Mexican president's independence cry gets a testy response

Midway through his six-year term, President Enrique Peña Nieto faces low approval ratings. But his reform agenda has been more successful than his popularity may suggest. 

Edgard Garrido/Reuters
Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto sings the national anthem after he shouted the 'Cry of Independence' as Mexico marks the 205th anniversary of the day rebel priest Manuel Hidalgo set it on the path to independence, in Mexico City September 15, 2015. Mexico celebrates the anniversary of its independence from Spain on September 16.

Thousands of Mexicans peered up toward the balcony of the National Palace late Tuesday night and erupted into a cacophony of shouts.

“Viva!” the revelers screamed, many decked out in the red, white, and green of the Mexican flag. “Viva Mexico!”

"El Grito," a call and response led by Mexico's president, rings in Mexico’s independence day of Sept. 16. The ear-piercing tradition harks back 205 years to revolutionary leader Miguel Hidalgo’s call for Mexicans to revolt against Spanish colonial rule.

This year's celebration was typically festive – with music, fireworks, kids sporting fake mustaches, and the president waving the flag and honoring the leaders of Mexico’s battle for independence. But it also underscored Mexicans' deep disillusionment with their current leader.

A social-media campaign leading up to El Grito called for people to boycott the event. And some in the crowd last night booed at President Enrique Peña Nieto’s balcony entrance, a discourtesy that caught some by surprise, including construction worker Fernando Garcia Hernandez.

Ricardo Noriega, an accountant who says the administration has given the country plenty to shout about – in frustration – was blunt about his participation in the revelry: “We are here to celebrate Mexico, not for the president."

From the blundering investigation into the disappearance of 43 college students, to a weak economy and the embarrassing escape of a high-profile criminal, El Chapo, Peña Nieto has earned himself one of the lowest presidential approval ratings in more than a decade. 

According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, favorable views of the president fell from 51 percent in 2014 to 44 percent today. The approval is even lower on hot-button issues like the government's management of security (35 percent approval), the economy (34 percent), and education reform (43 percent).

The lack of public support is undeniable but mostly a "symbolic problem", says Aldo Muñoz, political scientist at Mexico State’s Autonomous University. The government’s ruling coalition still has a majority in Congress. Peña Nieto isn't seeking reelection, so the main political risk is what his unpopularity may mean for his party come 2016 legislative elections, or more importantly, the 2018 presidential race.

Peña Nieto has taken steps to reenergize his presidency, including a cabinet shuffle in late August. And earlier this month, during his state-of-the nation address, he urged citizens to stick together and stay on course.

“Where there is intolerance, demagoguery, or populism, nations far from reaching the change they aspire to, find division and setbacks," he said.

“In terms of his legacy, he may well be remembered as one of the least popular presidents,” says Duncan Wood, who runs the Mexico Institute at the Washington-based Wilson Center. But his mark on public policy is another story, Mr. Wood says. Since taking office in 2012, Peña Nieto has ushered through a series of landmark constitutional reforms to sectors like telecommunications, energy, and education.

“Some of the most important reforms he brought won’t have results in the short or medium term,” adds Muñoz.

Leaving the Zocalo after the late-night firework display, Diana Ramirez says, “I love my country no matter who is president.”

Certainly Peña Nieto could be doing his job better, she says, “but I have faith in [my] dear Mexico.”   

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