The Pretty Much Inevitable Return of the PRI

Mexico City

On July 1st next year, Mexicans will go to the polls to decide what comes next after twelve years under the PAN, whereby Mexico has gone from being one of the safest countries in Latin America to far and away the most violent.

Although the parties have yet to announce their candidates, the 2012 election already looks like a sure thing, with the PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party, widely expected to return. Sunday’s landside gubernatorial victory in Mexico State, often considered the measuring stick of the nation, was just another sign.

Should it happen, it will be a stunning comeback after the PRI’s 70-year dynasty of electoral trickery was voted out in 2000. Six years later, they finished last among the major parties, and were generally perceived as a political dinosaur that had no place in the shiny, “democratic” Mexico of the 21st century.

How things have changed. For all the NAFTA era has ravaged Mexico, only increasing an already shocking wealth gap, the PAN’s twelve years in power will ultimately be remembered for the country’s headlong plunge into “narco-violence” after the government declared war on (selected) drug cartels and the cartels declared war on each other. Some 40,000 people have been killed since 2006 (hard to say because the official tally hasn’t been updated since January) with no end to the violence in sight. It’s this perception by millions of Mexicans rich and poor alike that the country is teetering on the brink of “failed state” status, not to mention despair at the violence itself that will likely see the PAN kicked out.

However one-sided it may turn out to be, the contest promises to be a bitter one. Invited to Stanford University as Commencement Speaker last month, President Felipe Calderon took the opportunity to boost his disastrous five years at the helm and launch jabs at the PRI in front of plenty of bright young Mexican-Americans. As a light aircraft overhead unfurled a banner reading “No More Deaths” (the English translation of the Mexican peace movement slogan “No Mas Muertes”), the president reminded everyone that under the PRI, students “were massacred, and many [political] opponents disappeared.” He’s right, but Calderon’s tenure has seen plenty of people massacred or “disappeared”, only in his case with the backing of the good ol’ US of A.

The PRI, as its name suggests, came out of the Mexican Revolution and in the 1930s formed a genuinely popular, progressive government before rapidly sliding into corruption and repression. Throughout its reign, the party liked to paint itself as socialist, nationalistic, and crucially, able to stand up to the US, but the carefully-manicured image does not fit the facts. While left-winger Lazaro Cardenas outraged the US by nationalizing the oil industry in 1936, subsequent PRI governments happily accepted Washington’s support as their grip on power became increasingly hard to justify. When President Carlos Salinas put pen to paper on the NAFTA agreement in 1994, it was the final nail in the coffin of everything the Revolution (and the original PRI) had stood for, namely protecting Mexico’s people and resources from foreign exploitation.
While Mexicans will tell you that there’s little difference between PAN/PRI these days, US media commentators, as well as the recent Wikileaks cables, suggest that Washington has its concerns about working with the PRI. It’s got nothing to do with NAFTA, which is very safe in the hands of the old dinosaur, and of course nothing to do with the party’s authoritarian past. Rather, there are two probable bones of contention.

One, the PRI continues to defend the state oil monopoly, Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), which Calderon’s PAN has been fighting hard to privatize. While the company is rotten to the core, oil is highly symbolic for many Mexicans of national sovereignty (expropriation in 1936 was celebrated with as much fervor as Independence Day), and the “muy mexicano” PRI has opposed any attempt to sell it off to foreign interests. The other, equally contentious bone is that the PRI may try to change tack on issues of so-called bi-national security, namely the disastrous ”Drug War”, as the population cries out for an end to Calderon’s policy of militarization.

A common belief is that the PRI had a far more pragmatic approach to dealing with the drug-trafficking organizations currently running riot. The illicit trade is nothing new; having its roots in the early 20th century after the US prohibited opium, cocaine, and marijuana. However, the cartels were kept relatively quiet in the decades when the PRI oversaw the distribution of territory, or plazas. Although governments of the day carried out “anti-narcotics” operations with US support ? usually cover for counterinsurgency ops against guerrilla groups or popular movements ? they did not allow Washington to effectively own their national security policy, which has increasingly been the case under the PAN.

The big hope of most in Mexico is that the PRI would cut some kind of cloak-and-dagger deal to turn down the heat on the cartel-related violence sweeping the country. It isn’t that Mexicans approve of their government negotiating with armed thugs; rather they know that the long-held ties between politics, Big Business and the drug cartels make it preferable to the bloody standoff going on today ? inevitably accompanied by complicity and abuses on the part of security forces.

On a first visit to Washington in 2010, likely PRI candidate and all-round man-of-the-moment Enrique Pena Nieto expressed solidarity with Calderon’s fight against organized crime, but domestically he has hinted that a new approach is needed. Given that the party desperately needs to win back the Mexican people, the likely strategy would be to publicly back Washington’s “War on Drugs” while privately pulling strings to reduce tensions between the cartels, as only the PRI knows how.

AMLO Returns Too

Whatever happens, the 2012 election is unlikely to be anywhere near as controversial as 2006. That year, Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador looked set to finally crack the PRI/PAN hegemony, bolstered by the same kind of grassroots support that elected progressive leaders across South America. What happened next is still the subject of intense debate. Obrador, who is a relatively moderate social democrat, was attacked by virtually every corner of the mainstream media and inevitably dubbed “Mexico’s Chavez”. Still he led the polls, and even non-believers were genuinely astounded when Felipe Calderon was announced the winner.

The fallout was huge. Thousands of PRD supporters encamped and peacefully blocked one of Mexico City’s main arteries, Reforma Avenue, for two months. AMLO, as Obrador is affectionately known, declared himself the “legitimate President of Mexico” in an alternative inauguration ceremony in the main square. IFE, the Mexican electoral commission, recounted just enough of the votes to declare that “there might have been fraud” but then again possibly not. For the majority of Mexicans immune to the propaganda of the right-wing media, the Left was robbed and the powerful interests on both sides of the border got the US stooge they were hoping for.

AMLO will certainly run again next year, but whether it be with the PRD, a further-left party, or as an independent candidate is not yet known. Since 2006 the PRD has been split between AMLO’s faction and a more “centrist” group headed by current Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard who is popular in his own right. The deal is that whoever looks strongest heading into 2012 will be candidate, but if AMLO does not run for the PRD, the “Left vote” will essentially be split in two.

While AMLO retains substantial popular support (far more than the Mexican media would have you believe), the endless mass protests and repeated berating of Calderon in 2006 turned a large number of sympathetic middle-class voters against him, especially when they found Mexico City’s financial and business district taken over by the blue-collar majority they generally try to avoid. Overall, the likelihood of Mexico going the way of the Left and joining the push for Latin American integration as opposed to neo-colonial dependence is slim for the foreseeable future.

Many things could change in the next year, but the prevailing sentiment as a crucial election nears is that so critically has the PAN misjudged the wisdom of the “Drug War”, and failed to cater to the needs of a struggling population, that the dark old days of the PRI don’t seem so bad right now.

Paul Imison is a journalist. He can be reached at