26 July 2010

Supposed "Jefe Diego" letter and photo surface

A supposed photo of missing former presidential candidate Diego Fernández de Cevallos surfaced online, suggesting the National Action Party (PAN) politician and Mexican legal bigwig is alive - if not well.

The photo, made public by journalist José Cárdenas of Raido Formula, shows a blindfolded, shirtless and disheveled Fernández de Cevallos, 69, holding a copy of the muckraking news weekly, Proceso, which features his image on the cover. That image ran with the headline, "Diego's dark history," and contained an unflattering account of the political, business and legal dealings of a figure deeply despised by the Mexican left and unpopular in some circles of the governing PAN.

Cárdenas also produced a letter supposedly written by Fernández de Cevallos to his family. The letter - which lacks any sort of polish or the prose for which Fernández de Cevallos, a gifted orator, is known - begins with an admonishment to quit penny pinching and to pay any ransom as quickly as possible. It reads:

"I can't describe the hell that your father is living and I don't know much longer I'll hold on. Therefore, I ask that you make your best effort as quickly as possible. They have all the time in the world.

"... They tell me that they made you a concrete proposal and that you haven't answered them with a reasonable counter offer. You have to do it now, immediately.

" ... Any advice that you're poor is absurd and will be fatal."

Diego then supposedly writes of his poor health, saying:

"I've fainted various times and have chest pains despite [taking] a lot of 'Tenormin' and Aspirin. You know that I've not hot had good heart health since the operation.

"I have lost weight and my fatigue is each day worse. Therefore, time if of the essence."

He ends the letter with an urgent plea:

"Don't try to diminish the amount that is attributed to my net worth. That's irrelevant. What's urgently needed is that you make a counter proposal that's as high as you are able [to make] and I'm sure that they will negotiate. What is urgently needed are serious negotiations to manage the delivery of money and my freedom."

The admonishment to pay follows reports of the supposed kidnappers demanding a ransom of $50 million and the family offering $30 million in exchange. Negotiations reportedly went cold afterward.

Fernández de Cevallos - known as "El Jefe Diego," or "Diego the Boss" - disappeared more than two months ago from his ranch in the state of Querétaro, several hours to the northwest of Mexico City. His family has kept quiet, except to ask that federal and state officials withdraw from any investigations - this, in spite of the fact that close legal and political associates of Fernández de Cevallos - Attorney General Arturo Chávez Chávez and the recently replaced interior minister, Fernando Gómez-Mont - occupied top positions in the federal cabinet at the time of his disappearance.

Speculation has been rife about who might have abducted Fernández de Cevallos and for what motives. The EPR rebels denied any involvement, although security analyst have mentioned a supposed EPR splinter group as the kidnappers. A supposed email from the kidnappers - read by Cárdenas on his radio show - says much of what has been reported is false and that they have not lowered their demands.

If the photo is real, it should come as no surprise that it shows "El Jefe Diego - or, "Diego the Boss" - holding a Proceso issue suggesting he has amassed a fortune and wields influence over Mexican political and legal affairs.

The Proceso editorial line tilts left and Fernández de Cevallos is loathed by many on the Mexican left for his history of brokering deals with former president Carlos Salinas and later, while serving as a PAN senator from 2000 - 2006, winning big claims for corporate clients taking legal action against the federal government - often in a bid to win "amparos" (injunctions) against taxation measures.

Many reports falsely refer to Fernández de Cevallos as friends with Calderón, whose sister, then a Senator, promoted a bill known as the "Ley Anti-Diego" to curb Jefe Diego's moonlighting as a lawyer while he served in the Senate.

22 July 2010

Xóchitl Gálvez gives it the "old college try"

Xóchitl Gálvez, the PAN-PRD gubernatorial candidate in Hidalgo, awarded 10,000 pesos yesterday to the video best purporting to show irregularities in the July 4 state election, which the PRI won by a five-point margin - much closer than expected and especially close given the state government's backing of the PRI campaign. The Gálvez campaign has raised allegations of irregularities that range from vote buying to the police raiding one of her campaign buildings on election day to the PRI governor of the neighbouring State of Mexico sending in trailer-loads of giveaways for plying voters.

The award stunt was the latest action in her attempt to have the election overturned - something that hasn't happened on the state level since the electoral tribunal (Trife) overturned the 2003 election in Colima state. (Ironically, a 2008 municipal election was overturned in Zimapán, Hidalgo, site of a proposed toxic waste dump after the pro-dump PRI complained that the local priest had preached politics by the pulpit by voicing opposition to the project in his election day homily.)

Her odds of success in overturning the election are uncertain, but Gálvez has emerged from the July 4 elections as one of the nation's rising political stars.

