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Going loco on the election trail

Since President Vicente Fox wrested the presidency from the grasp of the Institutional Revolutionary party in 2000 politics has become an ever-present topic of conversation in Mexico.

The PRI was more institutional than revolutionary after 71 years in power but Fox seems unlikely to start his own dynasty. Mexico does not elect its next president until July next year, but Fox's government has been so battered by defeats in congress that the succession is all anyone talks about.

For the moment, election fever has hit the seaside. Three states - Guerrero, Quintana Roo and Baja California Sur - elect new governors on the first Sunday of February. Luckily for Observer, shivering through the coldest Mexico City winter in years, the biggest cities in those states are Acapulco, Cancún and Los Cabos, Mexico's three biggest seaside resorts.

The contests are important. Governors have a lot of local patronage, which could help presidential hopefuls win national votes. So it's no surprise that national politicians with presidential ambitions are heading for the seaside.

Most intriguingly, this could be the year that Guerrero turfs out the formerly hegemonic PRI in favour of the leftwing party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which is fielding a popular ex-mayor of Acapulco. The PRI has never lost the state.

Observer's man on the sun lounger is sceptical that a change in power will lead to a widespread clean-up of the sleazy seaside, however. Two years ago Mexico's health ministry issued health warnings, saying faecal contamination in some beaches of the otherwise glorious Bay of Acapulco was 35,000 times the acceptable maximum.

Rene Juarez, the outgoing governor, took a confidence-boosting public swim for the tourists. Observer fears for more than just his political future.

Raccoon hunt

The greatest problem for all the parties is choosing a candidate. This is especially true for the PRI, which relied for 71 years on the serving president's dedazo or "tap of the big finger" on the shoulder of his anointed successor. Expect to see smoke in March when the party's assembly attempts to set rules for a primary selection procedure this year.

Roberto Madrazo, the PRI's national president, is favourite for the nomination. That's unsurprising, as he has a colourful history of contested elections, which has left him with the nickname Chief Raccoon, after the Mexican slang for someone who steals from ballot boxes, and he gets to write the rules for the primary.

To stop him, seven potential PRI candidates have formed Unidad Democrática (Democratic Unity), a group committed to supporting one of their number as a "unity candidate". Unfortunately, they are united only by their rivalry with Madrazo.

So the chances of six of them surpressing their egos to allow one to run, and possibly defeat, Madrazo, are slim.

Amlo on a high

Madrazo's chief presidential rival is the poll-topping PRD mayor of Mexico City, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Amlo). The raccoon beat Amlo for the governorship of the steamy southern state of Tabasco in 1994.

His tactics were simple enough: flash the cash. The attorney-general concluded that Madrazo spent $38.8m, 33 times the maximum, and equivalent to $135 for every vote.

Amlo, in protest at his loss, held sit-ins at oil wells and eventually drove a truckload of purported evidence of electoral fraud to the capital's central Zocalo plaza, while Madrazo was ignoring a presidential order and taking the governor's chair.

A national Amlo-Madrazo re-match, then, would be beyond a boxing promoter's wildest dreams. It could also leave the ruling party's candidate as the last man standing.

Amlo is already in training, yesterday unveiling proudly his most eye-catching project as mayor - a second storey for the city's ring road. City-dwellers were allowed to walk over 15 kilometres of spectacular new flyovers, their first and last chance before they are choked with traffic.

A real revolutionary might have spent the money on extending the city's underground railway into the sprawl around it - which could have reduced pollution and improved living standards for the poor who don't own cars. But that might not have been completed before the election.

Whale watch

Still, none of this will stop "snowbirds", those Americans who head south to escape the harshness of their own winter. They seem as driven by instinct as two other crowds of annual pilgrims.

The grey whales are in the coastal inlets off southern Baja California, mating before going home to the chill of Alaska.

And Monarch butterflies are visiting central Mexico in their millions, tree branches breaking under their weight, before their return to Canada in two months.

Despite the pollution and the danger (a choked sperm whale recently washed up on the beach) they keep coming. And who's to argue with them?

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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