- The Washington Times - Monday, August 2, 2004

TIJUANA, Mexico — Mexico’s former ruling party appeared to have survived a strong challenge in a key southern state and to have won a stunning upset in Tijuana, where a racetrack operator might be the next mayor, according to election returns yesterday.

Candidates in both races have promised to mount legal challenges that could drag on for weeks. But if the results hold, they would boost the morale of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), whose 71-year-old hold on the presidency ended in 2000 with the election of Vicente Fox.

The results also would help the presidential chances of PRI national leader Roberto Madrazo, whose party, although in opposition, remains Mexico’s largest and best organized.

With 89 percent of the vote counted in Tijuana, flamboyant gambling magnate Jorge Hank Rhon of the PRI had a one-percentage-point lead over Jorge Ramos of Mr. Fox’s National Action Party (PAN).

The son of fabled PRI godfather Carlos Hank Gonzalez, Mr. Hank Rhon came back from a double-digit deficit in the polls by spending heavily and treating would-be voters to parties on the grounds of his inoperative Caliente horse racetrack.

The father of 18 children and owner of a large private zoo, Mr. Hank Rhon has estimated his wealth at $500 million, part of it inherited from his father and part built on profits from a nationwide network of sports bookmaking operations.

In 1988, two of his employees were convicted of killing a Tijuana journalist who had reported on corruption for the crusading weekly Zeta.

PAN has controlled Tijuana for 15 years. In 1989, Baja California became the first state in 60 years to elect a non-PRI governor, paving the way for Mr. Fox’s historic presidential victory in 2000.

The PRI also claimed a contested victory in Oaxaca, a party stronghold that had been under siege by a coalition that included Mr. Fox’s party and the leftist Democratic Revolution Party.

With 90 percent of the votes counted, the PRI’s Ulises Ruiz had 47.2 percent compared with 44.7 percent for opposition candidate Gabino Cue.

Mr. Cue charged that the official returns had been manipulated and promised legal challenges — to the federal Supreme Electoral Tribunal, if necessary, in a process that could take months.

He said he was suspicious of the halting, wobbly official computer reports of the results, which at one point showed that more than 100 percent of the votes had been counted in some districts.

“I don’t have the slightest doubt that we won the election,” he said.

The formal legal vote count takes place Wednesday in the state’s 25 electoral districts. Mr. Cue has three days after that tally is completed to file legal challenges.

Mr. Ruiz accused Mr. Cue of trying to undermine a legitimate election.

He had led the Oaxaca part of Mr. Madrazo’s 2002 campaign for the PRI party leadership. The landslide Mr. Ruiz delivered here pushed the former Tabasco state governor to victory.

A victory in Oaxaca would help the PRI shore up its southern base, which also is Mr. Madrazo’s center of power.

It also would mark a triumph over several Madrazo rivals who had almost openly backed Mr. Cue in hopes of halting the PRI leader’s possible march to the presidential candidacy in 2006.

During the campaign, Mr. Ruiz demanded that a former governor and the party secretary-general be expelled from the party amid accusations that they helped Mr. Cue.

Mr. Madrazo, who espouses a sort of business-friendly populism, has steadily run second to Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in presidential popularity polls.

Still, Mr. Madrazo’s party is larger and better organized than that of Mr. Lopez Obrador, who lost a disputed 1994 gubernatorial race to Mr. Madrazo in Tabasco. Although Mexico’s federal attorney general’s office said it proved massive campaign-financing violations by Mr. Madrazo, state officials shelved the charges.

PAN’s Luis Armando Reynoso Femat easily defeated the PRI’s Oscar Lopez Velarde in the only other gubernatorial race on Sunday, holding the state of Aguascalientes for Mr. Fox’s party.

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