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.

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