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The Putinization of Mexico

MEXICO CITY – Prior to Mexico’s just-concluded presidential election, public disaffection with the state of affairs in the country was palpable. Mexicans from all walks of life seemed concerned about spiraling violence, anemic economic growth, and the lackluster rule of the National Action Party (PAN). With 60,000 people killed in the war on drugs, Mexicans – like Russians following the first chaotic years of democratic transition under Boris Yeltsin – opted for political regression, underpinned by nostalgia for rule by a firm, if corrupt, hand.

With democracy now associated with anarchy, chaos, and insecurity, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for seven decades until 2000, stood to benefit. The PRI promised to reestablish order and predictability, and to reduce the violence inflicted by the drug cartels, even if that means reaching a modus vivendi with them.

Mexicans responded accordingly, punishing the PAN for overseeing an economy that has grown only 1.5% per year on average over the last 12 years, as well as for a level of insecurity that Mexico has not witnessed since its revolution 100 years ago. But, perhaps most importantly, the PRI reaped the benefits of the best investment it has made in recent years: the permanent publicity campaign that turned its candidate and now President-elect, Enrique Peña Nieto, into Mexico’s most popular political figure.

Peña Nieto is a product of the two television networks that groomed him for power and then propelled him to the presidency. The PRI’s political strategy was essentially the “golden boy” model: handsome face, cartloads of money, and the support of the television networks and Mexico’s dinosaur elite, which yearned for a return to power. In other words, Peña Nieto’s rise represents an alliance of oligarchs, vested monopolistic interests, the forces of order, and a population that has become disillusioned with electoral democracy.

For many Mexicans, the restoration to power of a party that governed in an authoritarian manner and returns without having had to modernize itself, is a cause for neither insomnia nor even concern. They regard the PRI’s return as if it were a symptom of democratic normalcy, of “kicking the bums out.” The oracles of optimism predict that the PRI will be forced to enact the structural reforms that it has blocked time and again over the years.

It would indeed be fortunate for Mexico if a new era of PRI presidencies were a sign of healthy rotation in power rather than a regrettable step backwards. But any reasonable analysis of the current PRI does not support that prediction, and reveals it to be based on little more than wishful thinking.

As Tom Friedman has argued, three groups coexist in Mexico today: “The Narcos, the No’s, and the NAFTA’s.” These are, respectively, the drug lords, the beneficiaries of the status quo, and middle-class Mexicans who want prosperity.

The PRI is, by definition, the party of “No.” It opposes necessary structural reforms in order to defend its clients’ rent-seeking practices; rejects citizen candidacies in favor of unaccountable party elites; recoils from union modernization, owing to the corporatist practices that it implemented; and refuses to dismantle the monopolies that it established. The PRI and Peña Nieto are “veto centers,” because they constitute the main opposition to any change that would entail opening, privatizing, confronting, or remodeling the system that they conceived and now, once again, control.

The PRI demonstrated in this election that it had more money, unity, discipline, and hunger for success than its adversaries. Unfortunately, it continues to be a clientelist, corporatist, corrupt organization that does not believe in citizen participation, checks and balances, competition, accountability, or scrutiny of public-sector unions.

Yet the country that the PRI is now poised to govern again has changed, slowly but surely. Its youth are less conformist and more demanding, less passive and more pluralistic. It is now the task of all Mexicans who marched and mobilized and recently took Peña Nieto to task on the streets to ensure that Putinization remains a Russian phenomenon.

Read more from our "Back to Mexico's Future" Focal Point.