Many fear the likely return to power of the PRI, but the country has changed
According to most polls, it is now virtually certain that on July 1, Mexico will bring the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) back to the presidency, after 12 years in opposition
and disgrace. The party’s candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, holds a nearly insurmountable lead as the campaign reaches its final stage. That fact—the surprising turn of fortune for a party that ran Mexico for 70 years before it was ousted from the presidency by the National Action Party’s Vicente Fox in 2000—has many Mexicans and their foreign friends worried. They see the PRI’s resurgence as a royal restoration, an unfortunate return to an authoritarian, corrupt and discredited past they thought Mexico had left behind.
As someone who contributed at least partly—some would say decisively, as one of Fox’s main campaign advisers—to the PRI’s removal from power, I would have preferred a different outcome. Better a triumphant independent candidate, or a modern, left-of-center social democrat or even a competitive right-of-center candidate running on the best parts of Fox’s and outgoing President Felipe Calderón’s record. But I reject the notion that a PRI
victory automatically implies a restoration of the old status quo, as if Mexico, its relationship with the world and the PRI itself have stood still these past 12 years.
First, Mexico as a country has changed immensely since 1994, the last time a PRI President was elected. If he wins, Peña Nieto will have to deal with a strong opposition in Congress, and in all likelihood his party will remain in the minority. Nationwide, at least 11 of the 32 governors will belong to the opposition. The left-of-center Democratic Revolution Party will continue to control the country’s second most important elective job and budget: the mayor’s office in Mexico City, which the left has held since 1997.
Mexico’s media are freer and stronger than ever before, even if the quality of their work can sometimes leave much to be desired. The country’s civil society has become more powerful and more vibrant. Organizations like the central bank, the transparency institute, the national statistics office and the Federal Electoral Institute have won meaningful autonomy from the state. Most important, for the first time in its history, the country has an independent Supreme Court, which has made life on occasion miserable for Fox and Calderón but better for ordinary Mexicans.
Second, Mexico’s relationship with the world has changed. Mexico today is entangled
in a web of free-trade agreements and other international instruments. Those treaties come with human-rights and democracy clauses that have locked in Mexico’s open economy and its commitments to democratic rule. Mexico is subject to constant foreign scrutiny— witness the Walmart bribery scandal alleged by the New York Times—and peer pressure. Other countries demand that Mexico abide by its obligations in regard to universal values like human rights.
No government, even if it desired, could get away with stealing elections, throwing people in jail or flagrant corruption. The degree of integration with the U.S. and Canada in particular—which provide 90% of Mexico’s trade, tourism, foreign investment and remittances— makes it especially difficult for Mexico to ignore criticism or sanctions from abroad.
Last, the PRI itself has changed in fundamental ways. I cannot vouch for Peña Nieto’s democratic convictions, but he came of age in a democratic Mexico. Peña Nieto was 33 when the PRI lost power in 2000, 28 at the time of the first near democratic election in the country’s history, in 1994, and 2 years old during the old system’s darkest moment: the student massacre of 1968. Whatever his convictions, Peña Nieto would be the first PRI President to be elected democratically—all others were appointed by their predecessor. Even the PRI’s Ernesto Zedillo acknowledged after his presidential victory in 1994 that the vote had been free but not fair; before him, the question was moot. Morally, politically and personally, accountability counts. In its absence, everything goes.
The PRI comeback, under Mexico’s current rules, may not be the ideal solution for the country, but it is not a restoration. We are a long way from Louis XVIII’s return to the throne of France in 1815, which resulted in the loss of many of the French Revolution’s achievements. And don’t forget—in 1830 the Bourbon restoration itself was overthrown. Mexico has survived many calamities: earthquakes, hurricanes, revolution, dictatorship, even a common border with the U.S. It can survive and may even thrive with Peña Nieto’s election.
Castañeda is the Jacob K. Javits visiting professor at New York University and was
Vicente Fox’s Foreign Minister from 2000 to ’03