A leading gubernatorial candidate is gunned down by suspected organized criminals disguised as soldiers. A severed head is dumped near the house of a mayoral candidate. Voters wake up to four bodies found hanging from bridges. Candidates arrive to cast their ballots in bulletproof vests accompanied by security entourages.
Welcome to Mexico's election, in which drug violence has intimidated front-runners and decreased voter participation in Sunday's races to replace 12 of the nation’s 31 governors.
As expected, the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) proved the most powerful force in the elections, winning nine states handily, according to preliminary results in what some called a referendum on conservative President Felipe Calderón and his PAN party.
“The PRI remains the main local force in Mexico,” says Jorge Chabat, a political science professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City.
But the biggest surprise for voters were the initial results showing the PRI losing power for the first time ever in strongholds like Oaxaca, Puebla, and Sinaloa.
By some counts the PRI had been poised to take all 12 governorships in a sign of the once-ruling party’s return to dominance on the state level. But a clean sweep was thwarted thanks in part to an unlikely coalition of the president’s conservative PAN party and the left-leaning PRD - both of whom had fought bitterly after the disputed 2006 presidential elections that brought Mr. Calderón to power. Many in the PRD at the time refused to recognize Calderon as president, alleging the PAN had rigged the race.
Meanwhile, the PRI won back three governorships from the PAN and PRD bastions of Aguascalientes, Tlaxcala, and Zacatecas, which some analysts say points to anti-incumbent sentiment across party lines due to increasing drug violence and last year’s deep recession. In Oaxaca, a violently suppressed teachers’ movement is seen as helping to oust the PRI.
“Mexico is changing. It’s a country where increasingly people expect an alternation of parties. People expect their parties to be accountable,” says Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
Other experts are not so quick to discard the PRI’s ability to maintain control in regions where they have never lost it, even after the party that ruled Mexico for 71 years lost the presidency in 2000. By holding on to as many as 19 states, the PRI could use the governors and their resources to propel the party to a 2012 presidential victory, some experts say.
Drug violence deters voters
Voter turnout differed depending on the state, but came close to a standstill in areas where cartel violence spread to the elections.
In the border state of Tamaulipas, where suspected cartel hitmen assassinated gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torre Cantu on June 28, only 38.6 percent of voters cast their ballots. Torre Cantu’s brother ran in his place, arriving at polling stations with heavy security detail.
Reports of unidentified gunmen circling polling stations also kept voters away. Voter participation in the crime-plagued border city of Juarez was only 20 percent, the local La Jornada newspaper reported.
Low turnout has historically helped the PRI since the party never fails to mobilize a strong union and farmer base.
“There has long been violence associated with elections in Mexico. This is not new,” says Mr. Selee of the Woodrow Wilson Center. “However, it is no longer just local disputes, but major organized crime gangs driving the violence.”