The Gálvez campaign confronted an electoral machine operated by one of the most retrograde PRI state governments in the country - a place where the governor went so far as to change the state anthem to something glorifying the PRI and state media outlets, which are considered friendly to the PRI and, no doubt, dependent on state government advertising, gave the PRI campaign five times the coverage it gave her. She received less support and publicity from her own party backers than was given to similar coalitions running in Oaxaca and Puebla. Gálvez went so far as to remove her family from the state on the eve of the elections and mentioned having some campaign members threatened by Los Zetas.

She even had to deal with a scorned Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who demand the Labour Party (PT) pull out of any coalitions in Hidalgo because of her presumed closeness with former president Vicente Fox (in whose administration she served as commissioner of the Indigenous Communities Development Commission).

"She gave it the old college try," said ITAM political science professor Federico Estévez.

Whether or not she wins in the tribunals, Gálvez - who is not a member of any political party - has emerged as one of the political stars of the July 4 elections and should be factor in Mexican politics over the coming years.

20 July 2010

The job nobody wants

Former PAN president Germán Martínez and Dep. Josefina Vázquez Mota speak at a spring 2009 press conference.

Proponents of the suddenly popular and surprisingly cohesive PAN-PRD alliances have set their sights on taking the State of Mexico next year - and subsequently derailing the presidential aspirations of the outgoing PRI governor, Enrique Peña Nieto. But the proponents continue encountering a decided lacked of enthusiasm from any of the potential candidates, some of whom would prefer running for the presidency in 2012 instead of being relegated to a provincial backwater in Toluca.

Writing in the newspaper El Universal, columnist Salvador García Soto mentioned former UNAM rector Juan Ramón de la Fuente as the latest big name to demur on the possibility of running next year in the State of Mexico. The former rector, García Soto writes, is being courted by the coalition, but would prefer to run on the federal level as a "citizen candidate." (Mexico doesn't allow independent candidacies so "citizen candidates" are considered party candidates who lack party membership cards.)

García mentioned sporting goods retail mogul-turned-anti-crime fighter Alejandro Martí as another potential "citizen candidate" in the State of Mexico. Martí became prominent in the summer of 2008, when public outrage surged after it was revealed his teenage son Fernando Martí was kidnapped and murdered, even though a ransom had been paid.

PAN leader in the Chamber of Deputies, Josefina Vázquez Mota, has frequently been mentioned as a possible candidate, too. She recently let it be known she has no interest in running for governor of the State of Mexico, however - even though she is perhaps the best-known panísta in the state, which is the most populous in the country and surrounds Mexico City on three sides.

De la Fuente presided over the UNAM for much of the last decade. He took office in the wake of a student strike over a proposed tuition increase - which was unreasonably lengthened by the obstructionism of a small band of resident radicals, who tarnished the school's reputation - and led it back to reasonable levels of respect in national and international circles. (UNAM still charges no tuition.)

A psychiatrist by training, de la Fuente has been promoted as a possible unity candidate for Mexico City mayor in 2012 or president in the same year by some in the oft-disparate and oft-dysfunctional Mexican left.

Vázquez Mota has showed an equal lack of enthusiasm for running in the State of Mexico, even though the PAN's central leadership and operatives in the presidency - who are known to dislike her and have aspirations for other potential 2012 presidential candidates - have encouraged her to move to the state level.

The former education and social development secretary could buck that pressure, however. Vazquez Mota draws relatively favourable poll numbers and is running just behind Sen. Santiago Creel - another Los Pinos enemy - for the PAN presidential nomination. PRD leader in the Chamber and for Mexico City mayor Alejandro Encinas has also been mentioned as another possible State of Mexico candidate.

All of the potential opposition candidates poll far below Peña Nieto the 2012 race - and none seems to want his current job.

Peña Nieto, meanwhile, continued with the public works narrative of his administration by inaugurating a hospital Monday in Chalco, a sprawling metropolis founded by squatters on the southeastern outskirts of Mexico City. The hospital was the 500th project his government has taken credit for completing - and many of the media outlets that have tirelessly gushed over his administration were there to cover the event. (It must be asked how many of these outlets have pages sponsored by the State of Mexico government.)

He emerged from the July 4 gubernatorial elections in worse shaped than he entered, however. Peña Nieto campaigned hard in places such as Oaxaca, Puebla and Hidalgo with the idea that PRI governments in those states would back his 2012 presidential run - no doubt, using public funds. (The PRI lost in Oaxaca and Puebla, while the Hidalgo election is being contested to the electoral tribunal.)

