Pemex vote draws old political machinery closer to Mexican president

3 minute read

Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador addresses the nation on his second anniversary as the President of Mexico, at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico, December 1, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Romero//File Photo

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MEXICO CITY, Feb 1 (Reuters) - The election of a veteran lawmaker of the former ruling party to lead the union of state oil firm Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) moves an influential piece of Mexico's old power structure closer to President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who blessed the vote.

Lopez Obrador on Tuesday said Monday's vote won by Ricardo Aldana, treasurer of the union and an ally of longstanding boss Carlos Romero Deschamps, was a historic exercise in labor freedoms that had broken with rigged elections of the past.

"The system worked," the president told a news conference. "It used to be that the decision on who was in and who was out was made here" he said in an apparent reference to the presidency. "Now, it's up to the workers. As to who won and their background, that's a matter for the labor ministry."

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Reviving Pemex, Mexico's biggest firm, is one of Lopez Obrador's top priorities and politicians saw his apparent accommodation with the union as a sign of the pragmatism he has shown in expanding his power base across the political landscape. That could strengthen his hand in elections.

But rival candidates, and critics on the left and right, argue the election could entrench the old union leadership, which has had a troubled history and led to Romero Deschamps stepping down in 2019 amid allegations of corruption.

Romero Deschamps has denied the allegations and is not facing charges of wrongdoing, nor has he been convicted of any crime. Aldana during the campaign denied taking cues from his former boss as rivals raised concerns about their past ties.

Spokespersons for Aldana and the union did not respond to requests for comment. The office of Lopez Obrador, who stressed he had no ties to Aldana, did not reply to a request for comment. Romero Deschamps could not be reached.

Ahead of the election, Aldana said if chosen he would work to better the lives of Pemex workers and their families, improve productivity, and overhaul the union leadership to focus on transparency and accountability.

The labor ministry said if confirmed as winner, Aldana's term would run through the end of 2024.

Aldana and Romero Deschamps served in Congress for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century and in 1938 created Pemex.

Until 2000, the PRI reigned supreme in Mexico, with presidents concentrating executive power and Pemex serving as a key source of contracts, and pillar of economic development.

Such was the proximity between the party and the Pemex union that in a controversy dubbed 'Pemexgate', prosecutors accused Romero Deschamps and others of funneling millions from Pemex into the PRI's failed presidential bid in 2000.

They were not convicted, but reports about union leaders' wealth continued to dog their reputation.

Clemente Castaneda, a senator for the opposition center-left Citizens' Movement party, said Aldana's election amounted to "more of the same" for a tainted system.

Lopez Obrador, who was a member of the PRI until the late 1980s, spent years pillorying the party for corruption.

But lately he has pressed the PRI, now in opposition, to help him pass energy market legislation.

Critics cast the president's ambiguous attitude to the party and his blessing for the Pemex vote as a way of tightening political control as his National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) gears up to pick a successor to him in 2024.

Fernando Belaunzaran, an opposition politician, said good relations between the Pemex union and the president were mutually beneficial and could help sway elections.

"(Lopez Obrador) is rebuilding the old PRI in MORENA," he said.

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Reporting by Dave Graham Additional reporting by Adriana Barrera Editing by Rosalba O'Brien

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