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Mexico’s election and why we should care

Mexico’s election and why we should care

Mexican voters go to the polls this Sunday to decide whether to return to power the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had governed the country for seventy years under a "one-party democracy." Polls show PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto comfortably ahead of his two rivals, leftist populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Josefina Vazquez Mota of the incumbent center-right National Action Party (PAN).

If those polls hold, it would mean a remarkable comeback for a party that was tossed out of power in 2000 after it came to symbolize nothing more than clientelism, patronage, muscle, and corruption.

For most observers, a Peña Nieto victory raises the $64,000 question: Will he govern as a forward-looking reformer eager to modernize and accelerate Mexico’s integration to the global economy, or will he simply preside over Mexico’s slide back to its authoritarian and statist ways under the PRI?

This question is not just academic. This election is important for the United States because what happens in Mexico does not stay in Mexico. Instead, events there have a direct impact on U.S. interests, whether it’s the health of the Mexico’s $1.1 trillion economy, energy production, and security issues — e.g., narcotics trafficking — among a range of other important issues.

In short, we really don’t know how Peña Nieto intends to govern because his campaign has been vague on many key policy issues, although he has tried to reassure voters who remember the PRI-style all too well that, as president, "[he] will govern with the most solid and free democratic principles in the world."

While only time will tell where a President Peña Nieto will lead Mexico, on one crucial issue he will not have the luxury of time or nuance. That is, the war begun by President Felipe Calderón to break the backs of the Mexican drug cartels, a courageous decision that specifically upended the PRI-model of "live and let live" and deal-cutting with the drug syndicates.

Many thus are looking for signs as to just how Peña Nieto intends to wage (or not) the war against the cartels. So far, there has been no detailed plan, only vague statements about shifting priorities to reducing violence over the primacy of taking down capos and drug seizures. (Contrary to conventional wisdom, the drug war is not a loser with the Mexican people; 8 in 10 support the use of the Mexican army against the cartels, according to Pew.

However, in a nod that Peña Nieto intends to keep the pressure on the cartels, his campaign recently announced the hiring of Colombia’s former national police chief Gen. Óscar Naranjo as his drug war adviser. (Naranjo has a sterling record against Colombia’s drug cartels and is well-known to both Washington and the Calderón administration.)

While that is a good sign, it still will not be easy for Peña Nieto to overcome his party’s historical reluctance to take on the drug cartels or, politically, to embrace his predecessor’s signature policy. It is admittedly a war fraught with great risks and enormous costs. Some believe that the extent of the counter-drug mobilization ordered by President Calderón means that any successor will have no choice but to continue forward.

One certainly hopes that is the case, but there is no guarantee. And there can be any number of gradations on how that war is fought and the underlying commitment communicated. Let’s hope that Peña Nieto also understands this is a battle to take back Mexico’s security and sovereignty from criminal organizations and that there is no going back to some deal-cutting modus vivendi.

Lastly, this is not just Mexico’s war, but our war too. It is U.S. demand that fuels the Mexican drug trade and it is their product that blights our neighborhoods and poisons our youth. Yet a transfer of power in Mexico will necessitate a delicate diplomatic dance by the Obama administration to help keep the next government on the right path. The administration stumbled a bit trying to build a trusting relationship with the Calderón government. We need to get it right from the start this time around.