But some in the PRI think the losses in other places might help to keep the State of Mexico in party hands as Peña Nieto will be less able to impose a preferred candidate through the "dedazo" - a practice that backed fired horribly on the PRI in Oaxaca and Puebla - and potential infighting in the state will thus be kept to a minimum.

16 July 2010

More electoral twists for 2011?

López Zavala con Peña Nieto, 05-06-10.

How much does State of Mexico Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto fear the formation of anti-PRI electoral alliance for the July 2011 gubernatorial race in his home state? Apparently enough to postpone the election date to July 2012, when the country chooses a new president - and he expects to romp to victory as the Institutional Revolutionary Party candidate.

Writing in the Mexico City newspaper La Razón, political columnist Adrián Trejo floated the idea of Peña Nieto promoting a constitutional amendment so that the State of Mexico would hold future gubernatorial elections at the same time as federal elections. The state already holds legislative and municipal elections at the same time as the presidential contest and other states such as Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Morelos and the Federal District already hold gubernatorial elections the same day.

The scenario, according to Trejo, would unfold as follows:

The heavily PRI state legislature approves changing the election date to July 2012. Peña Nieto then resigns Sept. 15, one year ahead of his previously scheduled departure from office. A successor appointed by the legislature would serve out the remainder of the extended term.

Trejo says the idea is being studied, although it would bring a high political cost. He cited no specific sources for his July 16 column and insisted such a change to the gubernatorial election date would be legal.

The possible maneuvering reflects the enormous importance of the State of Mexico in national politics and how its next gubernatorial election is expected to have national implications.

Emboldened by the recent electoral successes of PAN-PRD alliances in Oaxaca, Puebla and Sinaloa, the PAN and PRD now are gunning for the State of Mexico as winning the country's most populous state would derail Peña Nieto's presidential aspirations.

The PRI recognizes the importance of retaining the State of Mexico, too. PRI president Beatriz Paredes brokered a deal last fall with PAN president César Nava to avoid any such coalitions in the State of Mexico in exchange for the PRI in the Chamber of Deputies supporting passage of the 2010 federal budget. (The PAN reneging on the deal prompted the resignation of the then-interior minister Fernando Gómez-Mont from the PAN and hastened his departure from cabinet.)

It remains to be seen what happens in the State of Mexico, but the maneuvering for the top political prize of 2011 is only just beginning.

14 July 2010

Gómez-Mont resigns - to no one's surprise

PAN big shots
Fernando Gómez-Mont (left) appears at a 2008 press conference with then-PAN president Germán Martínez. Gómez-Mont subsequently became interior minister, but resigned his position July 14.

Interior Minister Fernando Gómez-Mont resigned Wednesday evening, barely a week after three of the PAN-PRD electoral alliances he had harshly criticized - and ultimately cited as motives for resigning from the PAN - unseated retrograde PRI state governments in Oaxaca and Puebla and scored an unlikely victory in Sinaloa.

President Felipe Calderón promptly unveiled a new interior minister, former Baja California government secretary José Francisco Blake Mora - who was barely a week removed from presiding over a PAN electoral debacle in his home state, where the PRI won all five municipalities, including Tijuana, and claimed a majority in the state legislature.

Blake Mora arrives in the Interior Ministry - arguably the most powerful of the federal ministries - with only modest experience in federal politics, having served in the Chamber of Deputies, Baja California legislature and Tijuana city council. The PAN has governed Baja California since 1989.

The new interior minister worked as a Calderón's political operator in the Chamber of Deputies early in the last decade and gained notoriety for spearheading an unsuccessful move to strip lawmakers belonging to the oil workers' union - which was engulfed in the Pemexgate scandal - of their immunity from prosecution. He reportedly spurned previous invites to serve in the federal cabinet.

The departure of Gómez-Mont came as part of a larger cabinet shuffle in which the president replaced one of his closest advisers, Patricia Flores, from Los Pinos and tapped Economy Secretary Gerardo Ruiz Mateos to replace her as director of the president's office.

Flores was expected to be named ambassador to Portugal. Ruiz raised hackles in 2008 for suggesting that if Calderón hadn't won in 2006, narcos would be running the country.

It marked the fourth time in less than four years that Calderón named a new interior minister. Gómez-Mont replaced Juan Camilo Mouriño - Calderón's closest ally during the early years of his administration - in November 2008 after Mouriño perished in a plane crash. Mouriño had replaced current Chamber speaker Francisco Ramirez Acuña, who was deemed a poor political negotiator.

No one ever questioned Gómez-Mont's negotiating talents. He formed a formidable PAN negotiating tag-team with his legal and political mentor, the currently missing former presidential candidate Diego Fernández de Cevallos - who is eroneously mentioned in many press reports as being a close friend of Calderón. They negotiated many of the early electoral reforms that led to an independent IFE and brokered many deals with the administration of then-president Carlos Salinas.

