- The Washington Times - Monday, July 5, 2004

ZACATECAS, Mexico - Voters opted for the status quo in three closely watched gubernatorial elections Sunday, but the strongest signal to this country’s three major parties may have come from those who stayed home.

The once-monopolistic Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) proved it is still a potent force, easily retaining the governorships of Chihuahua, which it took back six years ago from President Vicente Fox’s conservative National Action Party (PAN), and of its longtime stronghold of Durango.

The center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) held on to power in Zacatecas, which six years ago became the first state to elect a PRD governor — Ricardo Monreal, who now has presidential aspirations.

As of noon yesterday, the PRD candidate, Amalia Garcia, 52, a member of the lower house of Congress, had 46.1 percent of the vote, 3 points higher than Mr. Monreal’s share in 1998. Jose Bonilla of the PRI had 33.4 percent and Francisco Lopez of the PAN had 14.7 percent, with 95 percent of precincts counted.

“We are going to govern for the peasants and for the businessmen,” Mrs. Garcia told cheering supporters Sunday night as a rare desert thunderstorm began. “We are going to govern with efficiency, with honesty, with transparency.”

The PRI margins of victory in Chihuahua and Durango also were higher than in 1998.

In Chihuahua, Jose Reyes Baeza, 42, a PRI congressman, got 57 percent of the votes cast, compared with 43 percent for Sen. Javier Corral of the PAN. In Durango, Ismael Hernandez of the PRI had 56 percent to 29 percent for Andres Galvan of the PAN. A leftist coalition took the remainder.

The next showdown comes Aug. 1 in the gubernatorial, legislative and municipal races of neighboring Aguascalientes, a small but wealthy state the PAN captured for the first time in 1998. PAN candidate Luis Armando, a former mayor of the state capital, also called Aguascalientes, is favored over Sen. Carlos Lopez Velarde of the PRI.

Voter turnout seemed slightly better than the 42 percent in last year’s midterm congressional elections, but remains well below the 63.9 percent of eligibles who voted in the 2000 presidential election. Voter apathy appears to be becoming a regular feature of Mexican politics.

Of the 50 percent turnout Sunday in Durango, Gov.-elect Hernandez said: “The low turnout doesn’t delegitimize the process, but I certainly would have liked it if the citizens had shown more interest.” The turnout in Zacatecas was about 54 percent, the same as 1998.

Other new phenomena in Mexican politics include U.S.-style campaign advertising and constantly shifting alliances of the major parties with smaller parties or with each other.

In Chihuahua, for example, the PAN and PRD formed an unusual right-left electoral coalition, while the PRI had an alliance with the Labor Party (PT), the Green Party (PVEM) and Convergence. In Durango, the PRD, PT and Convergence formed a coalition. In Zacatecas, it was the PRI, the PT and the PVEM.

What does this political alphabet soup bode for the 2006 presidential election, and beyond that, for Mexican democracy?

“We have formal political parties, but they don’t have any program for the future,” complained Raul Delgado, a social science professor and development specialist at the University of Zacatecas, who is frequently interviewed by the Mexican press on political issues.

“They can form any kind of alliances,” he went on. “They are not very pragmatically oriented. None of the parties in Mexico have any identity. They have schizophrenia.”

In an interview here with The Washington Times, Mr. Delgado said Mrs. Garcia’s victory “is not as important [nationally] as it was with Monreal, but it’s going to help the PRD a little. Also, Amalia is a woman, and that’s very important.”

He explained that she is the daughter of a former ambassador and PRI governor of Zacatecas, and was once active in the Mexican Communist Party, but drifted toward the center to become a PRD activist. In the late 1990s, she was the national PRD president.

Contrary to popular belief, Mr. Delgado said, the PRD “is not your traditional leftist party.”

“They don’t have any identity.”

Referring to the party’s yellow symbol, he said, “We have a joke here that the PRD is the PRI with hepatitis.”

Part of the parties’ problems, he said, is the “huge support from the federal government,” a far cry from the day when the PRI controlled the government at all levels and shut out opposition parties.

“I’m not sure, but I think it’s the highest rate [of government support] in the world. Just look at all the advertising. You see trash messages. You don’t learn anything about the candidates or their programs,” he added.

Mr. Delgado also attributed growing voter disaffection, just 15 years after the 1989 electoral reforms that made multiparty democracy a reality, to what he called “a very closed political class.”

“It’s very difficult to see candidates from outside the political class.”

Mr. Fox, he said, is an exception, adding that the Fox administration has proved a disappointment to Mexicans and his victory divided the PAN between traditionalists and outsiders.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with the PAN,” the social scientist said. “The PAN is having a lot of problems because Fox is not of the traditional political class of the PAN, and they don’t consider him one of the PAN — even though he’s the president.”

