Mexico's ruling party loses ground in midterm election

A sluggish economy and raging drug war shook confidence in President Calderón's party.

Guillermo Arias/AP
Supporters Alfonso Elias, a PRI candidate for governor of Sonora, celebrate after he claimed in the midterm election on Sunday.

The political party that ruled Mexico for 71 years with an iron fist made a significant comeback in midterm elections Sunday.

When the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost the presidency for the first time in 2000, a new era of democracy was hailed in Mexico. But it appears that a sharp economic downturn and a deadly drug war has given the venerable party a boost.

According to preliminary results, the PRI was leading the race by 8 percentage points, despite a generally high approval rating for Mexican President Felipe Calderón, of the conservative National Action Party (PAN). The PRI also held leads in four of six governors races.

"It's a fact that the president is very popular. But that popularity didn't translate into votes for his party," says Juan Pardinas, a political analyst with the Mexican Institute for Competition. "The PRI gives off an image of gravitas, of experience in power, of order and command that the PAN isn't able to give off."

It appears that many Mexicans are seeking some semblance of security. The economy is in its worst shape since the 1990s and is expected to contract by more than 6 percent this year. And a bloody conflict with organized crime has left at least 11,000 dead since Mr. Calderón took office in late 2006.

'The economy is the main point'

Jorge Alejandro Corona, a government worker who cast his ballot in a working-class neighborhood in Mexico City Sunday, says that jobs and drug violence are his main concerns and he criticizes the government on both fronts.

"I think that first, in order for a program against drug traffickers to work, we should improve the economic situation," Mr. Corona says. "If the economic situation improves and wages increase, then I think we can start to think about how to attack drug trafficking. But the economy is the main point."

Employment has fallen in key sectors such as tourism and manufacturing as US consumers spend less and the recent outbreak of swine flu keeps visitors away.

In the last Congress, the PAN had 206 seats while the PRI held 106 in Mexico's lower house. After Sunday's election, the PRI likely will double its share.

"The PAN has done things very poorly," Corona says, "and because of this the PRI is just seizing the opportunity."

While some voters sought to punish the ruling PAN party, a movement to annul votes grew in the weeks leading to the election, highlighting voter frustration over the country's direction.

Voter revolt: null votes

This election, the null vote reached 6.5 percent according to early results – much higher than in the past. The movement gained traction especially in the capital, where the number of voided votes appeared to be 300 percent higher than in the past.

Antonio Mena, an executive at a hotel company, says he planned to void his vote because he was disappointed with the candidates and disagreed with Mexico's system of financing political parties with taxpayers' money.

"This is simply my way of saying, I don't agree. There are a lot of parties, and voting for the least bad party would be a mistake," he says. "It would be like buying the fruit that was least rotten from the vendor when we should be demanding fresh fruit."

Some analysts say that a strong PRI vote could force Calderón to change some of his policies. Allison Benton, a Mexico analyst with the consulting firm Eurasia Group, says a loss could serve as a "wake-up call," which could lead to changes in strategies on key issues such as the economy and security.

A house more divided

Calderón has attempted to allow more private investment in the oil industry for deep-water exploration and wants to reform tax and labor laws, but he will have to negotiate with a less-friendly Congress going forward.

When Calderón took over the presidency in 2006, he faced significant challenges: his rival, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who lost the race by less than a percentage point, accused him of fraud and declared himself the legitimate president of Mexico. Calderón may face an even bumpier passage ahead. "Surely he is going to be a more isolated president than he was during the last three years," says Mr. Pardinas.

After the PAN's national leader acknowledged the PRI's gains Sunday night, Calderón urged cooperation. "The competition is behind us, and now we have to focus our efforts on seeking the agreements the country needs to recover, as soon as possible, on economic growth, job creation and public safety," he said.

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