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Why Mexico and Paraguay are embracing controversial parties of the past

Both countries voted out single-party systems that ruled their nations for most of the 20th century. But now both are looking to bring back the very same systems they were so relieved to see fall.

By Sara Miller LlanaStaff writer / June 29, 2012

Paraguay's new leader, President Federico Franco, answers a question during an interview at the Presidential Palace in Asuncion, Paraguay, Thursday, June 28.

Jorge Saenz/AP

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Mexico City

Political outsiders and opposition candidates have been the winners in Latin America in the past decade, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Mexico and Paraguay. Both voted out single-party systems that ruled their nations for most of the 20th century.

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But now both countries are looking to vote back in the same systems they were so relieved to see fall just a few administrations prior.

When Mexicans head to the polls this Sunday, they are, according to surveys, expected to favor Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had a grip on power here for 71 years until 2000. Then on the other side of the Americas the impeachment scandal surrounding Fernando Lugo in Paraguay, whose victory in 2008 broke 61 years of Colorado Party rule, has revealed deep dissatisfaction with his presidency. It has also highlighted the fact that the Colorados are poised to regain the presidency in 2013.

“[The Colorados] have won every single local election since they lost power,” says Juan Carlos Hidalgo, a Latin America analyst at the Cato Institute. “It's like the PRI of Mexico.”

In both countries, the rising popularity of the former ruling parties is a matter of expectations, which were sky high with the transition to democracy but deflated with the snail's pace of change. Some blame it on the inefficacy of new parties in power, others on the old power structures that are still deeply entrenched in both countries and that have blocked reform at every turn.

In both cases, it's given the old parties the chance to say: “We know how to do things, we are born to rule, you have to elect us back,” says Mr. Hidalgo. “It's pretty ominous. It means there is the case for having one party in government all the time.”

'A hard reality to swallow'

The latest polls in Mexico show that Peña Nieto has anywhere from a 10 to 17-point lead over his nearest rival, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, from the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution. The conservative ruling party, whose ticket is headed by Josefina Vazquez Mota, is trailing behind both according to most surveys.

The PRI, which was once dubbed the “perfect dictatorship,” is widely accused of corrupt practices and cronyism during its reign. When it lost presidential elections in 2000, with the victory of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), the change in power was hailed across Mexico. So it comes as a surprise to some that after 12 years with the PAN in power, Mexicans are supporting the party they once feared they'd never be able to vote out.

But the PRI says it is a reformed party, one that is committed to democratic ideals of the 21st century. “It is the PRI of today,” says Eduardo Sanchez, the party spokesperson.

That is a hard reality for many to swallow, says Soledad Loaeza, a political analyst at the College of Mexico in Mexico City. “I think to many people it is very difficult to stomach the restoration of the PRI in power,” she says. “It is so closely associated to authoritarianism; it is like contributing to bringing back the past.”

Why the comeback?

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