Gómez-Mont's appointment to the Interior Ministry was interpreted at the time as an attempt by Calderón to build party unity by reaching out to PAN factions that never embraced his 2006 candidacy.

But the Gómez-Mont later resigned from the PAN over the party's willingness to broker alliances with the PRD - a party which has never accepted the 2006 election results. Both Gómez-Mont and Fernández de Cevallos strongly disliked the Mexican left, according to political observers. He also infamously served as "witness" to a deal between the PAN president César Nava and PRI president Beatriz Paredes to have no coalitions next year in the State of Mexico - all in exchange for the PRI backing a 2010 budget with a sales tax increase. It was believed many in the PRI - including Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz - had tried broking deals with Gómez-Mont to avoid the formation of PAN-PRD alliances.

Gómez-Mont, says analyst Pedro Isnardo de la Cruz of the UNAM political science department, presented problems in his role of a negotiator between the presidency and the other political parties. The PRD distrusted him - and blamed him, without offering proof, of having its gubernatorial candidate in Quintana Roo arrested on organized crime charges - while parts of the PRI viewed him as biased toward the faction loyal to State of Mexico Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto.

Gómez-Mont is expected to return to private practice as one of the country's most esteemed criminal defence lawyers.

Where the heck is "El Jefe Diego"?

Former PAN presidential candidate and legal bigwig Diego Fernández de Cevallos - better known as "El Jefe Diego," or Diego the Boss - disappeared from his ranch in the state of Querétaro 60 days ago. His fate remains uncertain and the domain of much speculation - the most colourful of which involved the FARC supposedly having a hand in his disappearance.

El Universal columnist Katia D'Artigues sums up the current thinking on the case in a July 14 column. Among her points:

1. Diego was kidnapped by professions, who extracted a tracking chip from his body.

2. The kidnappers demanded $50 million, but negotiations are now in the $30 million range.

3. Foreigners are carrying out the negotiations as the Attorney General's Office (PGR) and state authorities withdrew from the case early on at the behest of Diego's family. The captors communicate with the family through messages left at churches and emails.

4. The EPR rebels - blamed for the 2007 bomb attacks on Pemex pipelines - has denied any involvement. "Security experts" say an EPR splinter group known as the Revolutionary Democratic Tendency (TDR) has emerged and might be involved.

In an El Universal column published July 13, Salvador García Soto raised the possibility of the kidnapping being motivated by revenge and linked to the drug trade.

"Revenge for a failed, multi-million (dollar) litigation by (Diego's) powerful law firm, Férnandez de Cevallos y Alba, S.A., that involves a group of businessmen linked to narcotics trafficking in Quintana Roo, is the version that is being given in Mexican and U.S. military intelligence circles to explain the kidnapping," García wrote.

Whatever the truth, what is known - and what is provoking the most disquiet in some cirlces - is the silence from the federal government and the willingness of law enforcement and judicial officials to withdraw from perhaps the most prominent kidnapping case of the past five years. Some legal experts also have questioned the constitutionality of such a move by the PGR.

Ironically, Diego - as I mentioned in a previous post - presides over a faction in the PAN that has placed two of his acolytes: Interior Minister Fernando Gómez-Mont and Attorney General Arturo Chávez, in two of the country's top cabinet positions and in positions responsible for security matters. Now the pair are on the sidelines as their political mentor is held captive by professionals demanding an enormous sum of money - or so we're told.

Expect the case to grow ever the more curious over the coming 60 days.

13 July 2010

Slim buys (another) gold mine

The slogan outside this seafood restaurant in the Col. Roma goes by the slogan, "The only one that doesn't belong to Carlos Slim."

Carlos Slim, the world's richest man, bought a gold mine yesterday - literally.

Slim purchased an actual gold mine in the state of Aguascalientes for $25 million from the Canadian company, Goldgroup Mining, Inc. With gold prices hovering above $1,200 per ounce, the mine should handsomely pad his fortune, which Forbes magazine estimated at $53.5 billion in its most recent survey of the world's wealthiest individuals.

Although not a miner, Slim knows plenty about gold mines.

The purchase comes 20 years after Slim purchased the gold mine responsible for generating much of his fortune: Teléfonos de México - better known as Telemex, the national telephone monopoly.

Through Telmex and the Telmex wireless spinoff, América Movil (Telcel), Slim came to dominate the Mexican economy. At one point it was estimated his companies accounted for one-third of the value of the Mexican stock exchange, while his net worth is equal to roughly seven percent of the country's GDP.

