PAN’s victory in Baja California vote keeps hope of oil industry reform alive

07/08/2013 9:33 AM

07/23/2013 6:53 PM

The National Action Party held on to the governorship of Baja California in state and local elections, returns showed Monday, breathing life into the sputtering center-right party but failing to clarify the outlook for pending changes in Mexican oil industry law.

The opposition party, known by its Spanish initials as the PAN, also captured a series of city halls along the northern border, forestalling its collapse after losing the presidency in elections last year.

A series of violent incidents during Sunday’s elections angered leaders of both major opposition parties, the PAN and the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, clouding the future of tax and energy reforms in Mexico.

Mexico’s three major parties coalesced late last year in an unprecedented Pact for Mexico, designed to unleash Mexico’s economic potential through structural change. The pact already has ushered through a shakeup of the education system and constitutional reforms to break up television and telecommunications monopolies.

But still on the table are the biggest potential changes: a plan to open up the near-sacrosanct state oil monopoly to foreign investment and a sweeping change in the country’s tax and spending systems.

“We have to evaluate what will happen with the pact,” Jesus Zambrano, head of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, told Milenio Television, reflecting opposition anger over what it claimed were roughshod tactics to squelch the vote.

Gustavo Madero, president of the PAN, denounced what he called “terrible political events” during the voting on Sunday, which he said included stealing and burning ballot boxes and the padlocking of his own precinct in Chihuahua state.

“The Pact for Mexico is a pact based on trust, but if there is no commitment to legality and in favor of democracy, it is inconsistent,” Madero told MVS Radio.

Both opposition party leaders accused the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, which returned to power on the national level with the election of President Enrique Pena Nieto last year, of resorting to “old tricks” to suppress opposition vote, harkening back to the party’s uninterrupted seven-decade reign until 2000.

“There’s a lot of worry right now among the two opposition parties that we’re really going backward on elections,” said Jeffrey Weldon, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

The Baja California governorship was symbolic. It was there in 1989 that the grip of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, first faltered, allowing the pro-business PAN to seize the governor’s office, a prelude to a further rise.

Sunday evening, even before the first ballot was counted in Baja California, the PRI’s national chief, Cesar Camacho, said exit polls gave his party’s candidate, Fernando Castro Trenti, the governorship.

But by early afternoon Monday, preliminary tallies of more than 97 percent of the state vote gave Francisco “Kiko” Vega, who ran under a coalition PAN-PRD ticket, a convincing 3-point lead, 47 percent to 44 percent, over the PRI candidate.

About a third of Mexico’s voters went to the polls Sunday in 15 states to elect mayors, state legislators and in the case of Sonora, a federal legislator. Baja California was the only state with a gubernatorial election.

The triumph of PAN in a state where it has governed since 1989 may forestall its further disintegration. The party ruled Mexico for 12 years but lost the presidency in 2012. It has faced internal battles that are less about ideology than about money, power and the legacy of former President Felipe Calderon.

PAN candidates also won city halls in Mexicali, Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros, all major border cities, but lost broadly in other cities in the border states of Chihuahua and Tamaulipas.

The ruling PRI took city halls in Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and Reynosa (other large border cities), as well as capturing Oaxaca City and unseating the PRD in Cancun.

The renewed viability of the PAN may make it a more reliable partner in months ahead as Pena Nieto forges ahead with reforms.

“I reiterate the unchanging disposition of the government to continue the dialogue and the accords with political forces to bring about the reforms that will not only permit us to consolidate our democracy but to accelerate its development,” Pena Nieto said Monday.

In the internal disputes cleaving the PAN, Madero leads a faction more prone to reform, while supporters of Calderon have been intent on winning the reins of the party at the expense of other factors. Had the PAN lost Baja California, Madero’s tenure as chief would have been weakened, and the future of the pact cloudier.

“It would be harder to keep the pact going without Madero,” Weldon said.

Pena Nieto’s party needs the support of the rightist opposition for an opening of the state-owned oil and gas sector to foreign investment, an idea that is anathema to the political left. Petroleos Mexicanos, the state oil giant, provides a third of government operating revenues. But its production has fallen in recent years amid projections Mexico could become a net oil importer by 2018.

Weariness with corruption in politics was among the factors keeping six out of 10 eligible voters away from the polls Sunday.

It also gave rise to satiric, fake candidacies. Among them: Morris the Cat ran for mayor of Xalapa in Veracruz state, pledging on his Facebook page, which gathered 155,000 followers, to “rest and romp” like regular politicians.

News reports say he may have garnered 8 percent of the vote in Xalapa.

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