- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 7, 2009

MONTERREY, Mexico

Mexico’s once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, which appeared on the brink of political oblivion just three years ago, staged a stunning comeback in Sunday’s midterm elections to emerge again as the largest bloc in the lower house of Congress.

All 500 members of the Chamber of Deputies, 300 elected directly and 200 by proportional representation, were at stake Sunday, as well as six of the country’s 31 governorships.

President Felipe Calderon’s center-right National Action Party (PAN) fell from first to second place in the lower house, and the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), Sunday’s major loser, dropped from a strong second place to a distant third. This will endanger Mr. Calderon’s legislative agenda for the second half of his six-year term.

A jubilant Beatriz Paredes, president of Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), said at a news conference in Mexico City on Sunday that the PRI’s alliance with the small Green Party would give it a working majority.

She said the election results show “Mexico is a country in search of proposals, in search of solutions, in search of methods.”

“Thank you, Mexico, for your confidence. Your vote demands a commitment from us. You have opted for a new way to the development of the country, for the safeguarding of your jobs and your income, for your security and your families,” she said.

By overseeing the PRI’s comeback, Mrs. Paredes will likely emerge as the party’s front-runner for president in 2012.

By contrast, the PAN president, German Martinez, said he is evaluating whether he should step aside as a result of his party’s drubbing at the polls.

The PRI received 36.5 percent of the 21.6 million votes cast Sunday, the PAN received 27.8 percent, the PRD 12.2 percent and the Green Party won 6.7 percent.

In “fifth place” were null or blank ballots, totaling 1.3 million or 6 percent, double the percentage in previous elections. Other minor parties took the remainder.

The elections managed an anemic turnout of 44 percent, up from 42 percent in the previous midterm elections in 2003.

Just three years ago, the PRI candidate failed to carry a single state in the 2006 presidential election, in which Mr. Calderon narrowly defeated the PRD’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

In the new Chamber of Deputies, the PRI will have 233 seats, more than double what it won in 2006, and the Green Party will have 22, up from 17, a potential working majority of 255.

The PAN fell from 206 seats to 146, and the PRD from 127 seats to 72.

The 124-member Senate is elected in presidential years. The PAN currently holds 43 seats, the PRI 27 and the PRD 26.

Mr. Calderon addressed the nation on Sunday night, but did not refer specifically to his party’s defeat. Instead, he congratulated voters for participating and said, “Today, our political process is more open than ever. Democracy always has the last word. This election has given us another opportunity to improve the electoral system, to give us a country that is distinct and better.”

Without referring specifically to the PRI, he called for “collaboration and co-responsibility to confront the great challenges facing the country.”

“We will work together for the good of the country, for education, health, the environment and security,” he said.

The PAN also was dealt serious psychological blows in the governor’s races, losing Queretaro, which it had held for 18 years, and San Luis Potosi, which it won for the first time in 2003. It failed a second time to recapture the important northern industrial state of Nuevo Leon, which it had won for the first time in 1997, and lost control of the state legislature.

The only bright spot for the PAN was winning the northwestern state of Sonora for the first time after two near-misses, and retaining the mayoralty of Monterrey, capital of Nuevo Leon, a city of 3.5 million people that was one of the PAN’s early success stories.

The PRI easily retained the governorships of Campeche, on the Yucatan Peninsula, and tiny Colima on the Pacific coast.

State governorships are important in the Mexican political system because of political patronage and as a traditional proving ground for possible national leaders.

Contrary to expectations, the elections were not marred by the drug-related violence that has become the country’s major political issue, along with the slowdown in economic growth. The violence, which claimed more than 4,000 lives last year and could exceed that this year, has created a climate of fear in northern Mexico.

The Mexican army had dispatched 8,500 soldiers to safeguard Sunday’s election.

The election was marred only by the usual charges that the PRI was bribing voters with groceries in states it controlled.

There was a demonstration against the existing party system Sunday night at the Angel of Independence Monument in Mexico City.

“We have a party system; what we don’t have is citizen participation,” lamented Lucrecia Lozano, director of the division of humanities and social sciences at the Monterrey-based Technological Institute of Superior Studies, in a television interview.

Perhaps representative of the resentment is Manuel Ramirez, who said he has spent 34 of his 50 years eking out a living as owner of a tiny tire-repair shop in Monterrey. He said all parties are corrupt, but said he would vote for the PRI.

“At least they know what it’s like to work,” he said. “The PAN is just corrupt businessmen.”

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