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Salinas’ Political Courage

Mexico’s reformist President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has made some courageous decisions since he took office last year, pledging to bring change to a troubled nation. But his most dramatic and profound change of direction so far came this week when his ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party conceded the gubernatorial election in Baja California to a rival party.

The PRI, as it is commonly known to Mexicans, had never lost an election for president or governor since it was founded 60 years ago. While the official results of Sunday’s election in Baja California won’t be known for a few more days, PRI President Luis Donaldo Colosio said in Mexico City that results compiled by the party’s own experts showed Ernesto Ruffo Appel, the candidate of the National Action Party (PAN) had won.

The remarkable PRI concession surprised long-time observers of Mexican politics, who had expected party officials to pull out all the stops in order to win an election that was being closely watched. In recent years, as PRI’s once powerful hold on the Mexican electorate has begun to weaken, the party’s tactics have sometimes included electoral fraud. And while there were suspicious incidents reported before and during the voting in Baja California, it appears the vote count is being honestly conducted and that Ruffo, who was a popular mayor of Ensenada, will control the state house in Mexicali come December.

Clearly most of the credit for Ruffo’s victory belongs to PAN, which organized a large andeffective campaign organization. PAN had enough poll watchers, for example, to prevent fraud even where local PRI officials might have been tempted to try it. But, given the brazenness with which PRI operatives stole other recent elections, some credit also must be given to Salinas, who had the political will to accept defeat when Mexican voters decreed it.

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The PRI was founded in the aftermath of the long and bloody Mexican Revolution by survivors who wanted to end the political chaos. They created a tight, disciplined structure that was so closely aligned with the Mexican government that it has been hard to tell them apart. The ties are still close, which is why it is safe to assume Salinas was involved in the decision by PRI leaders to admit defeat. Salinas often has said privately that PRI must change with the times. This is the most solid evidence yet that he is determined to follow through on that pledge.

With only 3 million people, Baja California is not a major Mexican state. But it has a vibrant, fast-growing economy and is strategically located on the U.S. border, south of California. In many ways, it is a window on the modern world that Mexico wants to play a major role in, come the 21st Century. Now it is a political test case. PAN must prove it can govern the state better than PRI, a boast its leaders often make but have never had to live up to. For Mexico’s tough young president, the test will be working with a governor who is not a proconsul but a potential rival.


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