Will New Face of Mexico Be Ghost From Its Past?

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When Mexicans head to the polls to select a successor to Felipe Calderón on July 1, all indications are that they will opt for Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled the country for more than 70 years until 2000.

The former governor of Mexico State, an entity of 15 million residents surrounding Mexico City, Peña Nieto has been the clear frontrunner for years. Even as the race tightened in the weeks leading up to the contest, with student protests chipping away at the PRI candidate's aura of inevitability, most polls continued to give Peña Nieto a significant if not insurmountable lead.

Peña Nieto was fortunate in the opponents he faced. The leftist Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) and its allies selected Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor who lost the 2006 election to Calderón by a hair, as their candidate. López Obrador retains a great deal of support among the left, but his reaction to the 2006 loss — namely camping out along one of Mexico City's principal thoroughfares along with thousands of supporters to protest what they deemed an electoral fraud, disrupting businesses and everyday life — made him the most negatively viewed politician in all of Mexico.

However, by appealing to poorer segments of the country and capitalizing on student protests aimed at Peña Nieto, López Obrador deflated some of the frontrunner's steam, though as of press time, it remained to be seen if this last-minute push would be enough to take the fiery leftist candidate over the finish line.

Calderón's right-leaning National Action Party (PAN) opted for Josefina Vázquez Mota, the first woman nominated by a major party in Mexican history. While that distinction generated some excitement, Vázquez Mota, a former cabinet secretary and congressional leader, trailed from the start and ran an erratic campaign filled with oddball gambits such as demanding that all the candidates submit to polygraph tests.

Opponents aside, the reasons for Peña Nieto's political popularity have much to do with his fame. He's an extremely telegenic figure, and he and his team have exploited the media to an unprecedented degree for a Mexican governor. Peña Nieto also happens to be married to a famous soap opera star — their courtship and nuptials were one of the most talked-about gossip-show events of the past several years — which gives him an unusual degree of recognition among voters who don't closely follow politics.

"It is really remarkable how [Enrique Peña Nieto] runs on a celebrity status based on good looks and a glamorous marriage rather than his record, which leaves much to be desired," said Dag Mossige, a visiting assistant professor at Davidson University who specializes in Mexican politics.

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Photo: Reinhard Jahn, Mannheim / Selbst Fotografiert
The National Palace in Mexico City is home of the country's executive branch. If Enrique Peña Nieto, opposite page, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) wins the July 1 presidential election, it would herald the return of the long-ruling PRI to power after a 12-year absence.

But the 45-year-old's movie-star appeal is also a double-edged sword: It plays into long-standing accusations that Peña Nieto is a political lightweight. And his campaign, while generally successful, did nothing to disabuse voters of that notion. He famously meandered incoherently through a question about three books that influenced his life, misnaming authors and trailing off repeatedly. In an interview last year, he was unable to identify the price of a kilo of tortillas (roughly analogous to the price of a gallon of gas in the U.S.) and understated the minimum wage in Mexico by half. Peña Nieto is capable enough as an orator, and he passed the final presidential debate without much fanfare, but he often appears shaky in unscripted appearances.

Adding to this superficial impression is the lack of concrete policy ideas he's put forth, other than vaguely pledging to pass reforms, reduce drug-related violence, boost economic growth, and create jobs. And although the race has hinged more on personality than actual policies, Peña Nieto's record has come under scrutiny.

Unlike the rest of the country, murders did not spike during his stint as governor of Mexico State, which is certainly a credit to his administration, but the levels of violence against women, including murder, grew dramatically. A number of social development indicators worsened during his tenure as well; for instance, 214,000 more residents of Mexico State were suffering from nutritional poverty in 2010 than had been two years earlier. His political opponents also accuse Peña Nieto of saddling the state with an enormous debt.

In short, Peña Nieto's track record is decidedly mixed and a major reason that his once-insurmountable advantage shrank considerably as the election approached. But the concern among many Mexicans stems not only from worries that Peña Nieto might not be up to the task, but from the party he represents.

PRI Redux?

Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its forerunners ruled Mexico from 1929 through 2000. While initially serving as a welcome guarantor of stability following the chaos of the Mexican Revolution, the party came to be known primarily for its economic mismanagement, corruption and anti-democratic tendencies. These flaws fed the growing dissatisfaction with the party during the final years of its reign, before it was voted from power in a historic 2000 election.

Since its defeat, the party has made a show of renovating itself and promoting a generation of new PRI figures. These newbies, of whom Peña Nieto is the most prominent, came of age in a far different era than their political forefathers and, according to their supporters, are endowed with a greater commitment to transparency and democratic pluralism than the notorious leaders of PRI's past.

Whether or not this is actually true, however, is a matter of constant debate in Mexico. John Ackerman, a professor at the Institute for Legal Research of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, is among those skeptical of the notion of a reborn PRI.

"Peña Nieto himself and the people around him represent the old PRI," Ackerman told The Diplomat. "There is no new PRI. The only thing new about Peña Nieto is his face. The way he governed Mexico State is the old PRI."

In an op-ed in the LA Times, Ackerman accuses the party of being up to its same old dirty tricks. "The 10 states where the PRI has never lost power are among the most violent, underdeveloped and corrupt in the country," he wrote. "The state of Mexico, where Peña Nieto just finished a six-year stint as governor, is no exception.... A recent study by scholar Guadalupe Hernandez found that millions in government 'social spending' went unaccounted for while Peña Nieto was governor, most likely to illegally fund his presidential campaign. Independent civil society groups rank the state at the bottom in competitiveness and tops in corruption."

A return of the old PRI could spell the end of the economic stability that Mexico has enjoyed over the past 15 years. Mossige notes that Peña Nieto's own economic views are not well understood and that he has borrowed liberally from many different wings of the PRI.

"There is no question that there is great potential for mismanagement," Mossige said. "On the one hand, Peña Nieto has incorporated several key figures from the [Ernesto] Zedillo administration, which augurs well for macroeconomic stability. On the other hand, he has made a range of rather spectacular campaign promises."

Grassroots Backlash

For the past several years, negative opinions of the PRI have been relatively muted. The party has been by far the most successful over the course of Calderón's term: The PRI controls more than half the governor's offices in Mexico, has a majority (together with a smaller coalition partner) in the lower house of Congress, and was the big winner in a number of midterm elections. A growing perception of the PRI as just another party rather than a bloc of latent authoritarians was a major factor in Peña Nieto emerging as the clear favorite in the presidential race.

However, as the election progressed, the grassroots alarm over a potential return of the PRI grew — fueling a student-led movement known as YoSoy132, or "I am 132," whose name refers to the 131 students from the prestigious Universidad Iberoamericana who appeared in a video affirming their concern over Peña Nieto's campaign and a perceived media bias in his favor. In just several weeks of existence, the group launched protest marches against Peña Nieto and organized a debate that served as an alternative to the stilted official contests on TV.

"I think the 132 student protest ... really galvanized and woke a lot of people up who may not have been paying a lot of attention before," said Daniel Hernandez, a Mexico City-based journalist and author of the book "Down and Delirious in Mexico City."

The presidential race, of course, provided an obvious impetus for people suspicious of the PRI to mobilize. Going forward, however, maintaining that momentum will be harder, and the shape of the opposition will almost certainly shift. Hernandez expressed some hope that those whose political awareness was sparked by the current movement would remain active, but others are skeptical that YoSoy132 will continue to play a large role in marshalling opposition to the PRI.

"I believe we will see at least a small surge in anti-PRI activism and that some conscience of the 'forgotten' problems under previous PRI administrations will be created amongst otherwise less-informed younger voters, but it won't be an enormous thing," said Jan-Albert Hootsen, a Dutch journalist who runs the Voice of Mexico, a news and commentary website.

Within the halls of power, the opposition's response to the PRI will also be decisive in determining Mexico's path forward. The most likely result of the congressional elections, which occur on the same day as the presidential contest and in which every seat is up for grabs, is a divided legislature. This means that to enact any semblance of his agenda, Peña Nieto will need the support of either the PAN or PRD.

