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Official Tally of Baja Votes to Culminate Hectic Period

Times Staff Writer

The continuing electoral drama of Baja California probably will reach its climax today, when a nominally independent state electoral commission is scheduled to release official results from last Sunday’s elections.

In accordance with Mexican law, representatives of all political parties are slated to be present as state election officials tally the ballots, which have been stored under Army guard in a number of sites statewide.

The actions will culminate a draining week of speculation, charges, rallies, press conferences and confrontations, as Baja endured its most contentious election in its quarter-century as a state.

The most significant bombshell was dropped last Tuesday, when the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, made the stunning announcement in Mexico City that electoral tendencies in the governor’s race “favored” the candidate of the opposition National Action Party--a de facto admission of defeat in this border state.

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If that result is confirmed by the electoral commission today, it will mark the first modern-day loss of a governorship for the PRI during its six-decade domination of Mexican politics.

But the PAN, as the National Action Party is known, wants more than the governor’s chair.

Trying to Guard Victory

Having apparently scored that historic victory, PAN leaders have been concentrating their efforts in recent days on guarding that victory and ensuring their proclaimed triumph in a number of legislative and mayoral races.

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Still unanswered in the electoral puzzle is the question of 15 state legislative and four mayoral seats that were also contested in Sunday’s vote. Both the ruling party and the opposition have claimed majority victories in those elections.

Meanwhile, Ernesto Ruffo Appel, the 37-year-old U.S.-born candidate who is the likely governor-elect, has held victory appearances throughout the state, including a festive rally Tuesday night before several thousand jubilant supporters in downtown Tijuana.

“We will break the chains of corruption,” Ruffo told the crowd.

Leaders of all opposition parties have promised to maintain a constant vigil at the sites, mostly schools, where the results of Sunday’s elections are being maintained. Many are suspect of the supposed independence of the state electoral commission.

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“We must be ever vigilant,” declared Juan Manuel Salazar, president of the PAN campaign committee in Tijuana. Indeed, dozens of opposition representatives have maintained a vigil outside the Tijuana school where the city’s electoral results are being held. Pointedly, the PAN held last Tuesday’s rally at the spot. PRI officials with boxes of presumably phony ballots have reportedly been sighted near the school.

The opposition’s vigilance, analysts say, illustrates an unprecedented election oversight effort by minority parties that many believe prevented the ruling party from succeeding in any large-scale effort to rig the election. Thousands of volunteers manned voting sites throughout the state, seeking to prevent fraud. The PRI has long been accused of rigging elections, including contests in Baja in 1968 and 1983.

Throughout Baja California, there was still widespread shock and disbelief last week at the apparent decision by the ruling PRI to acknowledge defeat in the governor’s race. Many said they won’t believe it until the results are official.

Waiting for Official Tally

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On Wednesday, the situation was further complicated when PRI officials in Mexicali, the state capital, said they were not recognizing the “supposed” victory of the opposition until official numbers were available. But PAN leaders described the apparent backsliding as simple face-saving. They maintain that their gubernatorial nominee, Ruffo, has amassed more than 200,000 votes, giving him a more-than 50,000 vote margin over the PRI candidate.

Ruling-party functionaries have attempted to put the best light on the defeat, portraying it as the latest example of the nationwide democratic opening orchestrated by Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the PRI standard-bearer, who took office Dec. 1 after an election that critics say was rigged.

Baja was one of a handful of states where Salinas was defeated--although, ironically, left-of-center presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas was triumphant here. The PAN, a right-wing, pro-business party, appears to have won the governor’s seat in Sunday’s election.

The left-to-right switch, experts say, points to the fact that personalities are often more important here than the political agendas of the candidates. Both Cardenas and Ruffo remain very popular.

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Why does the PRI appear ready to recognize a loss in the governor’s race? Opposition leaders say the PRI had no choice but to recognize a clear triumph for the opposition. The PAN has the voting-precinct documentation, signed by all party representatives, to demonstrate its victory, experts note.

