Voters turned out in considerable numbers on a peaceful, punishingly hot Sunday for a hard-fought election that will determine whether Baja California remains a stronghold of the political opposition in Mexico.
In keeping with this border state’s tradition of high turnout, state election officials projected that at least 70% of the registered voters would cast ballots, judging from the lines that formed early at polling places. Despite recent worries of violence, the voting process was progressing smoothly Sunday afternoon, said state Atty. Gen. Pedro Vidal Rosas.
“The elections are transpiring peacefully, with concord and civility,” Vidal told reporters.
Vidal said 900 federal, state and municipal police officers had been deployed to guard the ballot boxes in a security operation he described as “unprecedented in the nation.” More than 1,800 citizen observers, from neutral watchdog groups and civic groups aligned with political parties, also monitored the vote.
State elections in Mexico earlier this year have been marred by conflict as the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which long maintained control through fraud and strong-arm tactics, struggles to fend off opposition parties emboldened by an increasingly democratic climate in Mexico.
Baja and three other states are governed by the opposition National Action Party (PAN). Sunday’s gubernatorial race here had national implications because the PAN was fighting to retain the state where it first won power in historic elections in 1989.
The contest pitted Hector Teran Teran, a federal senator for the PAN, against Francisco Perez Tejada, the former ruling party mayor of Mexicali, along with five candidates from smaller parties. Teran and Perez voted early in the morning in this desert capital, where the blast-furnace heat had already reached 100 degrees. Teran has led most voter surveys.
Also at stake were legislative posts, three of which are held by the PAN, at the city halls of the state’s four cities.
Because President Ernesto Zedillo grew up in Mexicali, some analysts have said a ruling party loss in Baja would deal another symbolic blow to a ruling party leader beset by economic and political crises. But Jose Luis Perez Canchola, a respected Baja human rights advocate who was coordinating election observers, said a PAN win would also benefit the president by presenting an image of pluralism and tolerance in a high-profile state.
“PAN control of Baja has value in terms of international public relations,” said Perez, formerly a senatorial candidate for the fading Party of the Democratic Revolution.
Regardless of the final result, Perez said the race in Baja has showed the limitations of the two-party power structure that seems to be taking shape in Mexico. The campaigns were dominated by invective and personal attacks, he said, because the PRI and PAN do not differ greatly in ideology. The next governor will have to tackle problems that were barely mentioned during the campaign, such as poverty, migration and drug trafficking, Perez added.