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Mexico presidential campaign: Off to a good start

The two frontrunners in the Mexican presidential campaign now talk of reforming the state oil monopoly, Pemex. It's a sign of Mexico's hopeful future, despite the drug wars.

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    Enrique Peña Nieto, a presidential candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and his wife Angelica Rivera, greet his supporters.
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As Mexico starts the official campaign for a July 1 presidential election, a big political taboo has been broken – one of many signs that Mexicans are defying old stereotypes, from gender to economics.

The two presidential frontrunners, Enrique Peña Nieto and Josefina Vázquez Mota, have both endorsed major reform of Pemex, the state oil monopoly long held dear as an icon of national pride. It’s also Latin America’s largest corporation.

Pemex’s production has fallen by a quarter since 2004. Mismanaged as a cash cow for government coffers, it lacks the expertise to tap the huge reserves in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The two candidates want to open up the petroleum giant to private, perhaps even foreign, investment.

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Other economic reforms could be in the offing after the election, such as breaking up a telecom monopoly or labor reform. More than half of Mexicans now see themselves as middle-class and want change. They have tired of the war on drug cartels waged by outgoing President Felipe Calderón. The war has seen nearly 50,000 people killed since 2006.

Tapping more oil and doing it with less corruption would help Mexico keep up with its hemispheric competitor, Brazil, which is already planning its own offshore oil bonanza. One think tank estimates the Mexican economy would grow faster by 2.5 percentage points by opening up the oil sector to competition.

More oil wealth is needed to make up for a big drop in cash sent home by immigrants in the United States. Illegal border crossings are a fraction of what they once were, in part because more Mexicans find they can have a better life at home.

In the last three decades, the number of cars has risen fivefold while university graduates have tripled. Married couples are having fewer children, helping raise per capita income by 40 percent since 1990.

Such trends make this presidential election the best opportunity for economic reform. Up to now, proposals put forth by the ruling center-right National Action Party, or PAN, have been stymied by partisan gridlock in Mexico’s Congress. If Mr. Peña Nieto wins, as polls now indicate, his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, could have enough clout to bring about reform – despite PRI’s past history in running a virtual one-party state.

That prospect has huge consequences for the US – in drug flows, border safety, immigration, and energy security. The three-month presidential race – which includes a ban on negative campaigning in traditional media – is well worth watching.

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