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In Conceding One Election, Salinas Tempts Fate

<i> Jorge G. Castaneda is a professor of political science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. </i>

For the first time in modern Mexican history, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has conceded loss in a state governorship election. The new governor of Baja California is Ernesto Ruffo Appel of the PAN (National Action Party).

The decision to accept the government party’s defeat was President Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s. It was the right decision, and he deserves credit for it. But this historic change in Mexican politics--the first truly important transformation wrought by the Salinas administration--cannot mask the context in which it took place, the reasons that brought it about and the problems that are left pending. Each of these nuances is important; together, they raise serious questions about the situation in Mexico.

To begin with, if the decision to recognize defeat was Salinas’, the previous decision to try and win by hook or by crook also was his.

The entire electoral process, right up to election night on Sunday, was marred by the traditional Mexican election vices. Massive funds were transferred from a government bank into the coffers of PRI candidate Margarita Ortega Villa; electoral rolls were padded to include thousands of ghost voters, while the names of thousands of PAN sympathizers were “shaved” from the rolls; ballot boxes were tampered with on election day. Salinas had committed himself personally to Ortega’s campaign, appearing on nationwide television with her four days before the election.

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Polls published before the election showed either a dead heat or the PRI ahead by a small margin. The PRI, having tried to avoid defeat literally at any cost, was caught by surprise by the margin of Ruffo’s victory--15% to 20% over Ortega--and by the scope of his party’s operations to defend its vote at every precinct. This does not not detract from the merit of Salinas’ concession, but does qualify it.

As of Wednesday, while the PRI had accepted defeat in the gubernatorial race, it was claiming victory for its candidates in Mexicali, Tijuana and Tecate, as well as in the state legislature. The PAN, charging that PRI was still trying to steal the election, claimed victory in the legislature as well as in Tijuana, Tecate and Ensenada, where Ruffo was mayor.

In Michoacan, the PRI was still following its policy of trying to steal the state legislature election, where the opposition is the Cardenista, left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). As in Baja California, the authorities had prepared for a narrow opposition victory, which they believed they could overturn by careful, relatively limited (10%-15%) “modern” tampering--ghost voters, “shaving” the electoral rolls, etc. This system worked in Chihuahua, where a low voter turnout and a close race allowed the PRI to win virtually every municipality. But it proved insufficient in Michoacan; thus, “old-fashioned” tactics were resorted to: expulsion of opposition poll watchers, ballot-box stuffing, forgeries or “lost” tally sheets and so on. Again, the authorities were caught by surprise by the breadth of the opposition victory--between 18% and 20%, according to PRD figures backed by official vote tally sheets.

PRI national chairman Luis Donaldo Colosio, in the same speech in which he conceded Baja California, claimed 10 of 18 seats for the PRI in the Michoacan legislature, despite PRD figures showing it had won 15 of 18 seats, with more than 52% of the vote. The PRD leader Cuauhtemoc Cardenas is not the only one in Mexico suspicious that the government will use the PAN’s victory in the north to cover up fraud and an illegitimate PRI victory in the center of the country.

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It is important to note that beyond the spectacular nature of the PAN victory in Baja California, and the less important but not inconsequential triumph by the PRD in Michoacan, the election results tell a new story about public opinion nationwide: that where voters have a choice in contested elections, they are against the ruling party, in proportions similar to those of last year’s presidential elections. In a modern, urban, literate, right-of-center, booming northern state, the PRI lost overwhelmingly; in a rural, backward central state plunged in economic crisis, it did so, too.

While Salinas’ personal popularity may continue to be enhanced by the changes he is bringing to Mexican politics, his party and his government continue to be trapped in the age-old dilemma: The PRI and the government can win a tampered-with election or lose a clean one; they cannot emerge victorious in a clean contest.

Salinas has decided to try the second option--losing--in contrast to his predecessors who all followed the first road-- fraud. It is a better choice for Mexico, but if it is followed through to the end, it probably means that the PRI will lose nearly every election in sight. A sobering thought, in a moment of celebration for the country.


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