PRI Is Underdog in Baja Balloting


When candidates and supporters of the Institutional Revolutionary Party staged their final rally of the campaign season last week, they noisily packed the plaza outside City Hall.

But the way things have gone, the plaza may be the closest the party, known as the PRI, gets to capturing the city's seat of government.

As Baja California voters head to the polls today, newspaper surveys indicate fat leads for the rival National Action Party, or PAN, in races for governor and for mayors of four of the state's five cities, including Tijuana. The PRI is favored only in the city of Tecate, according to polls.

The right-leaning PAN, which made Mexican history by capturing Baja California in 1989, hopes to extend its hold against a PRI in disarray after a lackluster campaign. The PAN, behind Vicente Fox, last year ousted the PRI from the nation's presidency following a 71-year reign.

A statewide victory for the PAN would mean a third six-year stint in the Baja governor's office, continuing its evolution from a band of outside critics to the state's dominant party.

"It will be significant," said David Shirk, who studies the PAN and is a visiting professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico in Mexico City. "This will be the start of 18 years of uninterrupted PAN rule in Baja California."

In the governor's race, Eugenio Elorduy Walther, a 60-year-old businessman and former PAN mayor of Mexicali, is favored over Ensenada Mayor Daniel Quintero Pena, 51, of the PRI. Three candidates on minor-party tickets are former PRI members who quit the party.

A new PAN mayor in Tijuana would be the party's fifth in a row. The polls have favored 40-year-old Jesus Gonzalez Reyes, who has been a PAN congressman and state development official, over Jaime Martinez Veloz, a 47-year-old federal lawmaker from the PRI. Mayors serve for three years.

The PAN's dominance comes at a price. Critics increasingly blame the party for crime that has soared during the 1990s alongside rapid population growth and the rise of the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix drug organization. PAN officials have answered that Mexican law places responsibility for fighting drug traffickers with the federal government, long held by the PRI. Local officials vow better cooperation with federal authorities now that Fox is president, but impatience grows.

"It's gotten out of control," said Juan Manuel Martinez, a Tijuana businessman and PRI supporter. He said his car was stolen last year and local authorities did nothing. "There was crime [under PRI rule], but the PRI dealt with it. Now it isn't being dealt with."

Charges of incompetence and questionable ethics have dogged Gov. Alejandro Gonzalez Alcocer, a former PAN operative named to office in 1998 after the death of Gov. Hector Teran Teran.

PAN officials say they have brought a new openness to local government and more improvements--from drinking water and street lights to health centers and libraries--in 12 years than the PRI did during six decades of rule.

The PRI holds mayor's seats in Tecate and Ensenada. But it hasn't capitalized statewide because of weak candidates and voters' memories of its past lapses, Shirk said.

"The people who voted the PRI out in 1989, who saw it as a corrupt party, as a political machine unwilling to relinquish power--people still see the PRI the same way," he said.

Tonatiuh Guillen Lopez, a specialist on Baja politics at the College of the Northern Border in Tijuana, said voters lack good alternatives. "In the area of electoral politics, the citizen has closed options," Guillen said.

He said other parties must scramble to field candidates and lack much of a membership. In several cases, minor party candidates are PRI defectors who needed a banner under which to run.

Guillen said many Baja voters might choose to stay home. Turnout dropped from 80% in the early 1990s to about 50% during last year's presidential vote, he said.

Nonetheless, Guillen saw a bright side to the campaign's drabness. It proves, he said, that democracy in Mexico is no longer a novelty, though the parties may leave much to be desired.

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