ANALYSIS : Baja: Pluralism Test Ground for Mexico Politics


With the inauguration this week of Ernesto Ruffo Appel as the first opposition governor in modern Mexico, the state of Baja California becomes a laboratory for Mexico's experiment in political pluralism.

For six decades the Institutional Revolutionary Party has held the presidency, every governorship, majorities in the national congress and in all the state legislatures. The PRI, as it is called, has dominated public life.

Ruffo, a member of the conservative National Action Party, now holds one of Mexico's 31 governorships. But unlike his predecessors he does not command a majority in the state legislature, which he needs to make laws. The National Action Party elected mayors in Tijuana and Ensenada, but the PRI held on to city hall in Tecate and the state capital, Mexicali.

With this mix, the inauguration of an opposition governor represents more than just a new party in power; Ruffo proposes to change the very way government works in Mexico.

"The challenge, in my judgment, is for citizens to recognize and live the advantages of public participation," Ruffo said in a recent interview. "Citizens should form groups with a public spirit. They should watch their government and force it to work."

Under the PRI, government and party have been virtually indistinguishable. The party's colors are those of the national flag, and government officials distribute land, jobs, contracts and concessions in the name of the party.

In the PRI system, labor and community groups belong to the party, and their leaders traditionally have been selected by party officials, rather than by the membership of the groups. The leaders' power stems from their ability to extract favors through their government connections.

No more, Ruffo says, not in Baja California.

Baja California, on Mexico's northern border, has the most educated and urban population in the country. Ruffo believes that the vote of these people last July was a mandate for change, as was the state's vote for leftist leader Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in the 1988 presidential election. Ruffo says he has plenty of changes in mind.

Already, Ruffo has taken the unprecedented step of naming three respected PRI members to his Cabinet; one has been named attorney general. This, he said, is to show that appointees are selected for their skills, rather than for party affiliation. It is also a sign of his conciliatory nature.

In another break with tradition, Ruffo says he will stop the government practice of paying journalists who write favorably about the government and of placing paid advertisements that appear to be news articles. The result of these payoffs, he said, "is that people do not believe in newspapers or in television, where they only hear the official line."

Ruffo plans to raise the salaries of state police officers and promises to jail anyone caught taking bribes or stealing. In his inauguration speech, he announced the creation of a new state prosecutor's unit to hear citizens' complaints about official violations of their human rights.

Vows No Witch Hunt

Ruffo said he will not launch a witch hunt, but added that if he uncovers evidence of corruption from past PRI governments, the state will prosecute. He acknowledged, however, that the outgoing administration is not likely to have left a trail of receipts for stolen goods.

Soon after taking office last year, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari replaced the PRI governor of Baja California, Xicotencatl Leyva Mortera, who was widely viewed as corrupt. Speculation has been mounting that Leyva, who was dismissed from a diplomatic post because he failed to file financial disclosure forms, may be arrested by federal authorities on corruption charges.

Several of the former governor's former associates have been charged in connection with government scandals.

Leyva is generally blamed for the PRI's political setback in Baja California. In addition to the alleged corruption, Leyva inadvertantly raised Ruffo's profile as the opposition mayor of Ensenada by squeezing his city budget.

The scrappy mayor fought back. Saying he could no longer afford city sweepers, he personally took to the streets with a broom. Soon townspeople turned out to help him, and Ruffo became a hero.

Political analysts say this incident explains why they expect the PRI federal government to cooperate with Ruffo rather than attempt to undermine him. A repeat performance, they say, might push Ruffo into the presidency.

At the national level, PRI officials seem to be aware of that risk and the risk of international scorn. Baja California is Mexico's window to the United States and the Pacific Rim. The state is a leading base for maquiladoras , the foreign-owned assembly plants, as well as an important tourist center and a key earner of foreign currency--dollars.

Ruffo is banking on this profile when he says he expects the federal government to compete with his administration positively rather than to block state and federal projects here.

"If the federal government takes a negative competitive attitude," he said, "the people will perceive it and it will hurt them. . . . Instead, I think there is going to be a competition to see who can better serve the people."

His optimism is clearly a strategy to avoid early confrontation, but there are signs that he may be right.

