The Return of the Mexican Dinosaur

Mexico's pretty-boy president is more dangerous than he looks.


Mexico has apparently decided to turn back the clock. Widespread frustration with 12 years of uneven political progress and stunted economic growth under the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) has driven part of the Mexican electorate to desperately call the old-guard Institutional Revolutionary (PRI) back to power. Meanwhile, in a repeat of the country’s last presidential race in 2006, the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) has once again finished a close second.

According to the most recent LatinBarometer study, a whopping 73 percent of the Mexican population is dissatisfied with the performance of democracy (Mexico is tied with Guatemala for last place in Latin America in this category.) Such an attitude can be healthy for political development if it pushes citizens to work on improving the political system. But it can also produce a dangerous social malaise, which is the perfect breeding ground for the retrenchment of authoritarianism.

Last November, for instance, Guatemala voted in retired General Otto Pérez Molina as its new president in a worrisome embrace of the past. Pérez Molina has been implicated by civil society groups in systematic violations of human rights during the civil war that wreaked havoc in the country between 1960 and 1996. Activists have even filed a formal report with the U.N. special rapporteur on torture accusing Pérez Molina of war crimes for his direct role in the protracted conflict, which left more than 200,000 people dead and tens of thousands "disappeared."

Mexico has now followed Guatemala’s lead. Instead of trying something new and joining the "pink tide" of progressive social democratic politics that has swept through Latin American in recent years, a plurality of Mexicans has apparently succumbed to frustration and turned back to the past.

One of the clearest messages from yesterday’s election is that Mexicans are fed up with sitting President Felipe Calderón. They bitterly punished the PAN’s candidate, Josefina Vázquez Mota, by relegating her to a distant third place with only 25 percent of the vote. This should come as no surprise after five years of non-stop violence, with more than 50,000 violent deaths due to the failed "drug war" during the Calderón administration alone.

The economy has also performed badly. Average annual per capita growth under the two PAN administrations since 2000 — those of Vicente Fox (2000-2006) and Calderón (2006-2012) — has been about the same (0.9 percent) as it was during the last two decades of the previous PRI administrations (0.8 percent). Meanwhile, poverty and underemployment have significantly increased in recent years.

The surprise is not that Mexicans vote retrospectively, but that they somehow feel that the PRI can move them forward instead of backward. At 45, the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto may have been the youngest candidate in the race, but there is no evidence that he actually represents something new. To the contrary, everything we know about him suggests that he will bring back the worst traditions of opacity, corruption, and intolerance. U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) may be right, for instance, in pointing out that a Peña Nieto victory could spell a "reversion to the PRI policies of old" based on "turning a blind eye to the [drug] cartels." Peña Nieto’s public statements to the contrary in recent days are hardly believable.

Indeed, Sensenbrenner may actually be underestimating the danger; things could quickly get even worse than they were before the PRI was ousted from power in 2000. During the 1990s, the PRI split between what Mexicans called "technocrats" and "dinosaurs," with the former supposedly representing the modern wing of the ruling party and the latter the old guard. The last two presidents who hailed from the old ruling party, Carlos Salinas (1988-1994) and Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), held doctorates from elite U.S. universities and made an effort to present themselves as technocrats interested in economic growth and democratic procedure. In reality, malfeasance and authoritarian politics flourished during their administrations, but both men were at least endowed with a basic level of intelligence and worldly sophistication.

Peña Nieto, by contrast, is a "dinosaur" by any definition of the term. He is best known for his carefully combed hair and his soap opera actress wife. He has made it clear that he does not read books and his English is broken at best. His only training for the presidency is his six-year stint as provincial governor of the state of Mexico, a sprawling urban jungle on the outskirts of Mexico City best known for its abusive police, unfinished roads, and machine politics. Under Peña Nieto’s watch, corruption, poverty, and violence all increased, according to independent civil society studies.

Peña Nieto was born and raised in a family of politicians in the city of Atlacomulco, home to one of the most powerful "camarillas," or political cliques, in the country. He is extremely close to former governor Arturo Montiel, who has been embroiled in corruption scandals. One of the most important founders of the Atlacomulco Group, Carlos Hank González, is infamous for having quickly climbed the rungs of power — starting off as principal of an elementary school and soon becoming governor of the state of Mexico, mayor of Mexico City, and finally secretary of tourism and secretary of agriculture. He is best known for coining the aphorism "a politician who is poor is a poor politician," which Mexicans interpret as a cynical public justification for dirty politics.

