Only 12 years ago Mexican voters kicked out the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled for seven decades through a mixture of consent, co-option, corruption and coercion. Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola salesman who defeated the PRI, brought high hopes that his country would match the economic promise of the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA), between Mexico, the United States and Canada, with a correspondingly vibrant democracy. Yet unless the opinion polls are wildly wrong, Mexicans are about to vote the PRI back to power on July 1st, in the person of Enrique Peña Nieto. Aged 45, the telegenic Mr Peña cuts a seemingly fresh figure, with his team of bright technocrats from the world’s best universities. Yet he is a scion of the PRI’s most retrograde regional political machine. His allies include several old-fashioned caudillos, and his opponents say (though he denies) that he has engaged in old-fashioned practices, such as buying favourable television coverage (see article).
Why is Mexico poised to take this apparently backward step? The answer starts with the disappointments of the past dozen years of rule by the conservative National Action Party (PAN), first under Mr Fox and then Felipe Calderón. Buffeted by Chinese competition and then by the American recession, the economy grew at an annual average rate of just 1.8% between 2000 and 2011. Poverty has edged up, not helped by the woes of the broader world economy. Lacking both a congressional majority and negotiating skills, neither president managed much in the way of structural reforms, leaving more or less intact the PRI’s legacy of public and private monopolies that stifle the economy and the education system. Mr Calderón chose to make security and battling powerful drug mafias the centrepiece of his presidency. Yet, with 60,000 dead, Mexicans are tiring of a “drug war” they at first supported.
But the record of the past dozen years is not as bad as it looks. The well-run economy has recovered strongly from the crisis. Export manufacturing is competitive. Indeed, Mexico now looks a better bet than Brazil for rapid economic growth. There are tentative signs that criminal violence may be starting to wane. Mexicans enjoy more political freedom, and a more middle-class society, than ever before. If voters nevertheless plump for the PRI, it is also because the alternatives are weak.
This year should have been the turn of the left. Had its candidate been Marcelo Ebrard, a modern social democrat and mayor of Mexico City, it would have got The Economist’s vote. Instead, the left is again represented by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose messianic character and disgraceful behaviour, after he narrowly lost in 2006 and declared war on the country’s democratic institutions, render him unfit to lead Mexico. The PAN’s Josefina Vázquez Mota is worthy, but has run a shambolic campaign.
So Mr Peña, to some extent, wins by default; but there are also positive reasons to support him. He promises some welcome reforms, such as breaching Pemex’s energy monopoly by opening up petrochemicals, refining and some bits of the oil business to private investment. He would reduce the state’s dependence on oil revenue by abolishing tax breaks. On security, he wants a much bigger federal police, backed by a new rural gendarmerie. He would focus on curbing violence, kidnapping and extortion, rather than ending drug trafficking (an impossible task which he would be wise to leave mainly to America, which buys the stuff). When PRI allies have been accused of corruption, Mr Peña has quickly cut them loose.
Threats, guarantees and democracy
That is the promise. The fear is that the PRI’s fundamental instincts remain the same: to shun openness in favour of media manipulation, to conflate public and private interests and to shield corrupt union bosses. Opponents fear a “restoration” of the old regime. One defence against that would be if the PRI were denied a majority in Congress and had to negotiate with the PAN. Another is that, fortunately, Mexico has changed much in the quarter-century since the PRI’s monopoly of power began to crack. Democracy has nurtured some independent institutions, such as the Supreme Court, the Congress, the central bank, and print and social media. And by embracing globalisation, Mexico has opened itself to outside scrutiny.
All this means that if Mr Peña attempted a restoration, he would face resistance. It would be better for him, as well as Mexico, if he seized the opportunity not just to bring economic reform but also to lay the PRI’s ghosts to rest by offering his country clean and accountable government.
The Economist, June 23, 2012