Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico – Fernando García fondly recalls the late 1990s, when all three floors of his factory in a green row house here held employees sewing and tagging the women’s slacks that his family has been selling for decades.
But those days are gone, killed off by extortion and a 70 percent drop in sales, and Mr. García’s views on government and politics, like those of many Mexicans, have dimmed with his fortunes.
“We were all hoping for real change with Fox,” he said, referring to former President Vicente Fox, whose victory in 2000 ended seven decades under the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. “It didn’t happen.”
Twelve years and another president from the National Action Party later, Mr. García said, “The rich are richer, the poor are poorer; the rest of us in between, we’re just surviving.”
The results in Mexico’s election on Sunday, in which voters are widely expected to give the PRI another shot at the presidency, could represent a significant rehabilitation of a party dismissed as so corrupt and authoritarian that it amounted to a dictatorship in democratic clothing. It was a party regularly accused of rigging elections, striking secret deals with criminals and collecting bribes so proficiently that piles of pesos were said to fill the pockets and the briefcases of its standard-bearers.
The possible return of the PRI shows the disenchantment many Mexicans feel toward the post-PRI leadership. The explosion of drug-related violence over the past few years is high on the list of concerns, of course, for Mexicans and American policy makers, who say they expect to work closely with the next president to strengthen justice institutions and reduce crime. But voters are equally or more focused on the economy.
It has performed unevenly. Although the currency and debt crises of the 1980s and ’90s have given way to fiscal stability and steady growth, which reached almost 4 percent last year, many areas of Mexico — including working-class cities like this one — have yet to experience reliable prosperity.
“There has been a deterioration in the quality of employment,” said Gerardo Esquivel, an economist at the Colegio de México. “We have a dynamic where we have a modern sector that is experiencing a bonanza and other sectors that are much less dynamic.”
Mexico — after nearly 20 years of expanded free trade and minimal economic reform at home — has essentially become a country of the stuck-in-place glaring at the upwardly mobile. While a minority of educated, skilled workers benefit from the dynamics of global trade, many more Mexicans work long hours, often at several jobs, without progressing. Census figures show that 57 percent of the Mexican labor force earns less than $13.50 — not in an hour, but in a day.
Not surprisingly, all three major candidates have made jobs the cornerstone of their campaigns even as they offer similar vague proposals for increasing growth by breaking up monopolies, and by making the oil sector and the tax system more efficient.
Here in Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, often called just Neza or Neza York, the sales pitch of the front-runner, Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI, has been especially visible, and not just on Televisa, the network accused of gracing him with continuous favorable coverage. His billboards outnumber all others, with the largest featuring photos of middle-class families and the word “ganando,” which means “winning” but also “gaining” or “earning.” Other signs for his party, which had a mixed economic record in office, include the phrase “for a successful Mexico.”
PRI officials say they are confident that the message will resonate, in part because of frustration with Mr. Fox and his successor, President Felipe Calderón, who campaigned in 2006 on a promise to be “the president of employment.”
Indeed, even as Mr. Calderón boasted last week of having created 1.7 million jobs, people here in Neza and across Mexico said there was an obvious answer to the question of whether life is better now than 12 years ago: no.
“Everything is worse,” said Esmeralda Armenta, 26, shaking her head with scorn on a quiet side street here. “Our business is worse, and security has gotten worse as well.”
She said her family’s cart, which sells shoes from a nearby corner, is lucky to dispense with five pairs a week, down from 30 in the 1990s. Others in the informal economy — which accounts for a third or more of national employment — offered similar tales of a decline that accelerated with the 2009 recession, when Mexico’s economy contracted by 6.1 percent.
These workers tend to be among Mexico’s most dogged and frustrated. They are people like Jorge Hernández, 35, who sells pastries downtown from a white 1986 Volkswagen van.
On Wednesday, he was busy shooing away flies, while waiting for what has become a trickle of customers. He works sunup to sundown, and a good day a few years ago brought in around 600 pesos, or about $45. Now, he said, his take is down to about 400 pesos, or about $30, and his expenses are increasing. The price of sugar is up by nearly a third and gas prices are higher, too.
Mr. Hernández has responded by taking on extra work on weekends and by delivering to maintain his customer base. But he said his income was hardly enough to support his family.
He said he was hoping the next president would improve his fortunes. He was thinking of voting for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the candidate of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, who has played up his programs for the poor. But in what polls suggest may be a common trend, Mr. Hernández said he was also considering casting his lot with Mr. Peña Nieto and the PRI. “Everyone says that when they were in power, they were always stealing,” he said. “But there were also more opportunities.”
Older voters here in Mexico State, where Mr. Peña Nieto served as governor until starting his presidential campaign, tend to be even more conflicted. Mr. García, 53, said he feared that if the PRI returned to power, it would mean more help for the rich and connected. He said that he and other small-business owners were already feeling squeezed.
Part of the problem, he said, is that Mexico opened its markets to cheap imports — with the North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade deals — without doing enough to help its own small businesses compete or innovate.
The crime wave of the past few years has only exacerbated the problem, he added. Extortionists tend to prefer small businesses over large companies because family-run operations are more likely to pay. In Mr. García’s case, the demands for money began in 2010. Without enumerating the cost, he said he paid for a year. He was robbed four times. His family endured repeated threats. Then he retreated, closing his two retail stores in Neza and shrinking his business to just family members.
“It affected us economically, mentally and physically,” he said. “It really damaged us.”
Many other small-business owners have responded in the same way. Mr. García said he knew of 30 to 40 small businesses in Neza, mostly textile companies, that had closed or disappeared over the past two years. “We’re all afraid to do better because we are afraid of what comes with it,” he said.
It would take a lot, he added, for whoever wins the presidency to turn that paralysis around. Mr. García was undecided about his own vote. He had ruled out the National Action Party’s candidate, Josefina Vázquez Mota, but also expressed concerns about the PRI (“Crime got worse when they were in power here”) and Mr. López Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (“He seems too radical”).
Standing in his empty workroom, with slacks hanging on racks under flickering fluorescent lights, Mr. García said he missed the years when politics held more hope, when he had a dozen full-time employees buzzing around him. Now, he said, he lives on the second floor of his three-story business and rents out the third.
“It’s just me, my wife and my sister-in-law who work here full time,” he said, looking toward his wife beside him. “It’s just us.”
Elisabeth Malkin contributed reporting from Mexico City.