In many ways, Peña Nieto has more in common with Vicente Fox than with Salinas or Zedillo. Like Peña Nieto, Fox became president after finishing up a term as governor and was not an especially deep thinker. Fox’s most important attraction was his populist charisma and his macho, cowboy approach to politics. In June, the former Mexican leader publicly endorsed Peña Nieto’s campaign.

Fox was unsuccessful in jumpstarting Mexico’s democratic transition. He squandered his opportunity as the first opposition president after more than 70 years of PRI rule. Instead of rolling up his sleeves to transform public institutions, he took the easy route of leaving in place the vested interests of the past.

Peña Nieto could be even more of a disappointment than Fox, since he will have his hands tied from the very beginning of his term. For example, the country’s roughly 20 state governors from the PRI (there are 32 states in Mexico) will enjoy unprecedented influence over the Peña Nieto administration. Twelve years without a president from the PRI to control them from above has empowered these local leaders and turned them into the de facto leaders of the party. They now rule like feudal lords without a glimmer of oversight or public responsibility, especially in those states — including Coahuila, Mexico, Tamaulipas, and Veracruz — where the PRI has never lost power. As former governor of the state of Mexico, Peña Nieto is a member of this group and will have to co-govern with it from the start.

Peña Nieto also owes his apparent victory to the television duopoly of TV Azteca and Televisa, which controls 95 percent of Mexico’s stations and has literally fabricated his popularity out of thin air. The Guardian‘s recent reports of secret contracts between Peña Nieto and Mexican television companies for the purpose of promoting his image are only the tip of the iceberg. Upon arriving in office, the new president may seek to pay back this invaluable support through new laws and regulatory measures. Such a deal would also inevitably involve protection for the Peña Nieto administration from uncomfortable media oversight and accountability.

Some scholars argue that the return of the PRI will not put Mexico’s democracy at risk because the judicial and legislative branches have much greater independence from the executive branch today than they did 20 years ago. While it is true that these branches of government may be able to effectively hold back some authoritarian excesses on the part of the new president, Mexico needs more than just checks and balances. It urgently needs the executive branch to stop treading water and start taking firm steps toward the establishment of accountability and the rule of law. Unfortunately, no evidence suggests that Peña Nieto has the background, the personal convictions, or the political independence necessary to carry out such a challenging and important task.

Meanwhile, the leftist opposition in Mexico will continue to be strong. The PRD candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has defied almost all of the pre-election polls by coming within striking distance of Peña Nieto. López Obrador will most likely finish only five or six percentage points behind the apparent president-elect, with approximately 33 percent of the popular vote compared with approximately 38 percent for Peña Nieto. This would mean that López Obrador’s vote total would surpass the 15 million mark, earning him even more support than he received in 2006, when he came within 0.58 percent of winning the presidency.

The #YoSoy132 student movement, which burst onto the scene two months ago to protest against Peña Nieto’s authoritarian inclinations and dealings with media companies, will also remain strong. Indeed, the arrival of Peña Nieto may well galvanize the youth to assume an even more important role in national politics. Yesterday’s enormous support for López Obrador suggests that millions of people may be willing to take to the streets to accompany the youth in their demand to democratize and assure greater plurality in the media.

If Peña Nieto is finally declared president-elect by Mexico’s electoral tribunal, he will have won with the support of less than 40 percent of the voters and will almost certainly face a Congress controlled by the opposition. Mexico is therefore headed toward an historic standoff between the new dinosaurs in charge of the executive and the new institutions and movements that have accompanied the glacial progress of democracy south of the border.

It’s difficult to put much faith in Peña Nieto’s pledge on Sunday night to embrace a "new form of governing that responds to the demands of Mexico in the 21st century" rather than return "to the past." The good news, though, is that Mexico’s emboldened political opposition just might keep this dinosaur true to his word.

 Twitter: @JohnMAckerman

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