The Dallas Morning News
Wednesday, June 30, 2004

PRI expected to make gains in Mexico

Chihuahua's governor vote may set tone for 2006 presidential race

By ALFREDO CORCHADO / The Dallas Morning News

CHIHUAHUA CITY, Mexico At first glance, it might seem that a widening probe into the murders of women, entrenched public corruption, and high crime across Chihuahua would make Gov. Patricio Martínez and his heir apparent vulnerable on the eve of state elections.

But as bad as things are in this border state, José Reyes Baeza appears poised to succeed Mr. Martínez as governor of Chihuahua. Both are members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

Mr. Reyes' once formidable lead in pre-election polling has been eroding, but analysts say that on Sunday he is still likely to beat Javier Corral Jurado, his challenger from the conservative National Action Party, or PAN.

Mr. Corral has been hampered by lukewarm support from the PAN, the party of President Vicente Fox. And his campaign has not capitalized on the troubles that have beset Mr. Martínez's administration.

A poll in the Mexico City newspaper Milenio shows Mr. Reyes leading Mr. Corral, 56 percent to 44 percent. The poll had a 3 percent margin of error.

"It looks like Chihuahua will remain with the PRI, but it won't be a resounding victory," said pollster Daniel Lund, president of Mund Americas, noting that the number of undecided voters remains high at about 20 percent. "It will be a much closer race."

Many residents resent the PRI because of official corruption in the state and believe the government's investigation into the death of scores of young women has been shoddy and grudging.

Nevertheless, the party remains viable. It's even mounting a vigorous fight for the mayor's office in Juárez, a PAN bastion for 12 years.

Defying predictions

The Chihuahua election, perceived as a bellwether for the 2006 presidential race, also is an example of how the PRI, which once ruled all of Mexico, has defied predictions that voters would keep it out of power in key states.

PRI officials appear to have learned lessons from results in other states. In Nuevo León, they scored a comeback win in last year's gubernatorial race when their candidate, José Natividad González Paras, moved away from a traditional party platform. Instead, he ran a more personal race, stressing himself and his ideas.

In Chihuahua, Mr. Reyes has focused on his issues job creation, public safety and a higher standard of living and de-emphasized party affiliation.

"They're becoming better politicians," George W. Grayson, an expert on Mexican politics at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, said of recent PRI candidates. They are "more in tune with voters and with their needs."

The PRI's strong standing in Chihuahua also represents a decline in partisanship among the electorate, analysts said, and a growing preoccupation with bread-and-butter issues.

"Voters want results," Mr. Lund said, "not just empty promises."

Some voters say allegations of corruption are less important to them than the question of which candidate is more likely to put food on their table.

Sitting at a park bench facing the city's gleaming cathedral, Rosario García, 44, said the main issues are jobs, public corruption and the murder of women. She said she voted for the PAN in the past but has concluded that "they're all the same animals."

On Sunday she will vote for Mr. Reyes because he seems "more genuine, more trustworthy and prepared" than Mr. Corral, whom she described as "too rigid in his views, inexperienced and seems angry all the time."

Her friend, Rosario Lomas, 46, agreed. "We once tried to stop corruption and look what we got in return, more unemployment and more insecurity," she said. "Now we want action. That's all."

Others lament such sentiments.

"It's a profound shame that as Chihuahenses we're moved more by economics than by justice," said Esther Chávez Cano, director of Casa Amiga, a crisis center for women. "We don't care about the pain and suffering of so many here, or in establishing a rule of law in our state. All we care about is our pocketbook."

To be sure, both candidates have pledged to make solving the murders of women a top priority.

But as the campaign winds down, neither candidate devotes much time to allegations that the Juárez drug cartel supports a vast criminal enterprise in the state. The same cartel is widely believed to be involved in the killings.

Also, rumors abound that both candidates were offered bribes to allow the cartel to continue doing business in the state.

Asked recently if he had taken bribes, Mr. Reyes said, "No. And I can assure you that if elected, I will go after this criminal organization with all the force necessary."

Mr. Corral, however, told Norte de Ciudad Juárez that he indeed had been approached and declined a lucrative offer.

"Although I can't say with any assurance that the money was coming from some mafioso, the amount and the way it was offered made me decline," Mr. Corral said.

Old rivalries

While the two candidates can be a study in contrasts, they also are products of old rivalries.

Mr. Reyes is the nephew of former Chihuahua Gov. Fernando Baeza Meléndez, who won a widely disputed election in 1986 over Francisco Barrio Terrazas, Mr. Corral's political mentor, who won the governorship in 1992.

Mr. Reyes, 42, was mayor of Chihuahua City, earning a reputation for law and order.

He was a federal deputy member of Congress and in his bid for the governorship took a page from other successful PRI candidates, running early and running hard.

"He blanketed the state early," said Mr. Grayson. "He's run a very smart campaign."

Mr. Corral, 38, is a former journalist. He belongs to the PAN's so-called "Familia Feliz" happy family headed by Mr. Barrio Terrazas, but in his run for governor snubbed the party's "orthodox" conservatives who, Mr. Grayson said, "resent him for his decision to enter an alliance with the PRD, whose ideology and tactics they despise."

The left-leaning PRD, or Party of the Democratic Revolution, is backing Mr. Corral for governor.

Victoria Gandara, a 31-year-old mother of three who has family in Arlington, has been leaning toward Mr. Reyes but says she won't decide until she learns more about Mr. Corral.

"I don't care about labels, rhetoric or accusations," said Ms. Gandara, who pumps gas for a living. "I just want the best man to win."