In a surprise move, Mexico’s ruling party appears poised to name a woman as its candidate for governor of Baja California, helping to set the stage for a critical electoral contest that has drawn international attention and is expected to test the limits of Mexican democracy.
The likely candidate, Margarita Ortega Villa, 37, a party stalwart who now serves as one of two senators representing Baja in Mexico City, had been considered a long shot in the highly competitive race for the next six-year term. The election will be held July 2.
Important sectors of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by the acronym PRI, announced support Tuesday for Ortega’s candidacy, sending political analysts scurrying for explanations. The move, undoubtedly taken on direction from the president’s office in Mexico City, came during the PRI’s continuing convention in Mexicali, the state capital.
One observer said the selection of Ortega, a sociologist and Baja native, was now “99.9 % certain,” although her candidacy must still be approved by the full party convention.
Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari apparently believes Ortega to be the right candidate. By custom, the president, standard bearer for the PRI, hand-picks the party’s gubernatorial candidates, who have never lost an election since the party’s emergence following the 1910-17 revolution. In Mexico’s heavily centralized system, the governors are considered the president’s personal representatives. The selection of the Baja candidate had been considered one of Salinas’ most important political challenges.
Salinas, elected by a bare majority last year, has said he is committed to a political opening of the system in which the PRI has long served as a one-party monolith, dominating every aspect of the nation’s political life. Skeptics have questioned his desire for change, and many experts see Baja as a litmus test.
Although home to fewer than 4 million people, Baja is considered a vital part of the national economy. The area’s tourism and assembly-plant industries provide Mexico City with much-needed foreign revenue. The state’s location on the U.S.-Mexico border provides added importance, as well as increasing the scrutiny of the U.S. press.
The principal challenge to the PRI in Baja will probably come from the National Action Party, which is expected to nominate Ernesto Ruffo Appel, popular ex-mayor of Ensenada, as its candidate. Polls have already shown Ruffo defeating any PRI candidate, Mexican newspapers have reported. In Baja, the governor’s race has dominated political discussion for months.
Less attention was paid to Ortega than to other high-profile prospective PRI candidates, notably Gustavo Almaraz Montano, another Baja senator said to be close to Salinas; Rene Trevino Arredondo, former mayor of Tijuana, and Eduardo Martinez Palomera, former mayor of Mexicali.
If elected, Ortega would be the third woman governor in Mexico’s history, but the first in Baja.
Miguel Cervantes Sahagun contributed to this story from Mexico City.