REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Members of Mexico’s ruling party on Sunday chose former Congresswoman Josefina Vazquez Mota as their long-shot candidate for president -- the first time a woman will vie for the country’s top job on behalf of a major political faction.
Final results gave Vazquez Mota, 51, a wide lead over her nearest rival, former Finance Minister Ernesto Cordero -- the favored candidate of incumbent President Felipe Calderon (link in Spanish). She tallied well over half the ballots cast; Cordero reportedly conceded defeat via Twitter.
With Sunday’s primary vote by the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, the slate for July’s presidential race is all but complete. Minor-party aspirants may yet come forward, but the three major parties now have their candidates.
At her campaign headquarters Sunday night, Vazquez Mota’s supporters were celebrating, waving banners in the party’s royal-blue color and chanting her name, “Josefina!”
“Josefina Vazquez Mota will be the first female president of Mexico,” PAN national chairman Gustavo Madero declared at party headquarters as he announced the official results (link in Spanish). The ticket, he said, “is historic.”
But Vazquez Mota and the PAN face an uphill battle. All polls for the general election give a substantial lead to Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico with a heavy hand for seven decades until losing the presidency in 2000 to the PAN.
The PRI hopes to return to power, capitalizing on widespread discontent over brutal violence gripping the country as part of the Calderon government’s battle with powerful drug-trafficking cartels.
Calderon’s administration has also had to tackle a sluggish economy, entrenched poverty and even a lethal flu pandemic.
In addition to Peña Nieto, until recently the governor of Mexico state, the other main presidential candidate is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, who narrowly lost the presidency in 2006 to Calderon. Calderon is not allowed to run for reelection.
An estimated 1.8 million PAN members were eligible to vote Sunday; Mexican media estimated the turnout at roughly half a million.
Ahead of Sunday’s vote, Vazquez Mota, also a former education minister, consistently led polls measuring internal PAN sentiment. Yet the real battle seemed to boil down to a contest between her popularity and the political deftness of Cordero, who enjoyed the backing of old-school party machinery that could mobilize voters.
As columnist Jorge Zepeda Patterson put it (link in Spanish): Vazquez Mota “may have 60% of support among likely voters, compared to 17% for Cordero. But that 17% are Panistas who work for the government. And they use it.”
In the end, though, Vazquez Mota succeeded in delivering a message that was empathetic to ordinary Mexicans. She had to strike a balance between evincing loyalty to her president while also distancing herself from some of his more unpopular policies.
Cordero, by contrast, performed poorly on the campaign trail, was a drab, awkward candidate, and was dogged by comments in his former job as finance minister, including his risible assertion that Mexicans could live well, with a car and private school for the kids, on 6,000 pesos a month (roughly $470).
Also running in the PAN primary was Santiago Creel, a perennial candidate and veteran politician who conceded defeat early in the evening. He finished a distant third.
The internal PAN campaign turned nasty in its final weeks, with Vazquez Mota accusing opponents of tapping her phones, and Cordero campaign workers being shown in the local press apparently buying votes with sacks of groceries.
But in her victory speech Sunday night, Vazquez Mota called for unity. “We are now one team, one party,” she said.
-- Tracy Wilkinson
Photo: Newly chosen Mexican presidential candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota, of the ruling National Action Party, celebrates her victory in Mexico City. Credit: Alfredo Estrella / AFP/ Getty Images.