MEXICO CITY -- The Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by its Spanish initials as the PRI, ruled Mexico for 71 consecutive years before it lost the presidency 12 years ago. Now, with its candidate the front-runner in the July 1 presidential election campaign, its trying to recast itself as no longer the corrupt, opaque and repressive machine that gripped Mexico for much of the 20th century in one-party rule.
Competitors deride the idea of a new PRI, saying the partys old practices will reappear if its candidate, Enrique Pena Nieto, wins and takes office Dec. 1.
Pena Nieto, a telegenic politician with a 100-watt smile, bristles, however, at suggestions that the PRI hasnt adapted.
These kinds of designations come without any basis from our adversaries, he told foreign reporters this week. Today, fortunately, we have a more solid, strengthened democratic system.
Since it lost power in 2000, he said, the PRI has assimilated the political conditions of Mexico today.
Even bitter former opponents of the PRI agree with Pena Nieto that Mexicos politics have changed, impeding any significant lurch backward.
Former President Vicente Fox, who in 2000 became the first opposition leader to take power in modern times, said the PRI had governed for decades without democracy, without transparency and without accountability.
Today, we have a different Mexico, Fox said. We have a legislative branch and a judiciary that each day give us examples of independent postures and rulings. So against that (old) PRI is this new democratic reality of Mexico. It gives me confidence. It gives me peace of mind.
A poll that the survey firm Consulta Mitofsky released Wednesday gave Pena Nieto 38 percent support, followed by 22 percent for Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party and 18 percent for Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of a leftist coalition. A fourth candidate, Gabriel Quadri, pulls in less than 1 percent. In Mexico, whoever receives the most votes wins; there is no runoff.
More than a fifth of the electorate remains undecided, however, a symptom of a curiously lackluster campaign, despite the rampant violence thats taken more than 50,000 lives in the past six years and a host of other problems, including chronic unemployment, poverty and inequality.
Weariness with killings and extortions by powerful organized-crime gangs has sapped support for the ruling center-right National Action Party. A not-insignificant number of Mexicans long for the peace that would come with the more accommodating posture the PRI once exhibited toward crime bosses.
Many people will not say so openly because it isnt politically correct, but theres this hope that the PRI will make some kind of deal with the narcos, said Dag Mossige, an expert on modern Mexican politics at Davidson College in North Carolina.
Pena Nieto denied that his government would be easier on the drug traffickers, saying hed keep soldiers and marines deployed in gangster hot spots until optimum conditions appear for their gradual return to the barracks. Offering few specifics, he said hed implement a strategy to give better results to people, really attain peace in Mexico.
Pena Nieto occasionally is peppered with questions about whether hes beholden to aged PRI dinosaurs, particularly former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a figure many Mexicans revile for alleged corruption.