Mexico elects its next president in less than three months from now. The Institutional Revolutionary Party is poised to return to power with the popular Enrique Peña Nieto, the former governor of the central state of Mexico.
Among the remaining contenders is the nation’s second woman presidential candidate, Josefina Vázquez Mota, a former education secretary and businesswoman who represents the incumbent National Action Party. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City, was nominated for the presidency for the second time by the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution. Gabriel Quadri de la Torre represents the New Alliance Party.
Peña maintains a comfortable lead over his competitors. Polls in March showed Peña ahead of his closest contender, Vázquez Mota, by more than 10 percentage points. López Obrador remains in third place and does not appear to be advancing. Quadri, for his part, has almost no support in the surveys.
As Mexican voters appear inclined to return the PRI to power, some argue that the country is losing its faith in democracy. PRI became infamous for its corporatis and clientalist style of government which allowed it to rule Mexico for more than seventy years in what author Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa, a Nobel laureate, once described the period as one of “perfect dictatorship.”
Peña’s popularity, however, has rather more to do with his personality than party affiliation. Unlike the other candidates, he represents “change” — change from a government which is held responsible for a drastic increase in drug violence and the negative consequences of the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
López Obrador tries to portray himself as “renewed” individual, one who has learned from the mistakes he made when he last ran for office in 2006. The left-wing candidate has toned down his rhetoric and adopted a “business-friendly” attitude instead to appeal to the middle class. He went as far as changing his attire, discarding his emblematic yellow (PRD’s official color) tie for conventional blue and red ones.
It appears his change of character has come to late. After the 2006 election, he announced himself as the “legitimate” president and became infamous for the rallies he organized which disrupted public life in Mexico City. He accused the country’s business elite of conspiring against him and stealing the election. These bombastic charges haven’t been forgotten.
Vázquez Mota, Peña’s main challenger, has tried to distance herself from the former and current administrations by insisting that she will not repeat the mistakes of her predecessors. While she brands herself as “different,” she never explains just what those “mistakes” are and judging from her statements, she doesn’t really believe many mistakes were ever made.
Regarding incumbent president Felipe Calderón’s security strategy, for instance, she maintains that the results “will not be measured by how many criminals are captured but by how stable and secure communities are.” Her competitors similarly insist that the emphasis should be on the latter. Vázquez Mota hasn’t suggested major changes in security policy that would accomplish this. Rather she frames her proposal as a second phase of the current strategy.
PAN lost valuable time deciding who its presidential candidate should be. Vázquez Mota has lost valuable time pretending to be different. It’s too little, too late for Mexican voters and Peña’s victory seems all but certain.
Would it represent a setback for Mexican democracy? Perhaps. Peña will bring the PRI’s machinery with him to the presidency. There will be favors to pay and interests to uphold. But this happens in the most developed countries. The problem with Mexico lies in a system that has engrained several vested interests which block much needed reforms.
It would be a stretch to imagine Peña’s election as a sign of Mexicans losing faith in democracy however. Voters value security and economic prosperity the most. When a government fails to provide this, change is needed. This is not a repudiation of democracy. It is democracy at work.