What kind of PRI will rule Mexico?

Mexican voters have done what was once unthinkable, returning the notoriously corrupt PRI to the presidency after tossing it out in 2000. But Mexico is a different place today.

Tomas Bravo/Reuters
Enrique Pena Nieto (left), presidential candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), claps while standing next to his wife, Angelica Rivera July 1. President-elect Pena Nieto will return the presidency of Mexico to the PRI after a 12-year absence.

In any traditional tale, once a domineering ruler is overthrown, he’s gone forever. The people never reconsider and invite him back.

But real life is often stranger than fiction. In Mexico, in what appears to be a free and fair election, voters have made the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party the next president. This is the same PRI that ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century by stifling political dissent, rigging elections, and engaging in massive corruption and cronyism that held back much needed progress.

In 2000, a seminal moment in Mexican history, the PRI fell in elections that brought in 12 years of governing by the National Action Party (PAN). The shackles of one-party rule seemed to have been forever broken.

RELATED: 5 solutions for Mexico's drug violence and security challenges

But in recent years, the effects of a sluggish economy and violence in the streets resulting from a government crackdown on Mexico’s drug cartels left many Mexicans longing for the more peaceful, and in some ways more prosperous, era of the PRI. On July 1, the PRI won back the presidency with less than 40 percent of the vote in a three-way race.

The party wisely had chosen a fresh face, Enrique Peña Nieto, to head its ticket. Mr. Peña Nieto is too young to have been part of the bad old days of PRI rule. And he’s been saying all the right things, including a promise to continue the fight against the drug lords while reducing the drug-related street violence (more than 50,000 deaths in recent years) that has terrorized ordinary Mexicans.

“There will be no deals or truce with organized crime,” Peña Nieto promised. “We are going to leave behind the old politics. This is a project committed to democracy, freedom, and transparency.” His election, he vowed, marks “no return to the past. You have given our party a second chance, and we will deliver results.”

Peña Nieto also promised close relations with the United States, which included an undiminished fight against drug traffickers. He’s also promised to open up Pemex, the giant state-owned oil monopoly, to private investment and badly needed modernization, and to address mismanagement there.

Some Mexicans suspect that Peña Nieto, husband of a popular soap opera actress, is an attempt by the PRI to put an acceptable face on an old-guard party still intent on running Mexico as it once did.

But much has changed in Mexico since 1988 when the PRI was widely seen as having rigged that year’s presidential election, an event that rallied reformers against the PRI. Today, an impartial election commission, one of the best in the Americas, now oversees balloting. While the 2012 election process wasn’t perfect, no evidence of substantial vote fraud has surfaced.

Meanwhile free-trade agreements have broadened Mexico’s economy beyond its unhealthy reliance on its oil monopoly. The business community has a strong stake in promoting a Mexico with impartial courts and government transparency. Perhaps most important, a stronger civil society has emerged, led by Twitter-powered activists demanding clean government and accountability.

In 2012 Peña Nieto and the PRI have the same opportunity as any winner of a democratic election: If they fulfill their campaign promises, and improve the lives of Mexicans, they can go on to win future election victories. But this time, if they fail, they know voters have the ability to show them the door again.

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