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Is Mexico's leading presidential candidate a retreat from democratic progress?

Presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto is leading in polls, but he hails from a party that ruled Mexico with a heavy hand for 71 years.

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Peña Nieto and the ‘new’ old party

The PRI maintains that its past ways are behind it, and Peña Nieto is the perfect vehicle to sell its new product. The telegenic former governor of the State of Mexico is held up as a new model of a PRIsta who responds to critics: He released a 10-point manifesto recently including his embrace of the right to protest and to freedom of expression, to allay fears that a return to the PRI is a return to an authoritarian past. While many Mexicans actually say they would welcome so-called narco-pacts as a way to reduce violence, Peña Nieto has said he will not negotiate with drug traffickers.

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Peña Nieto, in his mid-40s, was a widely popular governor of the state of Mexico between 2005 and 2011. He was known for signing pledges in front of a notary, held up as his commitment to transparency and efficiency. Some of his tenure was also controversial, including a police crackdown on street vendors in the town of San Salvador Atenco in 2006.

The party is careful not to dub itself the “new PRI,” because members are drawing on the party's reputation for efficiency and its vast reach to show how it can gain control of the country and pass needed reforms. The PRI holds the majority of governorships, and is essentially the only party that is competitive across the entire country. If victorious, it simply shows that Mexican democracy is working, party officials say.

“Just because the PRI wins doesn't mean it's going to govern for the next 70 years,” says Aurelio Nuño, the communications director for the Peña Nieto campaign.

But many skeptics don't buy the branding. There might be a more democratic current in the PRI but the old-time PRIsts still wield vast power, they say, especially at the local level: There are recent accusations that a PRI governor from the state of Tamaulipas received millions from drug gangs.

“Despite Peña Nieto's youth, he is not a 21st century candidate,” says Jose Antonio Crespo, who authored a book on the PRI.

Adrian Cortez, a bus driver in the working class Xochimilco neighborhood of Meixco City, agrees.  He’s voting for the left, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

“The PRI was good and bad. But it has been the PRI since I was a child, and there was so much corruption,” Mr. Cortez says.

Among Cortez's contemporaries, who grew up with the PRI in power, most voters are drawn to Peña Nieto's candidacy, according to a poll by the firm Mitofsky in Mexico City. That preference had not budged, even with campaign gaffes such as a much ridiculed book fair event, during which Peña Nieto wasn't able to name three books that have inspired him.

‘He is a young face’

A month before the race, Peña Nieto's lead is not as surefire as it has been for most of the campaign, and continued student protests could pull the large number of undecided voters away from Peña Nieto. 

But across age groups and gender, Peña Nieto's support has remained solid. And supporters say they believe the PRI of today can solve the problems of today, without threatening democracy.

“We are in different times, it is a different country,” says Jimena Jimenez, a 21-year-old home appliance saleswoman in Xochimilco. “This could be a change for the good.”

His good looks don’t hurt, either. His popularity is high among women, despite revelations in January that he cheated on his first wife, who has passed away, and fathered two children out of wedlock.

Anabel Gomez, who works at a health food store in Villahermosa, the state capital of Tabasco, says with a giggle: “I am voting for him, because he is so good-looking.” Her co-worker nods in agreement.

His story – he is now remarried to a soap opera star – is also simply a relief to a country wearied by violence.

“Enrique Peña Nieto is very popular mostly because of the fact that he is a young face, he embodies the ideal of youth, and tries to impersonate several aspects of Mexican fantasy like being married to a famous actress,” says Fernando Dworak, a political analyst in Mexico City.

It's almost as if his rise is a telenovela itself, the kind of plot that Mexicans can't seem to get enough of.

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