Mexico's PRI retakes Michoacán, eyes presidency

The Institutional Revolutionary Party that once ruled Mexico unchallenged, has taken the governor's mansion in Michoacán amid a bloody and unpopular drug war. The party has its sights set on bigger things.

Fausto Vallejo (r.), from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and his wife Patricia Mora de Vallejo give thumbs-ups with their ink-stained thumbs after casting their votes in Morelia on Sunday.
María Calderón, candidate for governor of Mexico's Michoacan state for the National Action Party (PAN) shows her ID card after casting her ballot in Morelia, Mexico, Sunday.

Voters in Mexico’s western Michoacán state returned the former long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to the governor’s office in an election many saw as a referendum on the drug war.

PRI candidate Fausto Vallejo won 35 percent of the vote in a state that has been a heated battleground in the country’s five-year offensive on organized crime.

The National Action Party (PAN) candidate was Luisa María Calderón, President Felipe Calderón’s sister. She had vowed to continue the drug war strategy her brother launched on a national scale in December 2006 and came in second. The Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) candidate Silvano Aureoles finished third. 

While the PAN and PRD tried to focus the election on economic development, public security issues kept grabbing headlines. For instance, gunmen killed the mayor of the Michoacan city of La Piedad while he campaigned for Calderón earlier this month.

A main issue driving the electoral agenda was a federal government drug war that has immersed the state in bloodshed, says Vidal Romero, a professor of political science at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. Local issues including pervasive rural poverty and one of the country’s steepest levels of emigration north played a lesser role in voters’ choices.

“In principal it’s about performance,” Romero said. “Both the PAN and the PRD in several cases haven’t had success on economic or security issues. That doesn’t mean the PRI will do any better … But from the opposition, it’s much easier to sell promises.”

More than 40,000 people have been killed since President Calderón declared war on organized crime. In Michoacán, federal forces have been battling the La Familia organization, now weakened since the killing by federal forces of its leader, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, in 2010. Meanwhile, another drug gang known for trafficking methamphetamines called the Knights Templar has emerged in the state.

The PRI returns to the governorship after a 12-year exile in which the Democratic Revolution Party, which was founded in Michoacán, held power.

Sunday’s vote was a blow to the PRD, said pollster Jorge Buendía of Buendía y Laredo.

“Seventy-one percent of the people voted against the governing party,” he said. “The only mandate is to make things better.”

The PRI – which dominated Mexican politics for more than 70 years in an era of semi-authoritarianism – has its sights set on the presidency and is looking for victories in state elections in the run-up to the presidential contest in July 2012.

The PRI took the governorship in Mexico State in July, winning in a landslide in the country’s most populous state. The state’s former governor, Enrique Peña Nieto, is the front-running presidential hopeful in early polls.

Michoacan’s was a race so close that all three gubernatorial candidates declared victory on election night. The country’s leading Reforma newspaper ran photos of all three with their arms raised in victory. The headline read: “PRI, PAN and PRD declare triumph.”

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