Tijuana elections: Many candidates but how many voters?

It’s an election with 12 mayoral contenders — an unprecedented array of choices for Tijuana’s 1.27 million eligible voters — and for the first time in the city’s history, a lineup that includes independent candidates.

But here’s the big question: How many people will take the trouble to vote in Sunday’s midterm election in Tijuana, a city that once was at the vanguard of political change in Mexico?

Baja California more than two decades ago was known for its record voter participation rates, and it was the first Mexican state to break the six-decade grip of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI. But in recent years, most eligible voters have stayed away from the polls. In Tijuana, only about 3 out of 10 registered voters have been casting ballots.


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The low turnout is rooted in several factors, including the high mobility of Tijuana’s population, but also a growing disenchantment with the political process, analysts say.

Whatever the reasons, it’s a phenomenon that supports the status quo, they say, one that favors the dominance of Mexico’s two main political parties: Mexico’s ruling PRI and the National Action Party, PAN, which has not lost a gubernatorial election in Baja California since 1989.

The system is very smart in working for itself. We want to break the system.

— Gaston Luken, an independent candidate on the ballot

“The system is very smart in working for itself,” said Gaston Luken, one of two independent candidates on the ballot. “We want to break the system.”

Across Tijuana on Wednesday evening, a last-minute frenzy enveloped the main boulevards as the state’s campaign season came to a close. Scenes of flags fluttering from taxis and sidewalks lined with party faithful continued until midnight, when a three-day mandatory lull went into effect.

While voters in 12 other Mexican states prepare for gubernatorial contests Sunday, members of Baja California’s electorate are getting set to choose five new mayors and replace the 25-member legislature.

The first independent mayoral candidates in Tijuana’s history, Luken and Carolina Aubanel, are not the only ones who are challenging the dominance of the PRI and PAN.

The contenders include Julian Leyzaola Perez, the city’s former hard-line police chief who made a name for himself fighting drug traffickers. Leyzaola is running on an anti-corruption platform as a candidate for Partido de Encuentro Social, a small, socially conservative party linked to the evangelical Christian movement.

Yet independent polls have been giving slim possibilities of victory to anyone but the PRI and the PAN.

The latest numbers from the website Plural Mx put the PRI candidate, Rene Mendivil, with just over 22%, followed by PAN candidate Juan Manuel Gastelum with nearly 21%. In third place with 14.2% is Leyzaola.

Key for both the PRI and the PAN is the support of loyal party faithful — known as “el voto duro” — those who can be counted on to turn out on election day.

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“The parties’ voto duro is not that large,” said Benedicto Ruíz Vargas, a political analyst and columnist for the Tijuana newspaper Frontera. “It’s big because people don’t vote,” he said.

But if independent candidates have prevailed in other Mexican states, the candidacies have not generated a large following in Tijuana, Ruiz said.

“This idea that there is great discontent with the parties that favors independents, well, we’re seeing that it’s not so,” he said. “There is great discontent with the parties, but they’re also mistrustful of the independents.”

The challengers say they are not so much looking to take votes away from the two parties as reach out to those who have refrained from voting.

For those who vote — and those who don’t — the campaign season has brought up a host of municipal issues of concern to city residents, including the need for more schools, higher salaries, better trash collection, paved streets, more street lighting and stronger efforts against crime and government corruption.

“We want a clean city, with paved streets, one in which you and I are first-class citizens,” Gastelum, a former state and federal legislator, told a sea of flag-waving PAN supporters from all corners of the city.

At the PRI’s closing rally, thousands of supporters bused in from all corners of the city converged in the parking lot of the Caliente Stadium. A mariachi group sang lyrics extolling the virtues of Mendivil, a longtime politician who headed the PRI statewide and has served in the state and federal legislatures.

Four days before the election, many voters like Adrian Diaz, a 24-year-old taco-stand worker from eastern Tijuana, were considering their options. Diaz said he was thinking about voting for the first time.

“Maybe, if those who don’t vote decided to vote, maybe there could be a change,” he said. “Maybe we just aren’t informed enough to know the difference that a single vote can make.”


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Dibble writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.