According to preliminary results, Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico’s PRI will assume the country’s presidency on December 1. The PRI has definitely undergone some changes in the past 12 years, but its legacy is a fraught one. The party has historically been known for two main things: corruption and effective control over the government apparatus. Yesterday, Mexicans demonstrated that they’re willing to swallow the history of corruption to get some more of that control.
Peña Nieto ran a very good campaign. He maintained a solid lead over his two main opponents — PAN’s Josefina Vazquez Mota and PRD’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador — for almost the entire race. His campaign was a marketing wonder, constantly keeping him on message. He has not, however, fared as well during unscripted moments — so we will see how he performs during a presidency that is bound to be fraught with hardship and improvisation.
While Vazquez Mota publicly acknowledged that the odds were not in her favor early yesterday, Lopez Obrador has not been so graceful. The man who lost Mexico’s last elections by a sliver in 2006 has refused to concede until the very final votes are tallied. One can only hope that he will not embark on a repeat of those elections, which he contested for months.
So what happens next? Will we see the PRI behave as it did before 2000, when it lost an election for the first time? It’s unlikely. Even if the party hasn’t changed, the country certainly has. Oversight institutions have risen and have been maturing. Civic society keeps a much closer eye on government transgressions. Were the PRI to engage in its old ways, the outcry would be loud.
At the same time, political power has become much less consolidated. In the past 12 years, influence has dispersed from Mexico City to the governors of each state. Even more importantly, the lack of a majority in Congress will severely hinder the PRI, forcing them to seek support from their opposition.
Now that he’s set to lead the country, Peña Nieto will have to buckle down and produce more tangible policy proposals. One of the main issues he needs to address is Mexico’s security situation; all candidates were careful to be vague on the topic during their campaigns. Although Felipe Calderon’s decision to take on Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations head-on has been widely criticized, it is telling that none of the three main presidential candidates proposed anything other than staying the course in one way or another. Peña Nieto has expressed a desire to focus on reducing violence as opposed to arresting the most kingpins or interdicting the most drugs. It’s a very sensible goal, but how he will achieve it remains unclear.
One thing to note is that in a way — if we’re able to abstract ourselves from partisan leanings — we can interpret these elections to be a positive development for Mexico. Political alternance is a good thing — and one that Mexico doesn’t have a lot of experience with. It makes government and institutions accountable to the public. The country already experienced 71 consecutive years of PRI rule; it’s good that the PAN is not set to become the same sort of entrenched power.
When the dust settles, it’s likely that we’ll realize that the next six years will bring more continuity than drastic change in Mexico.