The New Old Party in Mexico?

On July 3, Mexico held state and local level elections, marking the beginning of intense speculation about the presidential election, which will take place this time next year. The results were not hard to interpret: the “Partido Revolucionario Institucional” (PRI) won all three gubernatorial contests (two of them with more than 60 percent of votes—an impressive feat in a country where three major parties participate in most races). When these winners take office in September, the PRI will govern nineteen of Mexico's thirty-one states, and maintain control of the lower chamber of congress. The latest polls show Enrique Peña Nieto, the favorite for the PRI candidacy for president, as far as sixteen points ahead of his nearest rival. In a country where contested presidential elections are still something of a novelty, the 2012 race will be important no matter its outcome. But if the PRI wins its first presidential victory since 1994, it will be an especially momentous event in the continuing story of Mexican democracy.

A little history: between 1929 and 1989, the PRI's hold on power was unbroken except by the occasional change in its name. For some, including a PRI senator I watched being interviewed on television after the elections, this was an achievement: lapses in procedural democracy notwithstanding, the PRI's stability helped avert dictatorships and guerrilla wars and enabled decades of impressive economic growth. There's something to this—no PRI president ever exceeded his one constitutionally allowed term, and Mexico's economy is today the world's eleventh largest. Unfortunately for apologists, however, successive PRI governments amassed a body count of political opponents on the same order of magnitude as Augusto Pinochet's seventeen-year junta in Chile. The massacre of nonviolent demonstrators in October 1968, well-known as part of that year's global upheavals, was a tragic climax in a long run of atrocities. Indeed, the repression of the student movement drove many activists to embrace the guerrilla model, leading to a proliferation of both state and leftist violence. A leaked report commissioned by the Vincente Fox government documents how the PRI's “dirty war” against dissidents employed the sadly familiar litany of electric shocks, disappearances, summary executions, and bodies dumped from the air into the sea. The PRI was also discredited by declining economic performance as the postwar “Mexican miracle” gave way to a traumatic debt crisis and currency devaluation in the 1980s.

By the end of that decade, PRI dominance was successfully challenged at state and local levels, and in 2000, Fox, of the right-of-center “Partido de Acción Nacional” (PAN), made history by winning the national presidency. In 2006, Mexico suffered its own version of the Bush-Gore ordeal, as the PAN and the left-of-center “Partido de la Revolución Democrática” (PRD) fought for months over what appeared to be a statistical tie in the presidential election (the ultimate decision was for PAN's Felipe Calderón, by .56 percent of the vote). The PRI, meanwhile, had been significantly weakened and placed a distant third.

What explains the surprising and, to some, disturbing comeback that the PRI has managed since then? The most persuasive analyses point to the consequences of the 2006 election. Calderón quickly launched his signature policy of military attacks on the country's drug cartels. Though the bloodshed that followed has been extremely localized, it is nonetheless traumatic on a national level for Mexico to experience a level of violence (around 40,000 dead since Calderón took office) unseen since the 1920s. Recently, allegations of government human rights violations have reached a crescendo: Calderón has had to deny publicly that Mexico is in a state of emergency, and the Supreme Court has ruled that soldiers accused of crimes such as kidnapping will have to face civilian trials.

Meanwhile, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the PRD responded to his narrow loss by adopting a contentiously paranoid style, declaring himself the “presidente legitimo”, forming a shadow government, and blaming his loss along with Mexico's other ills on “the mafia that took over Mexico” (the title of his latest book). Such an approach precluded a careful examination of why the PAN is so popular, and the country so polarized—an examination that such a close election might have elicited. López Obrador's refusal to accept the outcome not only threatened the integrity of Mexican democracy, it also split the Mexican Left between his supporters and those alienated by his uncompromising approach.