Calderón's PAN is the most likely collaborator for Peña Nieto. After it became clear that the PRD's López Obrador had a chance to catch up to Peña Nieto and that she was no longer a competitive contender, the PAN's Vázquez Mota directed most of her fire at her PRD adversary rather than at the frontrunner. A number of high-profile "panistas" have also called on the party faithful to support Peña Nieto, much as a number of PRI activists did in 2006 for Calderón.

Furthermore, over the past 12 years, the PAN and the PRI have worked together on a number of different agenda items. The relationship broke down often and was characterized as much by gridlock as it was by cross-party cooperation, but the template for PRI-PAN collaboration was set during the negotiations for a series of reforms — namely legislation modifying the electoral laws, public pension system, oil industry and tax regime — under the Calderón administration. If Peña Nieto hopes to improve on Calderón's legislative achievements, he'll need to carve out a similar modus operandi.

The U.S. Relationship

The U.S. government has been a strong supporter of the Calderón's administration — in particular its head-on fight against the drug cartels — and was no doubt happy to see the PRI, widely seen as complicit in Mexico's drug trafficking, get kicked out of office in 2000.

Yet in some ways, the return of the PRI may not be a huge problem for Washington. Economically, Peña Nieto may lean away from Washington's preferred approach on a number of issues, but he'll be a loyal supporter of NAFTA, and he is not the open threat to U.S. interests that some of his South American counterparts have been.

"I really do see Peña Nieto as the candidate of continuity," said Ackerman. "Perhaps he will open the door to more corruption or impunity. This is quite likely. That could definitely complicate relations with the U.S., insofar as the U.S. is interested in combating corruption and continuity."

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Photo: Edgar Alberto Dominguez Cataño / World Economic Forum
Enrique Peña Nieto, the former governor of Mexican State, has attracted legions of fans for his telegenic good looks and marriage to a famous soap opera star, though his critics say he's a political lightweight.

But the U.S. government's foremost concern in Mexico these days is drug violence, and here the issue is a bit more complicated. All of the major presidential candidates pledged to refocus the drug battle on making communities safer and lowering the astounding levels of violence that have seized parts of the country — killing more than 50,000 people since Calderón dispatched the military to take on the cartels in 2006 — rather than adhering to the U.S.-backed strategy of disrupting drug supplies and capturing kingpins.

Although Calderón's aggressive approach has taken a lot of heat for ratcheting up the body count and barbarity — headless torsos dumped alongside highways have long stopped being an aberration — the PRI's track record was equally dubious. The party was notorious for its deeply embedded links to drug traffickers, and today many analysts have speculated on the possibility of a peace pact with the narcos, modeled after the PRI collusion of yesteryear, to quell the rampant violence.

Nonetheless, in a handful of public appearances both in Mexico and in the United States, Peña Nieto has insisted that he will continue to combat criminal groups in Mexico, albeit perhaps not on the scale that Calderón has waged.

Most experts also discount the likelihood of an overarching system of collusion between drug traffickers and the federal government. "A negotiation or explicit 'pact' between the president of Mexico and organized crime is a remote possibility," said Eduardo Guerrero Gutierrez, a security analyst in Mexico City.

While that prospect may be somewhat reassuring to U.S. policymakers, more of the same does not promise any improvement in Mexico's escalating drug carnage. As Guerrero Gutierrez and others have pointed out, while Peña Nieto has pledged to reorganize Mexico's security forces (something virtually every president has done for a generation), he hasn't made a convincing argument for how he will be able to reduce the increasingly gruesome killings shaking the country.

Though his security proposals remain vague, a changeover in the ruling party could have some positive side effects, regardless of the policies emanating from the executive branch. One could be increased coordination between the federal government and the states, given that the PRI controls a majority of the governor's posts. "It's likely that coordination would improve," Guerrero Gutierrez said of a potential Peña Nieto administration. Pointing to the current problems, he added, "The governors and mayors that aren't from the PAN, which are most of them, have a distant and distrustful relationship with the federal government's security agencies."

Mexico's new president will certainly need all the help and cooperation he can get over the next six years (presidents are limited to one six-year term) to turn around a security situation that has sunk to new lows over the last six years, while healing political divisions that have festered for decades.


About the Author

Patrick Corcoran is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 28, 2012