His reach has extended into other countries, too. Telmex and América Movil now compete - actually compete - successfully in other parts of Latin America. And Slim made a $250 million investment in The New York Times, which will pay him a 14 percent return - a situation the jailed former newspaper baron Conrad Black described as "a loan-shark's lifeline." (I disagree with Lord Black's other assessments of the Times, however.)

Slim won control of Telmex through an auction in 1990 as the then-administration of former president Carlos Salinas privatized a raft of government companies. The aptly-named Slim - who name fails to describe his wallet - claimed the crown jewel of the assets being privatized, along with permission to operate Telmex as a monopoly for at least seven years.

The rest, as they say, is history.

11 July 2010

Handicapping 2011


The success of the five PAN-PRD alliances in the July 4 gubernatorial elections has fomented talk of similar arrangements being made for the 2011 gubernatorial and local elections scheduled in at least five states - and most notably in the State of Mexico, where deposing the PRI in the country's most populous jurisdiction would severely diminish the presidential aspirations of Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto.

Already, PAN president César Nava and his PRD counterpart Jesús Ortega - both men having been spared certain destitution because of the electoral successes of their previously maligned alliances - have called for a mega-alliance in the State of Mexico. Potential candidates for the State of Mexico include PAN leader in the Chamber of Deputies, Josefina Vazquez Mota - who isn't anxious to be dispatched to Toluca and thus removed from the presidential race (a move long-promoted by her enemies in Los Pinos) - and former Mexico City mayor and current PRD leader in the Chamber, Alejandro Encinas.

Peña Nieto says he isn't scared of any alliances - a disengenuous position made all the more believable by his striking a secret deal last fall with Nava, PRI president Beatriz Paredes and Interior Minister Fernando Gómez-Mont that called for his block of lawmakers in the Chamber to support the 2010 federal budget in exchange for no alliances being formed in the State of Mexico.

But some commentators have cast doubt on the potential success of an alliance in the State of Mexico and say that the elections of 2011 could prove especially disastrous for the PRD - which might need to form alliances in its own states to stave off a resurgent PRI.

Writing in the newspaper Milenio, Federico Berrueto points to polling data suggesting that the success of the winning alliances in Oaxaca, Puebla and Sinaloa depended more on the unpopularity of the incumbent PRI governors than any other factors.

Citing survey data from GCE - which polls for Milenio - Berrueto listed some of the states with the least-popular governors prior to the elections (with 32 signifying last place):

32. Oaxaca (PRI)
31. Aguascalientes (PAN)
28. Zacatecas (PRD)
27. Puebla (PRI)
26. Tlaxcala (PAN)

In all five states, the incumbent party lost. On the other end of the survey, the states with popular governors holding elections included:

2. Tamaulipas (PRI)
5. Veracruz (PRI)
6. Quintana Roo (PRI)
10. Durango (PRI)
11. Hidalgo (PRI)

The PRI won all five races on July, although its victories in Durango and Hidalgo have been questioned. (In Durango, teachers loyal to the PRI governor of neighbouring Coahuila - who ranked most popular in the CGE survey - poured into the state and helped deliver a narrow victory of less than two percentage points. In Hidalgo, the PAN-PRD coalition somehow managed to claim 45 percent of the vote despite running against a shadowy PRI machine that went so far as to have an opposition campaign office raided by state police on election day morning.)

In the GCE survey, Peña Nieto ranked 12, suggesting the PRI is in for a tight race next year in the State of Mexico.

Ironically, PRD is shaping up as the party with the worst prospects for the coming year. The PRD faces elections in its strongholds of Baja California Sur and Guerrero, which it won in 2005 in an outcome the Reforma newspaper declared, "The end of the Outlaw Mexico."

In the GCE survey, the PRD governors of Baja California Sur and Guerrero ranked 22 and 23 respectively. The PRD is divided in both states and, in 2009, it lost ground to the PRI in Guerrero, which had been divided previously, but made an impressive comeback and even claimed the mayor's office in Acapulco. (Nayarit, governed by the PRI, holds elections in 2011, too.)

Even worse for the PRD, legislative and municipal elections are slated for next fall in Michoacán, where PRD Gov. Leonel Godoy ranks 30 - third worst - on the survey.

Godoy already has discarded the possibility of a coalition in Michoacán - home state of President Felipe Calderón, but a place where the paniísta has failed to establish a significant political base.

The prospect of a resurgent PRI might change Godoy's mind, but chances are that many in the PRD would be loath to broker a deal that so blatently favoured the president.

