Baja California—the iconic stronghold of the National Action Party [PAN] that delivered Mexico’s first state level opposition victory in 1989 and paved the way for country’s democratic transition just 11 years later with the historic election of Vicente Fox to the presidency in 2000—is no longer firmly in the column of the center-right party. For the first time in 24 years, the state’s governorship could fall back into the hands of the Institutional Revolutionary Party [PRI], the authoritarian party that ruled Mexico for 71 years.
Fourteen states go to the polls in Mexico on Sunday, but all eyes are on the contest in Baja California, the small state with outsized importance as the only governors race in this first round of elections since Enrique Peña Nieto recaptured the presidency for PRI. The state’s political outcome has wide-ranging implications for the rest of Mexico and beyond. As the Economist noted, ‘Why should outsiders care about the hotly contested election for governor of Baja California on Sunday July 7th? Quite simply because it will help determine the future of the Pacto for Mexico, the strangely schizophrenic accord between Mexico’s three biggest parties which, in the coming months, is expected to address two of the most important reforms in Mexico in decades: oil and taxes.’
Baja California’s political fate to is tied to Peña Nieto’s reforms. The fragile alliance between Mexico’s three political parties that the president needs to push his reforms through congress hangs in the balance in Sunday’s election. Some have suggested PRI leaders in Mexico City would rather PAN keep Baja California, than deal the party a humiliating blow in its most symbolic of states and risk their participation in ‘the Pact.’
‘What does Enrique Peña Nieto’s government gain from a PRI victory in Baja California? Very little. And it could lose a lot,” Jorge Buendia, head of polling firm Buendia & Laredo, told Reuters.
One fact that bodes well for PAN’s political fortunes is their alliance with the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution [PRD]. While never a force in the Baja California’s politics, PRD’s effective governance of Mexico City and the youth vote propelled its presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrado to the status of second highest vote getter in the state after PAN candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota in last year’s election. In an election that could be decided by a razor thin margin, the PAN-PRD alliance could be just enough to put Francisco ‘Kiko’ Vega over the top. These alliances have proved effective in the past in countering PRI. In 2010, the governorships of Oaxaca, Puebla, and Sinaloa—all PRI strongholds—were won with PAN-PRD alliances.
But all politics is local, and on the streets of Tijuana, PRI’s nonstop campaigning, massive rallies, and flag waving party faithful at nearly every intersection leaves no doubt they are in it to win it. And win it they might. Just .3 percentage points separate PRI’s Fernando Castro Trenti and PAN’s Francisco ‘Kiko’ Vega, according to a recent poll is Baja California’s most respected newspaper, Zeta. A surging PRI already captured the mayorships of all 5 of the state’s municipalities during the 2010 election cycle. Come Sunday, regardless of machinations of party leaders in the capital, PRI could pick off the state house.