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In returning PRI to power, Mexicans put faith in young democracy (+video)

Enrique Peña Nieto won Sunday's presidential vote, returning the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, to office. Mexicans are betting their democracy is strong enough to warrant giving the once-authoritarian party another chance.

By Sara Miller LlanaStaff writer, Correspondent / July 2, 2012

Presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto waves to supporters at his party's headquarters in Mexico City, early Monday, July 2. Mexico's old guard party, the PRI, sailed back into power after a 12-year hiatus Sunday.

Christian Palma/AP

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Mexico City

After falling in 2000, the party that ruled Mexico for 71 years consecutively, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), is back in power. It's a barometer of Mexicans' faith in their democracy: the once-authoritarian party, they believe, is today best positioned to bring back stability – and must govern under new checks and balances.

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Its candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, won Mexico's presidential election by about a five-point margin, according to preliminary counts, beating Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and Josefina Vazquez Mota of the right-leaning, ruling National Action Party (PAN).

"Mexicans have given our party another chance. We are going to honor it with results," said Mr. Peña Nieto, a former governor of the State of Mexico, late Sunday night.

By a comfortable margin, Mexican voters seemed willing to risk that the future of their country could come to resemble its past – when the PRI kept relative stability with an authoritarian grip, handing out favors in return for loyalty, winning elections by rigging votes.

The reasons that Mexicans are willing to take such a bet after their long march from authoritarianism are contradictory. Some believe the party, with its youthful candidate, has changed; some don't believe in any political class but think the PRI is the best that they've got.

But most Mexicans appear willing to trust their democracy: They might not be sure what the PRI will do once it's in office again, but they do believe that in the 12 years since it has been out, society has changed in dramatic ways. The president no longer holds vast powers. With the opening of its economy, Mexico has also had to open its political system. And from a stronger federal electoral institute to the presence of influential civil society organizations, there is no way the party can get up to its old antics, they say.

“You have more counterbalances,”says Maureen Meyer, Mexico analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America. “You have a civil society that has been building its influence. You have stronger political parties in general.”

The PRI “won’t be able to go back to business as usual,” she adds.

One of the biggest sources of power for the PRI came from its ability to control the vote. In 1988, the party was widely accused of having rigged the elections, after a leftist candidate was coming out front. But in the wake of the outcry the government began the process of overhauling its electoral system, reforms that were strengthened throughout the 90s. By the time the PRI lost in 2000 for the first time, Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) was considered one of the world's best.

The confidence in the electoral body was tested after Mexico's last presidential election in 2006, when Mr. Lopez Obrador, in his first presidential bid, declared fraud and refused to recognize election results, after losing the race by less than a percentage point. And the feeling that the election was “stolen” is still strong among Lopez Obrador's supporters.

“Of course the vote was robbed in 2006,” says Hector Galvan, a young resident of Mexico City who works in human resources. “Everything is corruptible here.”

But the reputation of the IFE hasn't budged among electoral experts. “Not only is electoral fraud virtually impossible under the IFE, but Mexico designed and implemented within a 12-year period of time the most professional, independent, impartial electoral systems in the Americas and one of the best in the world,” says Robert Pastor, director of the Center for North American Studies at American University in Washington and author of the book “The North American Idea.”

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