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Feature 070212 COHA

Monday, July 2, 2012

Will a PRI Election Victory be a Step Backwards for Mexico?

By Elise Dunn, Darya Vakulenko, Ekow Bartels-Kodwo, and Ariel Giles

June 28 -- Much media fanfare has surrounded the three months of campaigning leading up to Mexico's July 1 elections. After 12 years out of power, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) will likely see victories in a number of state governorships and majorities in both federal parliamentary bodies. Most importantly, the party is on track to take back the presidency.

The youthful new face of the PRI is presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, former governor of the State of Mexico. Following what many have called a failed administration under Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (PAN), the PRI has emerged in a stronger position than at any point since it lost executive power 12 years ago. Many Mexicans look to the PRI as the political force under which Mexicans last had a stable and secure state.

Media coverage of the races both within Mexico and throughout the hemisphere has been abysmally incomplete. The media has failed to sufficiently scrutinize the four presidential candidates' positions, instead focusing on their personal characters. At a time when tensions over security and socioeconomic issues facing the country are quickly reaching a boiling point, a closer examination of the real platforms of all the parties -- the PRI in particular -- is more critical now than ever.

The war on drugs, police practices, economic policy, and democratic institution building are all in need of reform. A number of important questions remain unanswered as to what a win by the PRI, and specifically a presidential victory for Peña Nieto, will mean for the various challenges facing Mexico today.

The War on Drugs

Since the Calderón administration declared war against drug cartels in 2006, the world has watched in horror as tens of thousands of Mexicans have died from the escalating violence. Peña Nieto's record offers few certainties as to whether the return of the PRI will help or hurt in this battle. Peña Nieto has suggested that while Mexico should continue to work with the United States against organized crime, it should not "subordinate to the strategies of other countries." The PRI's history of corruption and drug trafficking scandals, however, undermine Peña Nieto's suggestion that he would effectively stem corruption.

Although Peña Nieto has said that he would alter the approach to combating cartels, his campaign has emphasized an intention to continue an anti-cartel policy, arguing, "There will not in my government be a deal or agreement with organized crime." He recently appointed a new advisor on police and security reform, former Police Chief of Colombia General Oscar Naranjo, who is accredited with breaking new ground in the battle over drug cartels in Colombia. However, the integrity of Naranjo's tactics remains unclear, as he has not refuted making temporary alliances with cartels in Colombia. So although Peña Nieto promises a straight-line approach in dealing with cartels, questions remain as to the tactics and strategies he would use to achieve his goals.

Economic Reforms

The business world, particularly foreign investors with their eye on Mexico, is especially interested in a PRI victory due to the liberalizing reforms associated with the PRI's legacy. Towards the end of the last century, successive PRI-led government privatized many state enterprises in one of the largest-scale efforts of its kind in the West. At the end of the Zedillo administration in the late 1990s, the Mexican government divested key state assets in strategic industries. Investors see a PRI-majority government as the most promising way to get substantial economic reforms enacted that will ensure greater returns on their investments.

By 2003, privatization had lost favor. Then-President Vicente Fox tried to expropriate several previously privatized companies. Both Fox and his successor, Calderon, instituted regulatory reforms that made it more difficult for state-owned enterprises to be divested.

A win for Peña Nieto would mean a return to the pro-market liberalization policies of past PRI governments. Peña Nieto has named the state oil company Pemex as one of his first targets for reform. Although Peña Nieto wants Pemex to remain under state control, he aims to involve private investors in order to make the company more efficient. Opposition party spokespeople have called this suggestion misguided, arguing that no private entity would risk an investment in the poorly managed Pemex. The PRI aims for a six percent annual GDP growth rate and promises to deliver broad-ranging labor market and tax reforms, some of which will require a two-thirds approval from Congress.

While the PRI is unlikely to attain a two-thirds majority in the legislature, many speculate that the PRI will create the informal coalitions requisite to get at least some of their intended reforms enacted.

Institutional Reforms and Democracy

The Peña Nieto campaign is not the only party to blame in regards to its unproductive political rhetoric that has characterized the campaign. By focusing on the personalities and characters of the candidates, much like the media has done, the three major parties have avoided positing substantive platforms on the central challenges facing Mexico.

The transition to the first opposition party administration, along with the PAN-PRD (PRD: Party of the Democratic Revolution) alliance against the PRI that was required for the seminal 2000 election, created a political divide within the legislature that has led to a 12-year deadlock. The uncompromising attitude of legislators resulted not simply from partisan rhetoric, but rather the overall weak structure of the political system in Mexico. Part of that weakness can be attributed to the incomplete reforms initiated by the PRI in the 1990's.  Though crucial, the attention to the electoral system has resulted in a stunted continuation of reforms for other institutions necessary for a sustainable democratic system. The other half of that weakness has been due to the failure of the PAN government of the past 12 years to further implement deeper reforms to regulatory institutions that would protect against a return to Mexico's authoritarian past.

The complete stagnation of democratic reform has been the result of Mexico's tradition of no-reelection, whereby politicians place party loyalty over allegiance to their constituents. This fragile structure is in danger of further weakening in the event of a broad PRI victory. If the PAN and PRD parties have refused to compromise enough in order to make the necessary reforms to properly prevent a return to hegemonic PRI party rule of Mexico's past, it is difficult to find empirical support that would suggest a PRI majority government would be more successful in power.

Mexico's historic fear of disunity gave rise to a state system reliant on a hegemonic party. This in turn has created a dysfunctional legislative system with the country's entrance to a competitive multi-party system. While the 2000 and 2006 elections appeared to make major strides toward multi-party democracy, the divide that it created between the PRI and its political foes has fatally injured the chances for continuation of democratic reforms. If the PRI now comes back to power, the greatest danger lies in a reversal or a weakening of the electoral reforms made by the PRI before the 2000 election -- not to mention the potential weakening of democratic institutions.

There can be no way of fully anticipating the possible posture a PRI majority government may take in regard to democratic reforms. Considering the political record of the PRI and the likely triumph of Peña Nieto and a PRI-led legislature, Mexico's democracy may be at risk of backsliding.

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This analysis, "What a Return to a PRI-Dominated Government Would Mean for Mexican Democracy" (Jun. 28, 2012), was prepared by Elise Dunn, Darya Vakulenko, Ekow Bartels-Kodwo, and Ariel Giles, Research Associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), where this article was first published.


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