The political party that once ruled Mexico for 71 years and became known for its repressive tactics scored a major victory Sunday that may make it unstoppable in next year's presidential race.
The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which claims to have shed its old authoritarian ways, clobbered its rivals in gubernatorial elections in Mexico state, the most populous state in the country, with a 40 percentage point lead.
The landslide victory is widely seen as a show of force for the party and a boost to outgoing PRI Mexico state Gov. Enrique Pena Nieto, who has designs on the presidency.
Polls had only forecast a 30-point advantage for PRI candidate Eruviel Avila. But he took 62.5 percent of a state known for its poor, overpopulated Mexico City suburbs, and which holds the largest number of registered voters.
Mexico’s ruling National Action Party (PAN) placed a dismal 12.5 percent and the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) 21 percent, according to preliminary results. The PRI also did well in Coahuila and Nayarit, the two other states up for grabs.
PRI critics worry that Sunday's election gives the party a major boost ahead of the July 2012 presidential poll.
“I am more afraid of these Mexican dinosaurs than of those that existed millions of years ago. One day you will understand why,” warns writer and journalist Guadalupe Loaeza in a July 5 column in Reforma.
Considered by critics as extinct and out-of-touch “dinosaurs” after loosing power in 2000 and placing third in 2006, the party ironically captured the youth vote in Mexico state, according to some media reports. The state’s telegenic governor and his soap opera star wife may have had something to do with it.
The party has also managed to galvanize its strong local base, even after voters turned on them in national elections. However, critics claim that voter base has been bought off with handouts of canned foods and free T-shirts.
Cesar Camacho, the PRI candidate's electoral authority representative, says: "The criticism is absolutely unfounded. Those who make the claim are trying to hide their own deficiencies, and not admit their errors."
Mr. Camacho said the other candidates were not from Mexico state, putting them at a disadvantage to Avila, who was born there and knows its political and social landscape.
Capitalizing on drug war failures
For those who suffered through some of the lowest points of PRI rule, Sunday’s crushing victory is a warning that opponents must get their act together.
“People must not forget the authoritarianism of the PRI,” says Felix Hernandez Gamundi, a former student leader who witnessed the 1968 state-led massacre at Tlatelolco. Hernandez Gamundi acknowledged that Mexican society has advanced greatly since then and that such an event would not occur again under any government.
With a batch of new young leadership and capitalizing on the government’s flailing drug war, the PRI has managed to convince voters that it has reformed, or at least that it is the only option around. More than 35,000 people have been killed since President Felipe Calderón began his offensive against drug traffickers in 2006. Internal bickering in the left-leaning PRD has only expanded the void that the PRI hopes to fill.
Mexico state resident Rogaciano Bravo voted PRI Sunday and will do so again next July, even after having voted against the party in 2000 and 2006. “I wanted to see change,” said the chauffeur. “But I think things have only gotten worse.”
Weathering a tropical storm
PRI opponents see hope, however, in Sunday’s low turnout of 43 percent, a sign that swing voters could still be lured out to polling stations.
Absenteeism, which usually favors the PRI, was aided by Tropical Storm Arlene, which caused a river of sewage to overflow and flood Mexico state residents’ homes days before the election.
Anything can happen in Mexican politics in one year, analysts say, noting that the PRI took Mexico state in 2005, only to place third in the presidential race.
But something would have to change quickly to kick presidential frontrunner Pena Nieto off his 30-point advantage.