Mr. Fox is barred from seeking re-election is 2006. Widely mentioned as potential PAN candidates to succeed him are his interior secretary, Santiago Creel, and a traditionalist and former party president, Felipe Calderon, who resigned in a huff last month after Mr. Fox chastised him for reputedly campaigning on government time.

Mr. Fox is rumored to favor a third candidate: His wife, Martha Sahagun.

“For me, she’s like a clown,” Mr. Delgado said. “She’s good for the political cartoonists, but I wouldn’t take her seriously.”

[One of Mr. Fox’s top aides resigned yesterday over Mrs. Sahagun’s presidential aspirations, wire services reported from Mexico City.

[“I cannot ignore the implications of the first lady’s inclusion in the eventual list of presidential candidates for the National Action Party, the president’s spokesman and personal secretary, Alfonso Durazo, said in his letter of resignation.

[“Surely, the country has progressed politically for a woman to become president of the republic, but it is not ready for the president to let his wife succeed him as president,” Mr. Durazo said.]

Mr. Delgado said Mrs. Sahagun was the focus of a credibility scandal involving her charitable foundation, Vamos Mexico. For one thing, he said, she said that Bill Gates had contributed to it; Mr. Gates said he did not.

The professor confided that although he was gratified in a way to see the PRI lose the presidency in 2000 after 71 years, “Fox has done a bad job, and now there are some people who will want to return to the past.”

The PRI is also divided into two factions — the so-called “dinosaurs,” or traditionalists, and the reformers who have ruled the party since 1988 but are blamed by the dinosaurs for Mr. Fox’s victory in 2000.

Roberto Madrazo, a former governor of Tabasco state and the current PRI president, is a dinosaur who craves the presidential nomination. He campaigned in Chihuahua and Durango last week for the winning candidates, racking up political IOUs.

But Mr. Delgado said that Mr. Madrazo is not very popular outside the dinosaur faction. “He’s an ally of the mafia inside the PRI, who control the party with not very good manners,” he said.

The person to watch in the PRI, the professor insisted, is Beatriz Paredes, a former president of the lower house of Congress and now head of the Colosio Foundation, a PRI think tank named for Luis Donaldo Colosio, the PRI reformist presidential candidate assassinated in 1994.

The foundation, Mr. Delgado explained, “makes strategic plans for the party and for the PRI state governors — even though they don’t follow them.”

“She’s not a dinosaur,” he said. “She’s got more of a nationalistic vision for the country. She’s a very smart woman and would make a very good candidate.

“I know a lot of people who know what’s going on [inside the PRI], and they say she’s one of the aces in the hole.” Even the younger PRD has developed factionalism. Mr. Delgado explained that Mr. Monreal had his own choice to succeed him in Zacatecas, but the national party imposed Mrs. Garcia’s candidacy.

Mr. Monreal’s presidential ambitions, he said with a chuckle, “are not reality.”

Mexico City Mayor Manuel Andres Lopez Obrador of the PRD was once leading in the polls over any other candidate from any party, but has slid in public esteem because of complicated legal issues involving the Mexico City government and a bribery scandal involving one of his former lieutenants, whom he fired.

Mr. Lopez Obrador claims Mr. Fox orchestrated the scandals.

“Lopez Obrador isn’t dead yet,” Mr. Delgado said.

Mexico’s governorships, once virtually assigned by the president through the PRI, have become important bellwethers of party strength and proving grounds for the parties’ ability to govern. Mr. Fox was governor of Guanajuato. A majority of Mexicans now live in areas governed by parties other than the PRI.

Since the PRI lost its monopoly on power, the PAN has won 10 of the 31 governorships, although Chihuahua and Nuevo Leon later returned to the PRI. Besides Aguascalientes, the party still governs Baja California Norte, Guanajuato, Jalisco (Guadalajara), Queretaro, Morelos, San Luis Potosi and Yucatan.

The PRD won control of the government of the Federal District (Mexico City) in 1997. After Zacatecas, it went on to win in Baja California Sur, Chiapas, Tlaxcala and Michoacan. A PAN-PRD-PT coalition won in Nayarit in 1999.

Political scientists like Mr. Delgado are not the only ones here who grumble about Mexico’s political parties. The complaint most often heard in the streets is the same heard in the United States; namely, that the parties are all alike and they don’t keep their promises.

Fairly typical is Jesus Navavasquez, 70, who works in the public works department of the Zacatecas state government. Although he conceded that having parties to choose among is preferable to the PRI’s old monopoly, he added: “The parties all come and ask us for our vote, and afterwards they don’t know us any more.”

His friend and co-worker, Antonio Rojas, 64, voiced another frequently heard complaint, that the Monreal government focused too much on public works and not enough on the social programs he promised.

“Sure, he built lots of roads and bridges, but the worker still loses,” he said.

Mr. Delgado confirmed that the mood on the street is valid.

“Monreal told me himself: ‘I want to do things that people can see. I don’t care about the long term,’” he said.

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