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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.

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While Peña Nieto is the clear winner, the victory margin was not as high as the 10- to 15-point lead most surveys had indicated throughout the campaign. 

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Another accountability mechanism similarly emerged in a way that cannot be turned back: civil society. In fact, the Mexican civil organizations that pushed for democracy are now celebrating their silver anniversaries. Business groups are increasingly acting as civic watchdogs, pressing for greater transparency and accountability in government. Human rights groups have proliferated: The Human Rights Network boasts more than 70 member groups in 22 states; 10 years ago, there were fewer than 50, says Ms. Meyer.

Meyer points to Alianza Civica, one of Mexico’s longest-standing democracy organizations and business-backed organizations such as Mexicans United Against Crime.Newcomers like the peace movement headed up by poet Javier Sicilia and the recent student movement, #YoSoy132, which arose to protest what it called media bias in the positive coverage of Peña Nieto, have re-energized Mexican society around efforts to curb violence, reduce official corruption, and increase transparency. 

Yet others don't feel as assured, including Monica Tapia, executive director of Alternativas y Capacidades, a nonprofit that works to strengthen civil organizations. She expressed concern over the PRI's takeback of Los Pinos, Mexico's presidential palace, especially over the fate of freedom of expression, media independence, competitive funding of civil organizations by the government, and the retention of gains made in the legal frameworks that support civil organizations — issues that she called “subtle but very important.”

“We are all very worried about a triumph that returns practices of the past,” she says. “We are very aware of these issues… and concerned with ensuring that there is no backward movement.”

The PRI emerged in the wake of the Mexican Revolution and ruled Mexico as a single party from 1929 until 2000, a period famously dubbed “the perfect dictatorship.” Mexicans rejoiced when the PAN won the vote in 2000 but after 12 years in power, voters are disillusioned with slow economic growth and the brutal drug violence that has taken over 50,000 lives since Mexican President Felipe Calderon of the PAN took office six years ago.

Still others fear that progress will be reversed with the PRI in government. Carlos Aviles, who works in the lighting industry, cast his vote for the PAN, he says, as the only way to bring the country forward. “The PRI in power will be a return to the past,” he says, "because after all it's the same people in power."

One can't fault Mexicans for skepticism. Power is concentrated in a few hands. Mexico is hampered by oligopolies throughout the private sector. The television industry is concentrated in two main hands. Their coverage of Peña Nieto has been glowing, and even though #YoSoy132 rose to protest that, in many ways old narratives emerged. The PRI initially discredited the students, and then Peña Nieto refused to participate in a debate the movement organized, reflecting historical practices, says Hector Castillo Berthier, a sociologist with the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

“It’s difficult to conceive of a new PRI with such old practices or a society that can liberate itself from these structures,” he says.

While it's clear that a larger sector of society than ever before is alert and prepared to actively check the PRI's power, it's also true that many Mexicans are less concerned about power structures than they are with the government's ability to stimulate job creation and make the country safer.

The theme of the “old days” is one of the strongest takeaways of the 2012 race. Adriana Romo, who works as an administrator in Mexico, sums up the national zeitgeist: “I want this country to be what it was years ago, the Mexico of 20 or 30 years ago.

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