Ruffo's victory fits into President Salinas' program of political and economic reform. Many of Ruffo's democratic goals are those Salinas says he is trying to bring about in his own party and government, although Salinas' program has led to charges that he is engaged in "selective democracy."

On the same day as the election in Baja California, voters in Michoacan voted for a state legislature. The PRI claimed victory there over cries of fraud by the left-of-center Democratic Revolutionary Party, whose leader, Cardenas, is a native son.

The ruling party has long been accused of stealing elections, including the 1983 mayoral race in Mexicali. The federal government denied fraud charges in Michoacan, but when PRI officials in Baja California appeared poised to steal the governorship from Ruffo, Salinas intervened. The president of the National Action Party announced Ruffo's victory in Mexico City over protests from stunned party officials in Baja California.

Salinas invited Ruffo to be on hand Wednesday for his first state-of-the-nation speech in Mexico City, and afterward they flew together to Mexicali for Ruffo's inauguration. In a speech here, the president emphasized his commitment to work with Ruffo.

The state PRI does not appear to be quite as eager to do the same. Before leaving office, the interim governor approved a 25% pay increase for state employees that Ruffo says will overextend his budget. He said the outgoing PRI legislature reclassified thousands of state workers from political appointees to civil service, limiting the number of people Ruffo can bring in.

Strange Role for PRI

State PRI officials appear to be divided over how to deal with their new role as the opposition. Some have branded the PRI members in Ruffo's Cabinet as traitors.

"There is a lot of confusion and division among PRI leaders," said Martin de la Rosa, a political analyst at the Center for Historical Research. "Some say the party should use its unions and organizations to provoke the new government. Others think this could backfire. There is an internal crisis."

Some analysts expect Ruffo to have a confrontation with PRI unions and other interest groups--from party-connected block leaders to taxi cooperatives and agricultural interests--that are threatened by the new government. Since their government connections will not be what they were, these people are not likely to be able to deliver the same benefits to their supporters.

Tonatiuh Guillen, a political analyst at Northern Border College, cited the example of PRI government officials allowing union leaders to distribute lucrative bus and taxi routes. Many PRI union leaders also own scarce taxi licenses and have been allowed to rent them out to drivers.

"They became bosses instead of union leaders," Guillen said. "The concessions never depended on quality of service but on commitment to the leader. . . . Ruffo creates a problem of legitimacy for these leaders" Such contradictions work in Ruffo's favor. While his aides and officials come largely from the private sector and claim a businessman's efficiency, they have no experience in state government.

Ruffo, 37, was born in the United States and raised in Baja California. He worked for many years in a joint U.S.-Mexican seafood processing company before becoming mayor of Ensenada. He is small and balding with a gentle face, and he is refreshingly short on rhetoric.

Many analysts say they believe Ruffo and his government will be more honest than most. They say the key change will be in the new government's relationship with citizen groups. Ruffo wants community participation in building houses and paving streets. Among National Action Party people, he is relatively liberal; he says private enterprise must help finance the construction of new housing.

"This breaks the old scheme of an omnipresent state and a weak society," analyst De la Rosa said. "By contrast, you will see a more robust, more active society."

That too, could pose risks. A robust citizenry will probably be on the lookout should the opposition, long denied the perquisites of power, fall into the same pattern of cronyism and corruption that has bedeviled the PRI.

Ruffo's ascent has raised expectations, perhaps unrealistically. People seem to expect him to accomplish everything the PRI has not, and if he doesn't, the newly critical population of Baja California may quickly become disenchanted.

"The people voted for a change," Guillen said. "They are not identified with parties but with people. They have not put the PAN in power forever."


The Mexican state of Baja California extends from Tijuana to Bahia San Carlos, an area of 27,071 square miles. Baja California and its southern neighbor, Baja California Sur, were discovered in 1533 by Fortun Jimenez on a naval expedition sent by the explorer Hernan Cortes. In 1804 California was divided into Baja (Antigua) and Alta(Nueva) and separately administered. After the Mexican War of 1846 to 1848, the Baja California peninsula remained part of Mexico while Alta California was ceded to the United States. Baja California has highest living standard in Mexico. The most important crops are cotton and wheat; the main industry is the assembling of imported material. Baja California became a state in Mexico on Dec. 31, 1951.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World