Can the PRI Escape Pena Nieto’s Legacy in Mexico’s Presidential Election?

Were Enrique Pena Nieto eligible for re-election in Mexico’s 2018 presidential race, most analysts believe he would be soundly beaten. Pena Nieto is plagued by corruption scandals, rising crime rates and, above all, the sense that he represents the very worst of the country’s oldest political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI; his six-year-term, which ends next December, has exposed many of the fault lines that continue to undermine Mexico’s potential. Add U.S. President Donald Trump’s bullying tactics on trade and border security, and the resurgence of veteran leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the polls, and until recently some saw the result of July’s election as a foregone conclusion.

Yet the announcement of Jose Antonio Meade as the PRI’s candidate on Nov. 27 has set the stage for what is likely to be a fiercely competitive race between the incumbent party—center-left, pro-market—and the National Regeneration Movement, or Morena, led by Lopez Obrador, who has revived the rhetoric of Mexico’s populist leaders of the 1970s. Pena Nieto looks set to leave office as a deeply contradictory figure whose government enabled the passage of the country’s most important economic reforms in three decades, yet whose personal image and that of his party have been stained by scandal and bloodshed.

“I think that Pena Nieto’s term will ultimately be remembered in two ways,” says Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political scientist at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico City. “In the short term, it will be remembered as six years of corruption, impunity and violence. In the long term, perhaps, for the merits of the reforms, above all those concerning public education and energy. But as Keynes liked to say, in the long term we are all dead.”

The PRI, which first took power in 1929 and governed Mexico uninterrupted for seven decades as a de facto one-party state, had long tried to adjust to the country’s changing political and economic winds. Finally beaten in a democratic election in 2000, the party subsequently spent 12 years out of power, yet continued to hold onto a majority of states and maintained an important presence in congress. On the campaign trail in 2012, as Mexico reeled from drug violence and the aftershocks of the global financial crisis, Pena Nieto touted the idea of a “new PRI” that had left behind its reputation for populism and opaque governance.

In one sense, this was true. For much of the 20th century, the PRI was a left-wing party that favored economic nationalism and generous public subsidies; this latest incarnation, much like the PRI governments of the 1990s, has been committed to open markets and a balanced public budget. Yet the party remains burdened by its other great legacy: the corruption, clientelism and informal politics that held back Mexico’s development for decades.

That contradiction has defined Pena Nieto’s presidency and revealed much of the nature of the wider challenges facing Mexico. His sweeping reform agenda, which touched almost every area of the Mexican economy, from labor laws and finance to the historic opening of the country’s state-run energy sector, drew praise from international observers as Mexico deepened its business-friendly climate. Yet the country remains largely divided between a relatively prosperous north and a stagnant, volatile south. According to the government’s official statistics agency, while 60 percent of the population of the Texas-bordering state of Nuevo Leon, the wealthiest state per capita, are middle class, 80 percent of those living in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, dwell in poverty.

The PRI remains burdened by its other great legacy: the corruption, clientelism and informal politics that held back Mexico’s development for decades.

The rule of law remains under scrutiny with 2017 likely to end as Mexico’s most violent in 20 years in terms of total number of homicides. Rivalries between drug cartels and gangs are as brutal as ever, while 14 former state governors are currently either under investigation or arrest for corruption. The most notorious episodes—the disappearance of 43 student activists in 2014 and the so-called Casa Blanca scandal, involving a $7 million mansion purchased from a federal contractor by Pena Nieto’s wife, exposed the same year—made headlines internationally. Trump’s subsequent criticism of Mexico on trade, immigration and security only added to the sense of a rudderless administration.

Economist and political analyst Macario Schettino, of the Technological Institute of Monterrey in Mexico City, is somewhat more optimistic, seeing Pena Nieto’s term as the latest in a landmark era for Mexico beginning in 1997. In that time, the country has achieved enviable political and fiscal stability, holding competitive elections and avoiding the economic chaos that has wracked much of Latin America. But it still largely failed to strengthen the rule of law.

“The end of an autocratic system centered around the presidency liberated [Mexico’s] corporatist groups, whether they were labor unions, rural organizations or public universities, but also state governors, lawmakers and even organized crime, effectively allowing them to do as they please,” Schettino says. “Putting an end to this would require deep institutional changes: an end to the culture of presidentialism, especially in regards to political control of the justice system; limits on the power of governors; limits on corruption and insecurity; and the strengthening of public security.”

The PRI’s historic defeats last year in state governor races in regions of Mexico long considered its strongholds were widely viewed as a referendum on Pena Nieto himself. Yet Mexican presidents serve only one term, and Meade, a former minister of finance, energy and foreign relations known for his professionalism and nonpartisanship, may provide a lifeline for the PRI. Polls in the days after he announced his intention to run for the presidency saw him rapidly gain on Lopez Obrador, the frontrunner. The centrist Citizens Front alliance, comprised of the center-right National Action Party, or PAN, and center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, will make up a third contender in the race.

The positive showing of Lopez Obrador in polls ahead of campaigning had led many observers to expect a presidential election fought on ideological grounds. The leftist known in Mexico as AMLO, who has twice finished second in presidential races, favors increased public spending and a referendum on the country’s recent market reforms. Both Meade and the likely Citizens Front candidate, Ricardo Anaya, will look to continue Mexico’s fiscally conservative, market-oriented approach. Yet with the past five years dominated by corruption and crime rather than economic issues, many believe the key debate in the 2018 election will be on institutions and the country’s ongoing struggles with impunity.

“Given the complexity and depth of these problems, I think our ability to confront them requires long-term and long-reaching bets that aren’t based on one presidential term, but on entire decades ahead,” says Bravo. “The person who occupies the president’s chair is almost anecdotal by comparison. Organizing congress and autonomous institutions, [along with] a system of checks and balances, appear to me to be far more important.”

Paul Imison is a British journalist based in Mexico City. You can follow him on Twitter @paulimison.