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PRI wins tight Michoacan election

November 18, 2011

The first shots have been fired in the road to 2012 and the PRI has claimed the spoils like a satanic phoenix rising from the charred ashes of Calderon’s Mexico. An extended follow-up to this piece:

Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Fausto Vallejo has emerged victorious from Sunday’s Michoacan state election, amid concern over voter intimidation and the influence of organized crime in Mexican politics.

Vallejo, the former mayor of the state capital, Morelia, led a triumphant alliance of the PRI and Mexico’s Green Party (PVEM), claiming 35 percent of the vote. National Action Party (PAN) candidate Luisa Maria Calderon won 33 percent, while Silvano Aureoles of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) trailed in third with just 29 percent.

The result comes as a big blow to the PAN ahead of the 2012 general elections, with momentum now swinging firmly behind the resurgent PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years until 2000. It is also a bitter disappointment for the leftist PRD, for whom Michoacan has traditionally been considered a party stronghold.

Having dominated Michoacan politics since 2000, the PRD has been criticized for failing to quell the violence that has consumed the state in recent years. The PRD also lost control of the state legislature on Sunday, where it won just eight seats to the PRI’s eleven and the PAN’s five.

Perceptions can be crucial in tight races and both leading parties were eager to announce victory Sunday evening before the results were in. The PRI party president declared Vallejo the winner of the contest shortly after the polls closed, yet in a simultaneous press conference the PAN’s national president Gustavo Madero said exit polls indicated that Calderon had triumphed.

The latter candidate even prematurely posted, “thank you to everyone one in Michoacan. We won the elections!” on her Twitter account on Sunday evening.

Michoacan is President Felipe Calderon’s home state and his sister had been widely tipped to win the November election. A fortnight ago most voter opinion polls gave Calderon a healthy lead of six to eleven points in an election many foresaw as a referendum on the president’s drug war.

Michoacan is where President Calderon first launched his controversial military offensive against Mexico’s cartels in December 2006. A major mephamphetamine-producing zone formerly controlled by pseudo-religious cartel La Famila, the state is now being fought over by the cartel’s remnants, an offshoot known as the Knights Templar and the infamous Los Zetas.

Having infiltrated local police forces and city halls, these organizations are said to dictate who runs for office and how local people vote in elections. In a bid to restore order to the troubled state, Luisa Calderon had vowed to continue her brother’s militarized national security strategy which has left around 45,000 dead in just five years.

The PAN was seeking a symbolic electoral victory in Michocacan to halt the growing perception that it is a spent force in national politics. Instead the win for the PRI will be seen as the first major step towards regaining the presidency, with Enrique Peña Nieto holding a commanding lead in the polls ahead of the July election.

The Michoacan elections were carried out amid a climate of violence and intimidation, with La Piedad Mayor Ricardo Guzman Romero shot dead while campaigning on behalf of Calderon on November 2.

The state has suffered dozens of attacks on local officials in recent years, while several candidates dropped out of the elections because of threats from drug cartels, fueling fears that criminal gangs are severely undermining Mexico’s democracy.

On the day of the vote, a newspaper in La Piedad published an unsigned note threatening PAN supporters and blaming the party for deaths in the wake of its offensive against drug cartels.

“Don’t wear t-shirts or PAN advertising because we don’t want to confuse you and have innocent people die,” read the note, which was also circulated by email. The newspaper later added that it had published the warning under duress.

Undeterred, the local electorate ignored the threat, with  53 percent of the vote going to the PAN candidate. But La Piedad was not the only town affected.

Federal prosecutors say they have opened investigations into 42 alleged instances of voting irregularities across the state. For various reasons, a quarter of Michoacan’s voting booths had not been opened by midday, while regional PAN President German Tena said armed men showed up at several voting booths on Sunday, ordering people how to cast their ballots.

Calderon said her team would carefully review the results from parts of the state where they received reports of armed men threatening those trying to vote. “Allowing organized crime to manipulate elections will never lead to security,” she said in an interview with Televisa on Monday, seeming to imply that the PRI had been supported by drug gangs threatening her party’s voters and poll watchers in retaliation for its aggressive stance against the cartels.

The PRD went further, with Silvano Aureoles explicitly alleging that the PRI has worked with cartels. “The people of Michoacan won’t let themselves be governed by a party with a history of pacts and agreements, one that let organized crime coordinate the campaign,” he told Televisa.

Meanwhile PRD President Jesus Zambrano accused the Knights Templar of intimidating voters into supporting the PRI. “I have no doubt that organized crime aided the PRI so that they had a clear advantage in this region. This outcome shows the true face of the new PRI. It is a party that returns sponsored and protected by organized crime.”

Vallejo retorted that “no one was exempt,” claiming his backers had also been subjected to criminal threats.

Throughout its reign the PRI was long dogged by allegations that it was working with Mexico’s drug gangs. It is thought that many cartels would favor a return of the PRI, having had their business disrupted by the current PAN administration’s war on drug-trafficking.

Despite the losing parties’ allegations of voter intimidation, local turnout on Sunday was in fact higher than in the last presidential election. This suggests the outcome could have been more a case of angry voters expressing their disillusionment with the PRD and PAN governments at a local and national level, respectively.

Even so, the circumstances surrounding the Michoacan elections will do little to allay concerns over the health of Mexico’s democracy and the role that organized crime could play in next year’s presidential election.

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