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A Return to Power: Mexico’s PRI Tries to Sell Itself as the Party of the Future

14 minute read
Tim Padgett / Tepeaca

A group of students just pelted the convoy of Mexico’s leading presidential candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, with sticks and stones as he arrived in the town of Tepeaca in Puebla state, south of Mexico City. Bad campaign optics aside, this sort of violent welcome might seem an ill omen for Peña as the July 1 election nears. Young voters helped throw his party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), out of power nearly 12 years ago, ending its autocratic, decades-long rule of Mexico. The hostile kids outside Tepeaca are the latest of a growing number of teen and 20-something Mexicans on a social-media-fueled blitz opposing Peña and the PRI’s bid to regain the presidency.

But Peña, himself a boyish-looking 45 years old, seems confident that for every young anti-PRI militant, there are plenty of other youthful Mexicans backing him. Recent college graduate María Ruiz, 24, went to the Tepeaca rally to make that point. When she voted in her first presidential election in 2006, Ruiz dismissed the PRI as a “dinosaur.” Now, with the past decade shadowed by a violent drug war that has killed 55,000 people and a limp economy that has stunted opportunity for millions more, she’s ready to give the PRI a chance. “I think Peña relates to Mexicans of my age better than the other candidates do,” says Ruiz. Her generation is the first to get a shout-out from Peña as he hits the stage: “Saludos to the youth of Puebla!” he shouts, the earlier sticks and stones forgotten. When Peña’s finished, he dives into the crowd like a rockero, or rock star.

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Mexico looks set to have a PRI-vival on July 1 — and the party’s comeback marks an anxious turning point for the giant but fledgling democracy south of America’s border. Mexicans have clean elections today, but that doesn’t make up for the security dystopia and the financial frustration they’ve endured since 2000. So they’re taking a gamble. Mexicans know how responsible the PRI was in the 20th century for so many of the problems they still live with in the 21st, from the terrifying power of the nation’s vicious drug cartels — originally nurtured by the epic corruption of past PRI governments — to the business monopolies and rampant inequality that keep almost half of Mexico’s 112 million people in poverty and looking for work in the U.S. But voters are betting that the party has spent the past dozen years out of power righting itself enough to help right the country.

Peña earnestly pitches the idea that he and his generation of party leadership are proof the PRI is no longer the despotic vote-buying machine that controlled Mexico from 1929 to 2000. And he’s sold that vision in large part because as governor of powerful Mexico state (adjoining Mexico City) from 2005 to ’11, he compiled a more progressive record of less patronage-obsessed administration than Mexicans were used to seeing from a PRI-ista. “The PRI has eminently changed because Mexico has,” Peña insists in an interview with TIME in Tepeaca. “This is another Mexico today, a democratic culture, and we’re competing strongly again precisely because our proposals promise even more change.”

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Critics contend that Peña is just a good-looking front man manipulated by the old guard of the PRI. “The old mafia of power is imposing itself again,” Peña’s closest rival, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, recently warned. U.S. opinions are mixed: officials are heartened by Peña’s plans to open Mexico’s large but inefficient state-run oil industry to private and perhaps even foreign investment, but they worry that if the PRI recaptures Los Pinos, the Mexico City presidential residence, the party might go soft on drug traffickers again.

Peña calls all those insinuations part of an “antidemocratic conspiracy” against his party — and he has a commanding lead over López in voter polls, with the candidate of current President Felipe Calderón’s conservative National Action Party (PAN) in third. That suggests enough Mexicans don’t believe the criticism against Peña or don’t care. What they do apparently believe and care about is that the more centrist PRI, as Peña argues, “is the only political force that can get things done” at this fragile moment in the country’s history.

The Perfect Dictatorship
The history of Mexico since its volcanic social revolution in 1910 is largely the history of the PRI. Or, as the late Mexican literary giant Carlos Fuentes saw it, it’s the history of the PRI’s betrayal of the Mexican Revolution’s democratic values — how it degenerated from the standard bearer of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa into a calcified gang that stood for little more than the cynical accumulation of power and spoils, with each generation of “new masters equally ambitious and rapacious,” as Fuentes wrote in his epic novel The Death of Artemio Cruz. Some groups, like campesinos (peasant farmers), initially benefited from PRI rule. But their aspirations were smothered by a system so crooked that by the 1990s, Mexico had one of the world’s highest number of billionaires even as its workers earned some of the world’s lowest wages on average.

