MEXICO CITY – On July 1, Mexico will in all likelihood vote the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled the country for seven decades, back into power. The PRI’s candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, holds an insurmountable lead late in the campaign. Many Mexicans, as well as the country’s foreign friends, fear that this turn of events heralds a return to the authoritarian, corrupt, and discredited past that Mexico had left behind when the National Action Party’s candidate, Vicente Fox, won the presidency in 2000.
As someone who contributed to the PRI’s defeat, I would prefer a different victor this year: an independent candidate, a center-left social democrat, or a center-right leader running on the best parts of Fox’s and outgoing President Felipe Calderón’s record (while repudiating Calderón’s bloody and futile war of choice against Mexico’s drug lords). But I reject the notion that a PRI victory would automatically restore the status quo ante, as if Mexico, its links to the world, and the PRI itself had stood still throughout the last 12 years.
Mexico has changed immensely since 1994, the last time a PRI president was elected. If Peña Nieto wins, he will have to deal with a strong opposition bloc in Congress, and in all likelihood with minority status for the PRI, at least in the lower house. Moreover, more than ten of Mexico’s 32 state governors will belong to the opposition, while the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution will continue to control the country’s second-most important elected position and budget: the mayor’s office in Mexico City, which the PRD has held since 1997.
Meanwhile, Mexico’s media are freer, better, and stronger than ever, even if on occasion the quality of their output leaves much to be desired. The country’s civil society has become more organized, more powerful, and more vibrant. The government can no longer do what it wants, for better or for worse.
Indeed, many key institutions have achieved wide autonomy from the government since 2000: the Central Bank, the Transparency Institute, the National Statistics Office, as well as the securities, communications, elections, anti-trust, and drug authorities. Perhaps most important, Mexico, for the first time in its history, has a truly independent and effective Supreme Court. This occasionally made life miserable for Fox and Calderón, but has made things better for ordinary Mexicans in every walk of life.
Mexico’s relations with the world have changed as well since 2000. Today, the country is enmeshed in a web of free-trade agreements and other international instruments that have locked in its open economy, orthodox macroeconomic policies, and commitment to democratic rule. It is subject to constant, intrusive, and welcome foreign scrutiny.
Peer pressure now matters, too. Other countries will listen to Mexico only if Mexico abides by its obligations with respect to labor, the environment, free and fair elections, private property, and human rights. In this era, the government can’t get away with stealing elections, throwing political opponents in jail, expropriating foreign or domestic private assets, large-scale corruption, or profligate spending. The degree of economic integration with the United States and Canada – which together account for the great bulk of Mexico’s trade, tourism, foreign investment, and remittances – make it especially difficult for the country to be impervious to foreign criticism.
Finally, the PRI has changed in two fundamental ways since it last held power. I cannot vouch for Peña Nieto’s democratic convictions, but, generationally, he came of age in a democratic Mexico: he was barely two years old during the old system’s darkest moment, the student massacre of 1968; he was 28 in 1994, at the time of the country’s first semi-democratic election (which even the victor, Ernesto Zedillo, later acknowledged was free, but not fair); and he turned 34 in 2000.
Whatever his personal beliefs, if Peña Nieto wins, he will be the PRI’s first-ever democratically elected president – the first to become head of state because he won more votes at the polls, not because his predecessor hand-picked him. Whether or not this matters is difficult to say, but morally, politically, and personally, accountability counts; in its absence, anything goes. And accountability is no longer absent in Mexico.
In the end, one either believes that free and fair elections, respect for individual rights and liberties, and rotation in power are the essence of democracy, or one does not. The PRI’s comeback, under Mexico’s current rules, may not be ideal for the country, but it is not a restoration.
If Mexico is not ready for the PRI’s return to power, then we all did our job poorly: we did not build the institutions, the civil society, the political parties, and the international covenants that would have ensured that only democratic players remained in the political game. But I believe that we did accomplish the task, and that to fear an authoritarian restoration would be to deny everything that we have all achieved over the past 12 years.