07 July 2010

Tense elections yield unexpected political change in Mexico

Don't drop the second "e" from Eviel


CIUDAD VICTORIA, Mexico – Cristian Licona, an unemployed high school graduate, voted for the first time ever in the northern and oft-violent state of Tamaulipas, where, barely a week earlier, the gubernatorial front-runner, Rodolfo Torre Cantu of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was gunned down in an attack blamed on warring drug cartels. He seemed uncertain if he was doing the right thing, however.

“I’m voting with the faith that somehow the country changes ... that the violence ends,” he said after casting a ballot in the state capital Ciudad Victoria.

Licona was among the minority as a nearly 75 percent of eligible voters in Tamaulipas residents stayed away from the polls on July 4, a reflection of the tense atmosphere in a state with more than 300 murders attributed to the cartels so far this year.

Residents in most of the 11 other states holding gubernatorial races the same day showed more enthusiasm, however, even though the campaigns were often overshadowed by violence, perceptions of politically motivated police action and allegations of vote buying and other electoral vices being used.

The races delivered mixed results with both the resurgent PRI and five alliances -- comprised of left-wing parties joining forces with President Felipe Calderon’s centre-right National Action Party (PAN) -- claiming significant victories. But the races also delivered democratic changes not witnessed in Mexico since 2000, when Vicente Fox and the PAN ended 71-years of uninterrupted PRI rule on the national level.

The alliances scored major victories in the southeastern states of Oaxaca and Puebla, two bastions of retrograde PRI politics notorious for the political persecution of opposition parties and social movements, the use of social programs for partisan ends and the continued rule by caciques (local strongmen).

“Democracy won” on Sunday, said political science professor Aldo Munoz Armenta of the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico.

“It’s a surprise (the coalitions won) because state governments used so much public money against them.”

The PRI had ruled for more than 80 consecutive years in Oaxaca, where Gov. Ulises Ruiz was declared responsible by the Supreme Court for human rights violations in cracking down on a 2006 uprising against his government, while in Puebla, outgoing Gov. Mario Marin was caught four years ago in leaked telephone conversations scheming to railroad a prominent journalist, Lydia Cacho, for writing supposedly defaming a powerful businessman – all in exchange for a bottle of cognac.

“The two most questioned governors in Mexico lost. No one is going to cry over them,” wrote columnist Ciro Gomez Leyva in the newspaper Milenio of the PRI losses in Oaxaca and Puebla and the two outgoing governors.

Still, the PRI won and was leading in nine of the gubernatorial races on Sunday, but pre-election polls had suggested the possibility of the party running the table. Late interventions by Calderon and PRI missteps in reacting to the Tamaulipas assassination possibly swayed some of the races, however.

The president recently introduced measures such as simplifying tax compliance and eliminating a hated vehicle tax and took high-profile trips during the campaign to the United States and Canada to denounce anti-immigrant laws in Arizona and the still-resented Canadian decision to impose visas on Mexican travellers.

After the assassination of Torre Cantu, Calderon called for a national dialogue over security, but some in the PRI spurned the invitations and disparaged the president.

The president still faces a complicated political landscape over the final two and a half years of his administration. And the PRI still leads early polls for the 2012 presidential contest and controls a majority of Mexico’s 31 state governments and the lower house of Congress, which has been slow to address Calderon’s proposed reforms to labour laws and the political system and has showed only tepid enthusiasm for his ongoing crackdown on the drug cartels.

But political observers say the country changed with Sunday's vote. "Alternation in governance is now a fact in Mexico," Munoz said.

04 July 2010

Coalitions claim early victories


The alliances appear to have toppled the PRI in Oaxaca, Puebla and Sinaloa, although the votes are still being tabulated. The PRI is leading in the other nine states and should take Tlaxcala and Aguascalientes from the PAN and Zacatecas from the PRD. It also is leading in municipal races being held in the PAN stronghold of Baja California - most notably in Tijuana.

Former PRD national executive committee member Fernando Belnauzarán succinctly summed up the early results with the Twitter posting: Without the alliances, the PRI has a clean sweep.

Volkswagen covered in political ads

The multi-party coalitions formed to slay the Institutional Revolutionary Party in six states have declared victory in Oaxaca and Puebla, potentially ending 80 years of PRI rule in two of the country's most notorious political backwaters.

Exit polls give the PAN-PRD-PT-Convergence coalition the lead in Oaxaca. It remains to be seen if the exit polls prove accurate as Oaxaca - where the geography resembles a crumpled-up piece of paper and rural villages are difficult to access - is considered difficult to poll. The state electoral institute also isn't considered especially trustworthy by opposition parties and the PRI is legendary for marshaling its vote.

For its part PRI officials in Oaxaca have already rejected any talk that the party had lost. But political observers and some in the opposition say the PRI was forced to campaign especially hard this time around, suggesting its leadership knew the race would be tight.

