Eduardo Verdugo/AP
Presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto of the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) greets supporters at a campaign rally in Valle de Chalco, Mexico, Thursday, June 7.

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.

Backroom deals. Rigged elections. Pacts with drug lords.

Those are the accusations thrown at Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) after 71 years in power, an era that Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa dubbed the “perfect dictatorship.”

When the PRI lost the presidency in 2000, for the first time since its founding in 1929, there was overwhelming excitement and relief. And yet, just 12 years after Mexico's transition to democracy – amid a public wearied by violence and skeptical about how deep Mexico’s democratic transition really was – the PRI seems to be making a comeback.

Now, many are wondering whether a PRI victory in this election would mean that Mexico is retreating from its long march toward democracy. Student protestors have recently taken to the streets and written on social media with fury about the implications of the PRI coming back to power.

The PRI says it is a political party "of today." Its candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, hails from a younger, more modern generation that cares deeply about democracy, the party says, yet with the PRI's backing he can leverage the party's vast political experience and efficiency to solve the country's deepest economic and security problems.

It's unclear how many Mexicans are buying this message, but polls show Mr. Peña Nieto is out front: Even though his lead has narrowed in the past two weeks, heading into the second presidential debate on Sunday he still enjoys a comfortable two-digit advantage, according to most polls.

“There is a kind of longing for the 'good old days,' when there was corruption but not as much violence,” says Lorenzo Meyer, a noted historian in Mexico. “[The PRI was] corrupt but not that inefficient. [Mexicans are saying] 'let us return to good old days of efficient authoritarianism.' ”

The historic PRI

The PRI officially came to power in 1929, emerging to organize the political elite after the Mexican Revolution. With its logo the color of the Mexican flag, the PRI became the country's only national party, a top-down, corporatist system handing out power and favors for loyalty. It maintained stability for decades but its legitimacy was increasingly tested during the economic crises of the 1980s and ‘90s. Following a devastating earthquake in 1985 in Mexico City, the PRI was accused of fudging the death toll, since estimated at about 10,000 and even much higher, and not providing the country aid and support in the immediate aftermath.

The PRI is widely believed to have lost the presidential race to the left in1988, but it claimed victory anyway. And slowly, through prodemocracy marches in the ‘90s, it began to lose its hold on power. When the conservative National Action Party (PAN) won the race for the first time in 2000, Mexicans gleefully welcomed a new democratic chapter.

But after more than a decade with the PAN in power, Mexicans today are disillusioned with the state of democracy, which many say they believed would have deepened by now. Weak institutions, monopolies that cripple competition and economic growth, and corruption still dominate Mexico, despite the transition to a multi-party political system. In the 2011 Latinobarometro poll, which surveyed 18 countries in the region, Mexico sits at the bottom of the list of countries happy about the state of democracy at home, with only 23 percent saying they are satisfied.

Among the top concerns of Mexican voters is the 50,000-plus drug-related deaths under the PAN’s watch, largely attributed to its military-focused policy to counter drug traffickers. The PRI is widely thought to have made pacts with traffickers during its reign, which allowed corruption to flourish but kept violence in check.

So between “second-rate” democracy, says Mr. Lorenzo, or a perception that the PRI can bring back peace, Mexicans like Juan Zamora choose the latter. “I am not saying they are not going to rob, but I do think they will bring stability,” says Mr. Zamora, a taxi driver in Mexico City.

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.

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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