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, it’s 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 party’s 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 hasn’t 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.”
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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 Mexico’s 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 that’s 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 isn’t politically correct, but there’s 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 he’d 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 he’d implement a strategy “to give better results to people, really attain peace in Mexico.”
Pena Nieto occasionally is peppered with questions about whether he’s beholden to aged PRI “dinosaurs,” particularly former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a figure many Mexicans revile for alleged corruption.
His relationship with Salinas, Pena Nieto said on CNN en Espanol this week, “is cordial, one of respect . . . and I have nothing more to say about it.”
Handlers have packaged Pena Nieto carefully, offering videos of him canoodling with his glamorous soap opera-star second wife in hopes of overcoming a few “deer in the headlights” gaffes that he made in media appearances last fall.
“They’ve been extremely careful of allowing him to be examined by journalists,” Mossige said. “He has the appearance of giving very canned answers.”
Even so, in recent weeks the PRI appears strong and cohesive amid predictions that it may capture not just the presidency but also one, and possibly both, chambers of Congress.
Pena Nieto, too, appears more at ease. Experts credit him with surrounding himself with intelligent advisers – more so than current President Felipe Calderon – and say those advisers may fill his Cabinet if the PRI returns to power. He’s also bucked some orthodoxy. In a very secular, anti-clerical party, he’s sought the blessing of Pope Benedict XVI. He’s also proposed opening the state oil company, Pemex, to private investment, touching on a nationalist pillar around which the PRI once rallied.
“The PRI is an extremely complex and sophisticated organization,” said George W. Grayson, a scholar on Mexico at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
“In Mexico today, it’s probably the broadest party,” echoed Shannon K. O’Neil, a political scientist at the Council on Foreign Relations, a research center. “You’ve got free-market people, you’ve got progressive nationalist types and everything in between.”
Any members of the PRI old guard who get the ear of a PRI president would find significant opposition to operating in a corrupt way.
“Congress matters. Governors matter. The press matters, and there’s an emerging civil society. All these things that weren’t independent through the 1990s are independent today,” O’Neil said.
If Pena Nieto wins by the wide margin that pollsters predict, his mandate is still unlikely to be a sweeping majority of Mexicans, and even Fox suggests that the country’s problems are so severe that voters should back the strongest horse.
Fox said the last three Mexican presidents, himself included, suffered weak mandates and faced “radical opposition” that led to “zero decisions for the country.
“The country cannot endure a fourth six-year period like this.”
Calderon came to office in 2006 with less than 36 percent of the vote and just slightly more than a half-percentage point margin over his fiery closest opponent, Lopez Obrador. When his all-out war against crime groups bogged down, he was unable to cut deals with the political opposition for needed political reforms.
“In Calderon’s DNA, there is a loathing of the PRI. Calderon just views the PRI as toxic,” Grayson said. “He really couldn’t get legislation through Congress because of his weak, inexperienced team and his profound distrust of the PRI.”