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Through it all, the PRI created what the Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa once called “the perfect dictatorship” because it was “camouflaged” with elections so as not to look dictatorial — the forerunner of contemporary authoritarian democracies like Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. Even so, scenes like a 1968 government massacre of hundreds of pro-democracy protesters betrayed the PRI’s iron fist. Election rigging was so brazen that in 1988, when it appeared that an opposition candidate would win the presidential balloting, PRI bosses shut down the vote-tallying computers, worked their alchemy and — presto — the PRI’s Carlos Salinas de Gortari was el nuevo Presidente.

Salinas’ landmark 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. and Canada opened PRI-controlled Mexico to the outside world. But it also raised democratic expectations inside Mexico, highlighted by the 1994 Zapatista uprising of indigenous peasants in southern Chiapas state. That year, the PRI’s reformist presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, was assassinated — most Mexicans believe PRI hard-liners ordered it — and the party bungled a devaluation of the peso. The massive recession that followed was the last straw for Mexican voters. President Ernesto Zedillo let the PRI lose Congress in 1997 — and let the PAN’s Vicente Fox win Los Pinos in 2000.

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Still a Live Force
Peña, then a 33-year-old lawyer and a rising technocrat in Mexico state’s government, watched the 2000 election with mixed emotions. He was a scion of one of the PRI’s most prominent families, but he was also a member of the 18-to-34 age bracket that had cast two-thirds of its votes against the PRI. Peña could read the trends. But the election had humiliated, not exterminated, the PRI. “It was still a live force,” he says, “still in touch with too large a base of support to be ignored.”

Indeed, the PRI still holds more than half of Mexico’s 31 state governorships — and the party’s time in presidential exile has allowed its state and local officials, who chafed under the old PRI’s hypercentralized authority, to assert more autonomy. Many went rogue; some stand accused of drug corruption. But governors like Peña win kudos for “being much more responsive to voters instead of trying to co-opt them with grubby clientelism and handouts, as the PRI had always done in the past,” says Federico Estévez, a political analyst at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico in Mexico City. Peña isn’t known as a deep or detailed thinker, but he’s a skilled administrator whose personable and energetic style contrasts with Calderón’s dour prickliness. As Mexico state’s governor, he doubled revenue via more efficient and equitable tax collection, and he freed up social spending by sharply reducing wasteful political hires.

Meanwhile, the PRI-istas in Congress, who currently control the legislature’s lower chamber, haven’t made life easy for the current ruling party. The PAN has made its share of mistakes since winning power in 2000 — not the least of which was Calderón’s bold but ill-conceived military offensive against the drug cartels, which has exacerbated the violence in many parts of Mexico. But a Congress that was a rubber stamp for PRI Presidents in the 20th century is now hopelessly gridlocked, and the PRI has blocked or delayed many of Calderón’s reforms, including the overhaul of a stale political system that still bars independent candidates in elections.

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Ironically, that gives Mexicans another reason to vote for Peña, whose 2011 book, Mexico: The Great Hope, concedes that the country is an “ineffective state.” If the PRI holds Los Pinos as well as Congress, many figure, the country stands a better chance of breaking its reform logjam. But experts fear that PRI dominance could thwart institutional reform by re-establishing the imperial presidency of the 20th century. Peña says that’s not his design. “The most important changes we want to effect,” he says, “have to do with rule of law and building confidence in democratic institutions.”

Peña supporters point to his energy-investment proposal as further proof of his stomach for reform. Ever since the PRI seized Mexico’s oil reserves in 1938, the state-run monopoly, Petróleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, has been a sacred as well as a cash cow. But poor management and weak investment have taken their toll. So Peña is calling for what would have been blasphemy inside the old PRI: a constitutional amendment to permit private, minority investment in Pemex. Peña hopes it will make Pemex competitive with Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil behemoth, which already allows private minority stakes. He also embraces the Nixon-in-China quality of a PRI-ista going after Mexico’s national treasure. “I lead the political movement that can get this through,” he says.

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Upgrading Pemex, however, could prove a lot easier than downgrading Mexico’s horrific drug war. Peña says he disagrees with Calderón’s military strategy, but he realizes Mexico can’t yet trust its corrupt and incompetent cops to do the job either. Peña’s major alternative idea so far is a “national gendarmerie,” a force of soldier — police officers that to many people sounds like a fancier name for what Calderón already has on the streets. Like Calderón, Peña wants more professional and uniform training of judges, prosecutors and police. But that’s a long-term project, and Mexico is bleeding right now.

