Enrique Peña Nieto, the candidate of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), is a charming and extremely good-looking non-entity. He speaks no foreign language, has traveled little abroad, and is so ignorant that, when asked on live television what three books had influenced him most, he struggled to name any books at all. Finally, he came up with two: the Bible, and a Jeffrey Archer pot-boiler.
He has spent his entire life in politics, and his timing was good. In 1990 he began working in various local branches of the PRI, the ruling single party that dominated every aspect of Mexican life, and if democracy had not come to Mexico it would probably have taken him a long time to rise to the top. However, 12 years ago, when he was only 34, the PRI lost power after 70 years in office.
The “dinosaurs” who ran the party machine realized that they needed a new approach in the newly democratic environment, and fresh young faces like Peña Nieto’s were just what they needed out front. In PRI’s long march back to acceptability he was one of the standard-bearers, winning the governorship of the State of Mexico (the region surrounding the capital) in 2005.
The standard he bore did not have any stirring political slogan on it, however. Peña Nieto’s entire political pitch, then and subsequently, consisted of promising “projects”—a new road here, a hospital there—to every identifiable group in the electorate. That was all any PRI candidate could do, really, because the party had no serious ideological pretensions.
Sandwiched between explicitly ideological rivals to the right and left, the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the socialist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), all the old-fashioned PRI had to offer was patronage and the pork barrel: poverty politics. That should have condemned it to a long exile from power, because Mexico has been doing very well economically under the PAN governments that have run the country since 2000.
Mexico is the rising star among Latin American economies, with an annual growth rate that now exceeds that of Brazil. And in an economy with low inflation and manageable debt, real incomes have risen as well.
Per capita income in Mexico is now as much as 50 percent higher than Brazil’s. So if Brazilian voters were so happy with the results of President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva’s eight years in power that they gratefully elected his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, to the presidency in 2010, why have PAN’s 12 years of economic success not entitled it to re-election too?
The answer is simple: President Felipe Calderón’s declaration of war on Mexico’s drug cartels in 2006 has embroiled the country in a bloodbath that blinds both foreigners and its own citizens to the remarkable progress that is being made on most other fronts. The at least 50,000 killed in the drug war over the past five years have persuaded Mexican citizens that the country is in an acute crisis.
In fact, Mexico has a lower murder rate than Brazil or Colombia, and it is less than a third of Venezuela’s. However, the spectacular (and deliberate) savagery of the killings by the Mexican drug cartels has persuaded many Mexicans that they face an acute threat to their personal security, and they are not the least bit grateful to Felipe Calderón for unleashing this horror on the country.
Back in the bad old days when the PRI ran everything, the cartels waged their internal wars discreetly, and they never attacked the forces of the state. There was an unwritten understanding that the government would not hinder their activities so long as they kept a low profile, except for an occasional big drug bust to keep the Americans happy.
In return, the cartels paid off PRI officials at every level and helped to perpetuate the party’s hold on power. It was a grubby arrangement, but not many people got killed and the public slept easily. Then came PAN, Calderón, and the war. A significant section of the public, rightly or wrongly, now believes that the PRI can make the deals that are needed to restore the peace.
It’s probably a bit more complicated than that, in reality. Peña Nieto says nothing about it in public, but he has hired Oscar Naranjo, the Colombian police chief who played a major role in “decommissioning” that country’s cocaine syndicates, as his main security adviser. The impression that conveys to the voters (quite intentionally) is that as president he will make peace with the cartels, not wage a hopeless war against them.
Did Peña Nieto think this up by himself? Probably not. Are the “dinosaurs” who still control the PRI behind the scenes capable of coming up with it? Of course they are; they once did business with the ancestors of the current drug lords.
And would this be such a terrible thing for Mexico? Well, so long as the United States will not permit the legalization and nationalization of the drug trade, it’s probably Mexico’s best remaining alternative.