced during the electoral process. Juan Carlos Ruiz, the PRD’s candidate for mayor of Mexicali, has filed a complaint with the State Electoral Institute that accuses the pro-Hank coalition of giving out pre-paid cell phone cards to private residences in Mexicali, while Jaime Martinez Veloz, the center-left party’s candidate for Tijuana mayor, has accused the city’s PRI-led municipal government of destroying campaign publicity.

Last March, anti-Gordillo forces within the teachers’ union alleged that the PAN state government was paying members of the Gordillo-inspired PANAL from a state education account as a way of bolstering the Osuna coalition member’s presence and power. In a denunciation to the Mexico City- based La Jornada newspaper, the Gordillo critics charged that the scheme was similar to one employed during the 2006 presidential election. A former PRI leader, Gordillo is widely credited with helping the PAN’s Felipe Calderon win the presidency.

Minutes after delivering documentation supporting the accusations, one of the whistle-blowers, teacher Guillermo Estrada Ruelas, was reportedly physically assaulted in a Mexico City metro station by three individuals who warned, “If you say anything to the media, you are going to die.”

Different political actors accuse the PAN-led state government of preparing a “state election” to usher in a Osuna win. On a visit to Mexicali earlier this year, President Felipe Calderon announced the extension of electricity subsidies until 2009. Calderon hit on a popular issue in a state that suffers from blistering temperatures and high electric bills during the summer months, which this year coincide with the election. Calderon was accompanied by PAN Baja California Governor Eugenio Elorduy, who denies interfering in the election process.

Likewise rejecting accusations of a state-manipulated election, Osuna recently took a pot shot at the PRI’s political machine. “The only state campaign I know of is the one from the state of Mexico.”

The Baja California election comes at a critical moment in the history of growing northern border state, home of numerous foreign-owned maquildoras as well as a growing population of US-born residents who are buying up properties. While narco-violence disturbs the peace on a regular basis, mounting social discontent is evident on a variety of fronts.

Making headlines are the stalled immigration accord with the US, massive teacher rejection of the Gordillo-brokered national social security reform and popular opposition to the planned cement border canal that farmers, environmentalists and business representatives charge will dry up water supplies for the arid state.

Reprinted from Frontera NorteSur (FNS): 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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