It’s Peña’s short-term agenda that has raised eyebrows in Mexico and the U.S., which recently pledged $1.5 billion in drug-war aid. Peña asserted in May that “our priority should be reducing the violence,” adding that the crimes he wants to focus on are murder, kidnapping and extortion. Many wondered if that meant he intends to de-emphasize the fight against drug trafficking, much as the PRI did in the late 20th century as a way of getting the cartels to agree to keep narcoviolence relatively low. “We don’t really believe [Peña] thinks that way,” says one U.S. official involved in drug interdiction. “But you’d be naive not to be mindful of his party’s past.”


Peña denies the inference. “I want to signal very clearly that there will be no truce or deals with either organized crime or drug trafficking,” he tells TIME. “It’s our duty to finish them off.” And yet the U.S. would also be naive not to realize how sick Mexicans are of the drug war. “Mexicans are tired of living in Chicago in the 1920s because the gringos want to keep buying drugs,” says a former high-ranking Mexican official.

Nevertheless, Peña felt compelled to shore up his antinarco street cred this month by presenting former Colombian national-police director Oscar Naranjo as his new public-security consultant. Naranjo was one of the architects of Colombia’s dramatic reduction in violent crime in the 1990s, and he could help Mexico map out a better drug-war plan. But acknowledging Colombia’s past success, which was assisted by $5 billion in American aid, may also be Peña’s way of acknowledging that he can’t keep Washington at arm’s length the way the old U.S.-wary PRI so often did. His desire to jump-start the dormant bilateral effort on immigration reform is another sign — albeit one dependent on the outcome of U.S. elections in November.

“A Telenovela Hero”
Of course, the ideal immigration reform would give Mexicans better job opportunities at home so they don’t have to risk their lives in the Arizona desert. Mexico’s economic growth is bouncing back this year — experts predict 4% — but since 2000 it has averaged only 2%. Poverty stands at 45%, two-thirds of Mexicans make less than $14 a day, and bank credit remains scant. The future doesn’t look much better: 80% of students who reach secondary school, according to a recent documentary, De Panzazo!, can’t multiply.

Fixing that malaise has to include busting the monopolies that hold back the economy. Leading businesses control Mexican market shares as high as 95% in industries ranging from tortillas to telecommunications; in the process they choke the potential of the small and medium-size enterprises that employ more than half the nation’s workforce. Most of Mexico’s tycoons — including the world’s richest man, telecom baron Carlos Slim — owe their fortunes in no small part to their ties to the old PRI. Breaking cronyism is one way the new PRI can prove itself. To his credit, Peña has suggested building on the PAN’s monopoly-busting efforts with devices like special antitrust courts.

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Yet critics say it’s hard to take Peña’s commitment to competition seriously, given his own cozy relationship with Mexico’s largest television network, Televisa. Best known for its globally popular telenovelas, or soap operas, Televisa controlled Mexico’s airwaves in the 20th century as the PRI’s virtual media ministry. It still commands about 70% of the market, and PRI opponents charge that it’s catapulted Peña by giving him inordinate, and inordinately flattering, airtime. Peña insists he’s “not Televisa’s candidate,” but his opponent López says Televisa “has in fact turned [Peña] into some kind of telenovela hero.”

López’s campaign was buoyed last month when students at a prominent private college in Mexico City, protesting the alleged PRI-Televisa collusion, ran Peña out of a political event. Others have since begun demonstrating against the PRI, calling it antidemocratic. Peña turns the accusation around. “Because we’re so far ahead in the polls, they’re trying to compare us to the old PRI. They’re trying to censor us,” he says. “Which means they’re trying to censor a large part of Mexico, and that itself is antidemocratic.”

Their complaint isn’t so much antidemocratic as it is exaggerated. The fact that López’s recent surge in the polls could keep Peña under 40% of the vote is a reminder of how much Mexico has indeed changed since 2000. No party can create another “perfect dictatorship,” and Mexicans are betting that Peña and the PRI understand that reality. If they want to hold on to power, they’ll have to spend the next six years convincing the country they can create a more perfect democracy.

with reporting by Dolly Mascareñas / Mexico City

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