MEXICO CITY With virtually all polls showing that soap opera star-looking candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, 45, is likely to win the July 1 elections, the big question is whether his victory would mean a return to Mexicos corruption-ridden, authoritarian ways of the past. Although times have changed, that may very well happen.
Peña Nietos candidacy for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) the party that ruled this country for seven decades until it was voted out of office in a 2000 election that was heralded as Latin Americas equivalent to the fall of the Berlin Wall is leading by about 15 percentage points over its closest rival in most polls.
According to the latest Mitofsky poll released last week, Peña Nieto has 44.4 percent of voter support, followed by leftist candidate Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador with 28.7 percent, and center-right candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota with 24.6 percent. The poll doesnt count non-responses.
Granted, there could be last-minute surprises. A growing everybody-against-Peña Nieto student movement known as Yo soy 132 has emerged in recent weeks, accusing Mexicos two major television networks of promoting Peña Nietos candidacy. The student protest movement has spread like wildfire in social media, and has helped Lopez Obrador climb in the polls.
But while there are 14 million Mexicans under 23 who will be eligible to vote for the first time in a presidential election, and many of them may back Lopez Obrador, most political insiders doubt that the student movement will have any major impact on election day because about 75 percent of Mexicos youth dont vote.
In addition, there is the fear factor. Lopez Obrador scared many Mexicans in 2006, when he lost that years election by less than one percentage point and led massive marches to protest what he still today says was a fraudulent result. His critics, including former President Vicente Fox, describe him as a radical populist who would be Mexicos version of Venezuelas Hugo Chavez.
Lopez Obrador has gone out of his way to distance himself from Chavez, and despite campaigning on the same vague anti-corruption theme that helped Chavez win his first election has repeatedly assured Mexicans that he would not lead a revolution that would polarize society, scare away investments, and trigger capital flight.
But unlike President Ollanta Humala of Perú, a former anti-establishment leftist candidate who won the 2011 election thanks to the crucial support of Perus Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, Mexicos Lopez Obrador doesnt have a similar public figure to help him alleviate voters anxieties.
Lopez Obrador badly needs his Vargas Llosa, but barring big surprises such as if Mexicos billionaire Carlos Slim, the richest man on earth, were to give him his seal of approval he wont get one in time to win the election. Mexicans have an innate fear of instability and political violence, which goes back to the 1910-1917 Mexican Revolution that left more than1 million dead.
The PRI candidate, a former Mexico state governor who is better known for his much-publicized 2010 wedding to a popular actress than for being a deep thinker, promises responsible change. His top economic advisers are mostly orthodox economists.
Peña Nieto aides reject the notion that his government would be authoritarian, because much of the presidencys powers have shifted to the states in recent years, and because they say he is by nature a consensus-seeking politician.
Peña Nieto says that his top priorities would be to carry out long-delayed health care, labor, tax and energy reforms, including a greater opening of the state-owned Pemex oil monopoly to the private sector, as well as to reduce the drug-related violence that has left about 50,000 dead over the past five years.
He says that he would double the size of Mexicos Federal Polices elite units and without abandoning the war on drugs focus on homicides, kidnappings and human trafficking.
We will separate common crimes from drug trafficking, says Silvia Hernandez, a top PRI politician. Much of the violence we see today comes from bands that are not tied to drug trafficking.
Peña Nietos aides hope that, if wins by a landslide, his job would be made much easier because he would be the first Mexican president in more than a decade to enjoy a majority in Congress.
There would be much bigger chances of approving all pending reforms, Manlio Fabio Beltrones, the likely head of the PRI congressional bloc, told me in an interview, citing that most of the countrys reforms have been stuck in Congress because of lack of agreement between the three major parties.
But critics point out that a PRI government would not pass any significant reforms, because it would not risk its alliances with the countrys biggest and best-organized labor unions. Whats worst, old habits never die, and that PRI would not be able to shed its penchant for corruption, critics say.
For nearly a century, the PRI has been the champion of crony capitalism its sweet deals with friendly business barons were the source of most of todays biggest Mexican fortunes vote-buying, electoral fraud, and a combination of bribery and intimidation schemes to control the media, they say.
While Peña Nietos team includes some new faces, most of them belong to the old PRI, they say. Its no coincidence that an old joke about the PRIs shady governance methods, said to have originated during the partys first presidents after the Mexican Revolution, says that no Mexican general can resist a cannonade of $50,000.
Peña Nieto would engage in heavy borrowing, give out massive subsidies to buy votes, and leave the country badly indebted, his critics say.
They would use the public budget to perpetuate themselves in power, Julio Castellanos, a congressman of President Felipe Calderons National Action Party (PAN), told me. They are not seeking to return to power for the next six years, but for the remainder of the 21st Century, creating a citizens dependence on government subsidies.
Castellanos added that this is not speculation, but a fact. Its what the PRI has been doing in virtually all of the 22 states where it governs.
My opinion: While the election will be much closer than the polls suggest, Peña Nieto is likely to win. His PRI party is the best organized, he has poured many times more money than his rivals into television ads, and many Mexicans seem willing to live with tolerable levels of corruption in exchange for less violence and the promise of greater prosperity.
Its a dangerous bargain, because in the long run corruption breeds instability and paves the way for messianic leaders. But elections are not about the long run.
A Peña Nieto victory would probably not turn Mexico into the perfect dictatorship that it was during much of the 20th Century, but it could turn it into a more imperfect democracy than it has been over the past decade.