“This is a triumph of the people, not of any democratic movement by the PRI,” said Sonia Flores, an activist for a left-of-center minority party.

In an odd and singular alliance, the leftist opposition had joined with the rightist PAN in one of the most extensive “defend the vote” campaigns ever seen in Mexico. Their strategy apparently worked.

“I’m as happy as the PANistas,” said Flores, reflecting a widespread sense of exhilaration about the apparent opposition triumph. “The most important thing was to defeat the PRI.”

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As word of the PAN victory has spread, however, there was some fear of confrontations between PRI loyalists and opposition party members. Several near-incidents have been diffused. The PRI has accused PANistas of violent acts in Ensenada and elsewhere--assertions denied by the PAN. Rumors of prospective trouble have been abounding.

With the governor’s race apparently a fait accompli , much of the attention here is focusing on the lesser contests.

The PRI has stated that it is leading in 12 of the 15 legislative races and in three of the mayoral contests--in Tijuana, the state’s largest city, in Mexicali, the state capital, and in Tecate, a small city east of Tijuana.

But the PAN says it won the mayoral races in Tijuana and Ensenada, the latter being the home city of Ruffo, the PAN gubernatorial candidate and apparent governor-elect. The Tecate mayoral contest is believed to be close. In addition, the PAN says it probably has already clinched at least 10 of the 15 legislative seats, including all six representing Tijuana, two of six from Mexicali and two from Ensenada.

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Control Is Crucial

Control of the legislature and mayoralties is considered crucial, as continued PRI dominance of these bodies could presumably undermine a PAN-led state government. “We need these positions to carry out our programs,” said Carlos Montejo Favela, the PAN candidate for mayor of Tijuana.

PAN leaders say they have no intention of working out any kind of deal that would leave them with the governorship but force them to concede other hard-won posts to the PRI. “There is no negotiation,” Ruffo said last week.

As for the party’s future state legislature program, PAN leaders said a priority will be revising electoral laws to open up a political process long dominated by one party, the PRI.

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“We want to. . .give the PRI a chance, legally, to recoup the positions that they lost,” said Salvador Rosas Magallon, a long-time party stalwart of the PAN. “The PRI is now an opposition party in Baja California.”

The PAN’s specific program here is still fuzzy, although its plans do include encouraging more private and foreign investment and rooting out state corruption. The PRI has proclaimed the same themes.

At the sprawling PRI complex in Tijuana, just across the border from San Diego, there has been stunned disbelief at the prospect of a loss by a party, that, for many, had long been synonymous with the government. Long faces were everywhere.

But party officials have vowed to pursue every vote. A leading party functionary denounced alleged election-day intimidation by PAN activists, suggesting that the opposition tactics could lead to an annulment of results from some electoral districts.

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“This is a difficult and sad day, but it is also a day that represents a new era in Mexico’s democratic development,” said Bernardo Sanchez Rios, PRI chairman in Tijuana, who added that a major overhaul of the party machinery is likely. “We are prepared to be the opposition party, and to fight for our program.”

With the city abuzz, post-mortems of the 11-week campaign have been manifold.

The vote, observers said, underscores a national distrust and distaste for PRI leadership, which critics characterize as corrupt, inefficient and ill-suited for modern Mexico. Exacerbating the PRI’s problems is the fact that it is often identified with Mexico’s continuing economic woes, or “crisis.”

“The crisis also votes,” noted Angel Trinidad Ferreira, a political columnist for the Mexico City newspaper El Universal.

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There was also a widespread belief that the PRI gubernatorial campaign faltered despite expenditures of more than $4 million--more than 20 times the amount that the PAN says it spent. Many say the PRI campaign leaders were inexperienced, as the gubernatorial nominee, Margarita Ortega Villa, 38, chose her own new-generation contemporaries to work at her side. Many old-time PRI politicos, experienced in winning--and rigging--elections, were reportedly excluded until the final days of the campaign, when it may have been too late.

“The PRI campaign was a failure,” concluded J. Jesus Blancornelas, editor of the Tijuana weekly Zeta.


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