Beholding the polarizing and bloody crusades of López Obrador and Calderón, many Mexicans would like their own end of ideology. As one editorialist put it, “AMLO + Calderón = Peña Nieto.” With classic machine politicians, the PRI had a reputation for mitigating its crimes by distributing spoils, and its traditional method of tacit agreements with the cartels looks to some preferable to Calderón's unflinching stance. Scandals, including recent allegations of a meretricious alliance between the PAN and the Mexican teachers' union, suggest that PRI-style collusion continues unabated. Principled nonparticipation, such as the “blank vote” movement, has not become a mainstream force, but is disproportionately common among the educated young people who would play an important part in any revival of left-wing politics.

It's too soon to say for sure that these factors will bring the PRI to victory—changes in the course of the drug war or the world economy will surely shuffle the deck over the next twelve months. One possible, if unlikely, way of avoiding a PRI restoration would be a coalition of the PAN and the PRD. (A similar left-right fusion delivered an unprecedented defeat to the PRI in Oaxaca's 2010 gubernatorial election, but powerful members of both parties fiercely oppose such a united front in 2012.) If Peña Nieto, whose reputation as “the next president of Mexico” is confirmed by everything from bar conversations to WikiLeaked US diplomatic cables, does win, what would it mean for Mexico? Those cables claim that he is cast from “the entrenched…PRI political mold,” and his recent activities hint that the Yankees have it right: Undeterred by the scandal over the PAN/teachers' union flap, he has announced his intention to woo the organization back to the PRI fold. Increased cronyism and mismanagement might threaten the economic successes of the PAN era of 2000 to the present, which, despite stubborn inequality and poverty, were real enough to help bring illegal immigration to the United States down to its lowest level since the 1950s. As for the drug war, it is hard to nail down a distinct PRI position: Peña Nieto has said that he will handle things differently, but not by making deals with the cartels or by ending the war altogether. Given these vague statements, his appeal on the drug war issue will have to be simply as an anti-Calderón, though without a clear position and without the prod of a reelection campaign, it is hard to imagine how much difference presidential succession could make. If it's true that the PRI's lack of a stark ideological cast is the source of their attractiveness, it might also be true that this opacity will prevent them from instituting innovative new policies.

Even if a government committed to reform took power, however, there is no reason to believe it would have an easy time. The clearest policy alternative that has emerged to Calderón's war is legalization, supported by public figures like ex-presidents Fox and Ernesto Zedillo (the last PRI head of state). Of the three parties, only the PRD has a platform that indicates flexibility on the issue: it advocates a regional conference of Latin American states to discuss alternative strategies, including a regulatory rather than punitive approach toward marijuana. Unfortunately, Mexico's hands on this issue appear to be tied: even staunch supporters of the drug war like Joaquín Villalobos are open to legalization in principle, but they persuasively argue that without a corresponding policy change in the United States, such action would be meaningless or worse. Villalobos argues that things won't change to until violence spreads to the United States and reaches intolerable levels. I hope this is too pessimistic, but Villalobos may well be right. Obama has displayed a grating (and revisionist) reluctance to treat the issue as more than a chance to ridicule stoners—apparently, a less ridiculous approach to the border conflict involves intentionally funneling thousands of guns to “narcos”. Meanwhile, a recently hacked FBI report from 2008 revealed that the Zetas cartel “has expanded its criminal activities including extortion, kidnapping, and drug trafficking, into the Midwest and Southeast United States.”

Just as interesting and important as the policy debates over the economy and the drug war, though equally hard to predict, will be the form these contentions take. If Peña Nieto or another PRI candidate captures the presidency, the future of Mexican democracy will depend not only on the former ruling party's ability to change its ways, but also on the willingness of the opposition parties to accept the legitimacy of their defeat more graciously than López Obrador did in 2006. Though few would suspect today's PRI of planning to restore their traditional levels of repression, old wounds remain open: Calderón recently reminded an audience at Stanford that, under the PRI regime, “[w]hen students, just like you, protested, they were massacred. Many opponents of the regime were simply disappeared.” Meanwhile, AMLO has already declared Peña Nieto the “candidate of the mafia of power.” Perhaps there is little reason to believe that a new PRI administration will redeem this painful legacy, and for the Left the only hope is still a PRD upset. But if the PRI wins and both sides hold up their democratic burdens, the way will remain clear for a popular referendum on the new old party: the 2018 elections.