I want to provide an update on my story about Mexico’s presidential election, which takes place today, July 1. It seems this election is as much a referendum on democracy and the openness of the Mexican political system itself as it is about any one candidate.
After 12 years of struggle to move Mexico forward under the National Action Party (PAN), the party with a stranglehold on power for the previous 70 years–the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)–seems on the verge of a return. Polls indicate PRI’s candidate Enrique Pena Nieto has a sizable lead over Party of the Democratic Revolution’s (PRD) Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, with Josefina Vazquez Mota of PAN a distant third. Pena Nieto has little political experience but well-established family ties to the old guard. Yet he maintains he represents a new PRI eager to embrace democratic ideals.
Many fear what voting the PRI back into power might mean. Its reign was associated with corruption, discrimination, and violence. Some Mexicans fought for years, decades even, to loosen its iron grip on government. And this is the group the people want back in power? As the Christian Science Monitor puts it, “So it comes as a surprise to some that after 12 years with the PAN in power, Mexicans are supporting the party they once feared they’d never be able to vote out.”
Two factors seem to be contributing to PRI’s potential return: 1) frustration and disappointment with lack of change and progress under PAN, and 2) the continued influence of PRI in Mexican politics, even when not holding high office. PAN promised improved conditions for the country’s poor, and to finally curb the dominance of drug cartels. It has achieved neither one of these promises with very little economic growth and little sign the government is gaining any ground in the drug war. Simply put, PAN promised things would be better with them in power and didn’t deliver.
PRI’s front-standing position is also evidence that their control runs deep. Pena Nieto has spoken out in favor of much-needed energy reform. PAN tried to push through similar reform but were blocked from doing so by PRI interests.
Interestingly, the exact same scenario may be playing out in Paraguay for the exact same reasons. In the wake of the impeachment of (now former) President Fernando Lugo (which I covered earlier this week), some believe the Colorado Party–which ruled uncontested for 60 years until 2008–is on the verge of regaining power when the presidential election is held next year. Why would Paraguayans bring back the group they fought hard to kick out? As in Mexico, there is frustration with the lack of change/improvement by the opposition and the continued control exerted by old guard power brokers. (Note that on June 30 South America’s two premier regional alliances, UNASUR and MERCOSUR, suspended Paraguay’s membership “until a democratic process allows for popular sovereignty to be restored,” as stated by Argentina President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner).
CSM makes the point that presidents in countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela took a firm stand against the old undemocratic party structure. Now the power of that old guard has been swept away. Not so in Mexico and Paraguay. “Nobody should be surprised that the PRI is coming back to Mexico,” according to Michael Shifter of Inter-American Dialogue (a U.S.-based research group), “the party apparatus didn’t break down.”
If Pena Nieto wins, I hope he is being sincere when he proclaims he leads the new democratic PRI. I also hope that Mexicans know what they might be getting themselves into if they elect him.