For Mexicans, relief that next president won't have free rein

Peña Nieto's win restores power to the PRI, which long held an authoritarian grip on Mexico before being ousted 12 years ago. But more than a decade of democracy has changed things.

Claudia Daut/Reuters
Mexico's President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto meets with the foreign press in Mexico City on Monday, July 2.

Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is the clear victor in the nation's presidential race. But the candidate, of the historic Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), won with a much smaller mandate than pollsters had anticipated.

With 94 percent of votes counted, he has about a six-point margin. Surveys had him anywhere from 10 to 15 points ahead of his nearest rival, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

 Now Mr. Lopez Obrador, the leftist who famously led a six-week sit-in in downtown Mexico City to contest the razor-thin defeat in his first presidential bid in 2006, is saying he won't concede defeat.

 No one expects another unpopular protest, but he has said he is waiting until the absolute final results are in to make a statement – even though Mexican President Felipe Calderon has congratulated Mr. Peña Nieto and the National Action Party (PAN) candidate, Josefina Vazquez Mota, promptly stepped down.

For Mexicans worried about what the return of the PRI means for Mexico's democracy, after the PRI ran the country for 71 years as a single party and with an authoritarian grip, this is a welcome sign that Peña Nieto won't have an entirely free rein. It is also unclear that he will have a working majority in Congress, which means the party will have to negotiate hard with the others to push through tough reforms that Peña Nieto promised and that Mexico desperately needs.

But there are other reasons that fears should be allayed, say analysts. Mexican voters shared various opinions about what a PRI “comback” means, after they were voted out of office in 2000. 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.

Most Mexicans, however, 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.”

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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