Enrique Peña Nieto, the PRI candidate, is the front-runner in Sunday’s election.
By JO TUCKMAN
IN 2000, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which had run Mexico for 71 years with the help of a mixture of authoritarianism, corruption and election-tampering, was voted out of office. This was seen as the end of an era, the relegation of an anachronistic institution to the scrapheap of history.
How is it, then, that the party’s candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, seems poised to win the presidential election next Sunday and become the leader of 113 million Mexicans? In part, it’s a tribute to the party’s survival instincts — and to an image makeover in the form of a young and telegenic candidate with a matinee idol aura, a telenovela actress wife and an immobile hairdo.
But the party, known as PRI, could not have gotten to this position if the rest of the political elite had not made such a mess of opportunities in the last 12 years to make Mexico a more functioning democracy.
Negligence, corruption and abuse of power at all levels of government rarely bring any serious consequences. The federal government, once the ultimate political referee, has ceded power to local authorities, but the trickle down has reached few ordinary citizens, whose participation is largely limited to polling day. Civil society has not proved organized or powerful enough to hold the privileged political class accountable. In some parts of Mexico, violent drug cartels have filled this power vacuum. Since President Felipe Calderón, of the National Action Party, or PAN, began his all-out assault against the drug organizations in 2006, some 50,000 Mexicans have died. Headless bodies swing from bridges. Corrupt police officers and prosecutors protect murderous gangs. Local journalists have been killed by the dozen.
Mr. Calderón — who by law is limited to one six-year term — says he has saved Mexico from becoming a failed narco-state. The offensive was necessary, he argues, because complicit previous governments, limp American efforts to tackle drug consumption and cross-border gun running, and changes in organized criminal markets had allowed the power and brutality of the cartels to get out of control. He has a point — but his party’s failure to find democratic ways to bolster state power and legitimacy, after one-party hegemony ended, is a large part of the story of why the cartels have yet to be brought to heel.
The damp-rag presidency of Mr. Calderón’s predecessor, Vicente Fox, of PAN, who was president from 2000 to 2006, deserves much of the blame. Mr. Fox frittered away the enthusiasm that accompanied his historic election and did almost nothing to reform the structures of government left behind by the PRI. Aside from an energetic, if doomed, push for an immigration agreement with President George W. Bush’s administration, he trundled along in a haze of frivolity, punctuated by a streak of malevolence he displayed by trying to block a popular leftist, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, from even running for president. That failed, but Mr. López Obrador lost by a whisker to the PAN candidate, Mr. Calderón, who successfully branded him an unhinged messianic radical, in 2006.
The second term for PAN, won by Mr. Calderón, meant further stagnation for Mexican democracy.
The one-term limit for many offices still means that politicians who want to further their careers barter in back rooms with their eye on the next post, rather than debate their record before voters in an effort to gain re-election. Judicial reforms, approved in 2008, have been underfinanced and slow to take effect. Regulatory agencies are too weak to impose their will on the monopolies and oligopolies that control the economy. Mexicans still dance to a tune played by a class of unaccountables, from influence-peddling union leaders to governors who rule their states as fiefs to TV networks that play favorites.
Corruption is so embedded in Mexico’s life and self-image that the revelations of kickbacks paid by Walmart to expand in Mexico drew little more than world-weary shrugs. Mr. Fox’s promises to go after “big fish” and Mr. Calderón’s pledge of “clean hands” have been all but forgotten.
THERE have been some silver linings in the PAN years. The colossal economic mismanagement of the final decades of PRI rule has mutated into a dogged commitment to stability. Transparency laws and aggressive news media are applying scrutiny to the powers that be. After an open debate, Mexico City has made abortion on demand legal (in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy) and recognized same-sex marriage.
But a yawning gulf between the political elite and the rest of the people remains.
Mr. Peña Nieto, the governor of Mexico’s most populous state from 2005 to 2011, has promised “effective government” and “a democracy that brings results.” Both slogans speak to the feeling that Mexico has lost direction, but they also hint at nostalgia for the days of order, sense of purpose and wealth redistribution under the old PRI. He claims to represent a new, pluralism-loving generation that is more capable than the PAN and more disciplined than the left.
Simply put, after 12 years in exile, the PRI is preparing to reassume its traditional place of power. “It’s a gene, a chip that we have and that the other parties do not,” a lifelong party member who knows Mr. Peña Nieto told me. “The PAN are good at being in opposition, but they do not know how to be in government, and the best operatives on the left were trained up inside the PRI.” In other words, the PRI’s members were born and raised to rule.
The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa once called the PRI a “perfect dictatorship,” underscoring its tight control of public life without resort to military juntas and their everyday brutalities. To be sure, the PRI today has moved on from there. It is not the same party that massacred pro-democracy students in 1968, nationalized the banks on a presidential whim in 1982 and secured a presidential election victory in 1988 only after the vote-counting computer crashed. But even in its more acceptable form, the PRI does not bode well for pushing democratization forward.
Until a few weeks ago, a return of the PRI seemed a foregone conclusion; most polls showed the leftist Mr. López Obrador and the PAN candidate, Josefina Eugenia Vázquez Mota, battling for a distant second place behind Mr. Peña Nieto. But the late emergence of an energetic youth mobilization against Mr. Peña Nieto, combined with accusations of biased media coverage, have injected a note of passion and unpredictability into the campaign as his lead begins to erode. In other words, Mexico might have a race after all. With any luck, it will help keep the debate about the quality of Mexican democracy at the center of the agenda, whoever wins the presidency.