Coalition candidate Gabino Cué ran a strong campaign in Oaxaca and seemed able to tap an enormous discontent with Gov. Ulises Ruiz, who developed a sordid reputation for repression and presiding over a crackdown on striking teachers that led to months of violent protests in the state capital. The PRI candidate Eviel Pérez Magaña also came across as being a subordinate of Ruiz - and someone who would be easily manipulated by Ruiz while holding office.

The coalition also claimed victories in Durango and Tlaxcala, but exit polls couldn't confirm those claims - and one poll published by Excélsior gave the PRI the advantage in Tlaxcala.

In the states holding gubernatorial elections July 4, the PRI appeared set to roll. It led in Tamaulipas, Chihuahua, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Veracruz and Quintana Roo. If the polls prove accurate, it would take Aguascalientes from the PAN and Zacatecas from the PRD.

But losing Oaxaca especially hurts the PRI, mainly in terms of prestige as it had been a state the party had invested heavily in holding. It was deemed so important that the party's main attraction, State of Mexico Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto campaigned on several occasions in Oaxaca. Some local paníistas suggested a deal was afoot in which Peña Nieto would campaign heavily in Oaxaca and back Ruiz for the PRI presidency. Peña Nieto would, in turn, gain the backing of a major PRI state in his bid for the 2012 presidential nomination - and access to the state budget in a jurisdiction with little transparency to promote his candidacy.

The coalition winning Oaxaca sends a message that the PRI - which had rolled on the local level in recent years - is not invincible, which is why the coalition parties will take great pleasure in this potential victory, even though they lost two state governorships. It also sets the stage for a mega-coalition next year in the State of Mexico, where a defeat of the PRI might damage Enrique Peña Nieto's presidential aspirations.

It must also be said that any coalition success saves the jobs of PAN president César Nava and PRD president Jesús Ortega - and makes Andrés Manuel López Obrador look like a hypocrite as he has blasted the PRI as a great looming danger, but did his best to scuttle any anti-PRI alliances. (It's suspected, though, AMLO's tours through the "Usos y Costumbres" communities of Oaxaca might have paid dividends for the coalitions and the same network that got out the vote for him in Oaxaca in 2006 might have been revived. Many of AMLO's people were also less intransigent than him and participated in the coalitions.)

Now comes the hard part for any coalition: Governing. Flavio Sosa, the APPO protest leader from 2006, now goes into the state legislature, sitting in a caucus with the PAN, a party many in the Oaxaca social movements loath - although just perhaps slightly less than the PRI, which is why the coalition appears to have won.

03 July 2010

Electoral vices hard to break

This is an expanded explanation of electoral vices such as vote buying and coercion that I wrote about in a recent Canwest News Service story. (Story link in title.)

The 10th anniversary of the Vicente Fox's historic toppling of the Institutional Revolutionary Party passed on July 2. Two days after that, 12 states hold gubernatorial elections widely expected to result in a PRI landslide.

Much of Fox's and the National Action Party's original agenda of change has gone unfulfilled - and toppling the PRI remains the most remarkable accomplishment. Even less of their agenda of change happened on the state level, where governors now preside over fiefdoms lacking much in the way of transparency - or even impartial electoral institutions.

The lead-up to the July 4 elections have highlighted the lack of change - and also exposed many of the lingering electoral vices that have been hard to break such as vote buying and coercion. These vices have been rife of late, not just been confined to the PRI campaign, and, according to some observers, become more rampant.

Jeffrey Weldon, director of the political science department at ITAM, attributes a large part of the problem to the electoral reforms of 2007, which gave the parties free radio and television advertising and barred political messages from non-political players from the airwaves.

Parties used to spend hundreds of millions of pesos on electronic advertising, but now have extra cash since such ads are now distributed to the parties for free based on a formula that takes into account their previous electoral performances. The extra money now is spent on the "ground game," Weldon says.

"The advantage of the previous system is that everyone had to spend their money on TV, which is all open. Everyone sees what your doing and they didn’t have much money left over to spend on the ground game. It’s the ground game where there’s a lot of fraud,” he explains.

“These things are a lot worse than they used to be and they’ve learned new tricks that they didn’t have to use before.”

Much of the criticism for the vices focuses on state governors, who became powerful over the the past decade and, in many places, effectively run the campaigns of their preferred successors.

Tapes also surfaces in places such as Veracruz and Oaxaca purporting to show two PRI governors, Fidel Herrera and Ulises Ruiz, scheming to win votes for the PRI gubernatorial campaigns and, in the case of the two-time lottery winner Herrera, using government social programs for political ends.

