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The Gloss Comes Off the PRI
The Mexican Dinosaur
by PAUL IMISON

Thanks to fawning coverage from the country’s ever-so-partial TV giants, Enrique Peña Nieto has been favorite for July’s Mexican presidential election for more than two years. With just over a month to go, the majority of the polls still show the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate with a 10-20% lead over his rivals. Even many of his detractors refer to him as “Mexico’s next president”. But how real is the Peña-mania supposedly sweeping the nation?

On Mother’s Day in Mexico City, it came up against Beatlemania. Just before Paul McCartney rocked the capital’s Zocalo square with a free gig for 200,000 fans, PRI supporters unfurled a giant Peña Nieto banner from a window high above the plaza. The waiting crowd responded with chants of “AMLO! AMLO!” for Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador – candidate of the Left and former Mexico City mayor – along with a volley of other four-letter words.

The next day, Peña Nieto visited the capital’s Iberoamericana University, where students berated him with cries of “Coward!” and “Get out!” The PRI/Green Party coalition later claimed that the incumbent, right-wing National Action Party (PAN) had deliberately planted sympathizers among the crowd. 131 Ibero students subsequently released a video where they displayed their IDs and declared themselves “neither puppets, nor thugs”. They, like many Mexicans, simply don’t want to see the former ruling party return.

The dirty tactics and smoke-and-mirror campaigning of the PRI recall the 71 years in which they ruled Mexico as a dictatorship, suppressing political and social opposition along the way, often with imprisonment and violence. Peña Nieto, with his movie star looks and soap actress “Seagull” wife, has been groomed as the new, democratic face of the party widely referred to as “the dinosaur”.

So just who is going to vote for Peña Nieto? Unfortunately, die-hard liberal and strongly “perredista” (Democratic Revolutionary Party) Mexico City is no barometer of the republic as a whole. Ever since the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s broke the PRI from the values of the Mexican Revolution it claimed to uphold, the party’s support has rested in deeply corrupt unions and rural communities it long coerced with handouts and false promises. It also has the backing of the country’s corporate TV duopoly, Televisa and TV Azteca, which a majority of Mexicans still turn to for news.  

Peña Nieto’s campaign has been based on the heavily-airbrushed image he created while governor of Mexico State, where he first gained a national spotlight. During his term, he signed 608 “compromisos” (pledges) in front of public notaries – most involving expensive and shady public works projects – while suppressing crime and poverty statistics in a state where an estimated 200,000 of the 15 million inhabitants struggle to survive.

His record has an even darker side. May 3 saw the sixth anniversary of the San Salvador Atenco atrocity, when police brutally suppressed a peaceful protest by local flower-vendors, resulting in two deaths, dozens of sexual assaults, and hundreds of arbitrary arrests – an incident still shrouded in controversy. Furthermore, Mexico State saw its murder rate soar under Peña Nieto; murders and disappearances of women surpassing those in the nation’s homicide capital, Ciudad Juarez.

“Mexico, Wake Up!”

Yet, in the last few weeks, Mexicans who may have neglected to vote – turnout at the last two presidential elections was around 60% – seem to be waking up to the very real possibility of the PRI retaking power. On Saturday, tens of thousands of people took part in anti-Peña Nieto marches around the country (a day when Anonymous also hacked the party’s website); while Sunday was AMLO Day as pro-Lopez Obrador and Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) rallies were held across Mexico and by expats in cities from L.A to Dubai. This is the kind of publicity even Peña Nieto couldn’t buy; unfortunately, the Televisa-Azteca crowd wasn’t showing any of it.

While AMLO is supposedly third-placed among the candidates, none of the others (“citizen’s candidate” Gabriel Quadri de la Torre included) can count on such passionate and public support. Although he was believed to have lost many middle-class sympathizers with his Occupy-style protests after the 2006 election (AMLO cried fraud against winner and current president Felipe Calderon), he’s the only realistic alternative to the PRI-PAN (“PRIAN”) axis.

As for the validity of the polls that have Peña Nieto in first place, nobody can say for sure. In February, Francisco Abundis of the polling agency Parametria diplomatically opined that data is “massaged” to make one or another candidate appear in a positive light – as well as suggesting what everyone already knows, that many pollsters are up for sale.

The only other challenger, right-winger Josefina Vazquez Mota of the PAN, has the unfortunate task of having to follow Felipe Calderon, whose handling of both the economy and the so-called “Drug War” will likely see him go down as one of Mexico’s worst ever presidents.

Desperate to revive a flagging campaign that even fellow “panistas” have labeled a flop, Vazquez Mota has been playing “the narco card” – another grisly massacre (49 dead, many presumed to be Central and South American migrants) in Nuevo Leon a week ago led her to accuse the PRI of having allowed the country’s drug-trafficking mafia to flourish during its rule.

It’s a sad day for Mexico when the PAN can get away with marketing itself as a “progressive” choice, simply because 1) its candidate is a woman and 2) it isn’t the PRI. Merely accelerating the neoliberal reforms imposed by the old dictatorship in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the party has also used the pretext of the “war on drugs” to militarize the country beyond recognition, with a phenomenal surge in gang violence and abuses by security forces.

In 2007, Felipe Calderon’s first year in office, Mexico saw just 2,477 drug trafficking-related murders compared to 15,273 in 2010 and 12,903 in the first nine months of 2011. Many who turn to the PRI this year will likely do so in the hope it can broker peace between the country’s drug lords, but even that is doubtful given the ever-changing dynamics of the narco trade.

Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), whose job it is to officiate the melee, draws mixed opinion as to how well it performs its role. In one sense, its electoral reforms of 2008 have limited the influence of the corporate media on the race (and infuriated the likes of Televisa and Azteca), but there’s a nagging sense that IFE fears rocking the boat where the big two parties are concerned. IFE councillors were invited to meet privately with President Calderon on May 16 to discuss “issues surrounding the elections” and the role the Interior Ministry might play, prompting inevitable rumors of deals being cut behind the scenes.

Either way, despite its apparent lead, the PRI seems anxious. It has withdrawn Peña Nieto from public debates save for the two “official” IFE-sanctioned TV dates, and canceled future university appearances – including one at his alma mater, the Universidad Panamericana – after the debacle at the Ibero campus.

Among the 78 million Mexicans able to vote at home and abroad, it’s been suggested that as many as a third are undecided. They may be a little less so after the huge show of public emotion over the weekend. Contrary to the PRI-heavy spin, there’s plenty of time to put the brakes on the Peña Nieto rollercoaster between now and July.

PAUL IMISON lives in Mexico City. He can be reached at paulimison@hotmail.com