The PRI has countered that the federal government operates social programs such as Oportunidades (a conditional cash transfer program for the poorest Mexican families) with electoral aims and has branded the Social Development Secretariat (Sedesol), "The electoral arm of the PAN." PRI Senate leader Manlio Fabio Beltrones long has pushed for Sedesol to be dissolved and its duties - such as giving cash to Oportunidades recipients - be sent to the state level, where the PRI controls more than half of the governments.

Weldon points out, however, "The federal government doesn’t have money to do vote buying," and that the governors "have taken control of the giving away process."

Many political observers point out that governors from other parties regularly engage in such vices as vote buying and coercion, too.

"What the PAN denounces in Oaxaca the PAN does in Tlaxcala ... and the PRD does in Mexico City," says Aldo Muñoz Armenta, political science professor of the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico.

In Tlaxcala, the PAN leadership has given governor Hector Ruiz free rein to run the party's gubernatorial campaign - which the PAN could win, a possible lesson for a party rife with dissension over the Felipe Calderon-loyal central leadership's eagerness to meddle in local matters. Ruiz has been accused of putting government resources toward the PAN campaign. (Look to Aguascalientes, where the PAN is poised to lose, along with San Luis Potosí, Mazatlán and Mérida for examples of national party meddling leading to electoral disasters.)

In Zacatecas, where the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) is unravelling and expected to lose the governorship to the PRI, the magazine Proceso reported on a video showing state employees plying farmers with cheques and pre-election giveaways.

Other factors may also be at work, including structural differences between federal and state politics and governors now having more money to give away - presumably for legitimate public works.

"There’s an enormous amount of pork being delivered, (more than) in the past," says Federico Estévez, political science professor at ITAM. "There’s a lot of vote-buying out there, but there’s also a lot of public works."

And on the state level, he points out that many governors have the luxury of depending on legislatures split between just two parties as very few states - with the possible exceptions of Michoacan, Tlaxcala, Morelos and Chiapas - feature anything other than two-party political systems. (Mexico City might be the oddest since it's perhaps the only place in the country with PRD-PAN battles as opposed to the usually PRI-PRD or PRI-PAN showdowns. The 2006 federal race between a strong PAN and a strong PRD could be a historical aberration.)

"Governors are taking advantage of their electoral arithmetic," he says. "You don't have much blocking in the states."

Ultimately, Estévez says the problems have been in the democratic reforms, which operated on many false assumptions.

"The flaw isn’t with the governors. The flaw is with the political transition, the democratic reforms," he says.

"They always assumed that what happened at the national level would be replicated inevitably in local politics."

01 July 2010

Sympathy for the PRI?

Priístas head for the exits
Priístas head for the exits after a June 26 campaign rally in Tuxtepec, Oaxaca, featuring State of Mexico Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto.

Federico Arreola, whose incessant tweets - almost all of the anti-Calderón, pro-López Obrador variety -  can be insufferable, often pens excellent columns for Sendero del Peje, a news organization with obvious López Obrador sympathies.

In his July 1 column, he calls the June 28 assassination of Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torre Cantú in Tamaulipas the party's only significant "campaign act" in any of the 12 state and local elections scheduled for July 4.

A series of leaked phone conversations, suggesting improper campaign meddling and use of social programs for electoral purposes by PRI governors, had cast an unfavourable light on the PRI in some of its most notorious bastions of retrograde politics such as Veracruz and Oaxaca. Now, instead of being viewed as presiding over evil empires and stopping at nothing to retain power, the PRI has some sympathy on its side.

Additionally, the assassination is expected to diminish voter turnout - a factor that always benefits the PRI.

"Fear," Arreloa wrote, "Works in favor of the PRI." 

The party depends heavily in many states on its "voto duro" (firm vote) of loyalists, campesinos, unionized workers and government employees - whose jobs depend on the PRI retaining power. The voto duro, along with those lured by its vote-buying schemes and motivated by coercion, is usually enough to win (at the ballot box) unless voter turnout is hight.

The PRI, it must be said, knows how to turn out its vote and is famed in places such as Oaxaca for its year-round organizing and ability to ingratiate itself into the life of every small town and ejido in the state. As one priísta in Oaxaca told me recently, "The PRI organizes all the time. The other parties start organizing three months before an election."

Another factor to watch is the dependability of the PRI vote. As political science professor Federico Estévez of ITAM is fond of pointing out: The PRI vote has stayed roughly the same over the years, while the PAN and PRD votes have varied. The only exception to that might have been the 2006 presidential election, when the party had an unpopular candidate and many priístas drifted over to the campaigns of PRD candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the PAN.

Expect the  PRI's voto duro to deliver on July 4 and the PAN and PRD votes to remain low.