Is Peña Nieto good news for Mexico?

Story highlights

  • Projections show Enrique Peña Nieto of PRI will become Mexico's next president
  • Ruben Navarrette: Mexicans are aware that the PRI may be as corrupt as ever
  • He says voters can overlook PRI's legacy of corruption if the party can provide security
  • Navarrette: We'll have to wait and see if Peña Nieto will be a good leader for Mexico

They're baaaaack. With apologies to Mark Twain, it seems that rumors of the death of Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party were greatly exaggerated.

In fact, I probably wrote that obituary myself, more than once. That's how it looked in 2000, when the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as PRI, lost the presidency to Vicente Fox of the National Action Party, or PAN. It seemed even more certain in 2006, when the PRI came in a distant third in the presidential election among the three major parties, behind both the conservative PAN and the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, known as PRD. It seemed that the PRI, which controlled the presidency for 71 years and became synonymous with violence and corruption, was on the road to extinction.

But the party has made a comeback. As expected, the top vote getter in Mexico's presidential election on Sunday was PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto. The 45-year-old former governor of Mexico's most populous state, the one with the matinee idol good looks and the movie star wife, got about 38% of the vote. PRD candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador came in second with about 32%. The PAN's Josefina Vazquez Mota got just 25%.

This is despite the fact that Peña Nieto's public image took a lot of hits during the campaign. In December, the candidate struggled at a literary fair to name three books that had influenced him. When he was criticized for the flub by the country's intelligentsia, his daughter poured gasoline on the fire by insisting, on Twitter, that the story was driven by class envy. Later, in an interview with a Spanish newspaper, Peña Nieto admitted that he didn't know the price of a package of tortillas. When criticized for being out of touch, he insisted chauvinistically that he wasn't "the woman of the household." He also admitted in another interview that he was unfaithful to his late wife and fathered two children with two women during his marriage.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.

These tidbits normally tantalize the media. But Mexico's version of Big Media, led by the gargantuan multimedia company Grupo Televisa, has been a big fan of Peña Nieto. Their cozy relationship was one of the things that, in recent weeks, drove hundreds of thousands of student protesters into the streets to protest the candidate's likely election and the fact that the elites who run Mexico seemed to be ramrodding Peña Nieto into office. The 132 Movement is Mexico's liberal version of the tea party, challenging the establishment and determined to be heard.

Even former President Vicente Fox crossed party lines and endorsed Peña Nieto, against the PAN's own candidate, Vazquez Mota. That maneuver only solidified the cynical view of many Mexicans that the fix was in, and that the two major parties are more alike than different.

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Still, many voters fell in line. Now, after 12 years of being on the outside, the PRI-istas are back in power.

Not that they were ever far from it. At various times in the last decade, even when it didn't hold the presidency, the PRI kept control of the Mexican Congress. The party also used this control to thwart reforms pushed by Fox and his successor, Felipe Calderon. As many Mexicans see it, the PRI was always plotting its retaking of the presidency, even as it overhauled its brand and tried to overcome a legacy of corruption.

Has that legacy been overcome? It's hard to say. Some Mexicans seem willing to believe that this is not their father's PRI and that the party of today bears no resemblance to the one that was run from office a dozen years ago.

But the more common view seems to be that, despite the makeover, the party is as corrupt as ever -- a fact that voters seem willing to overlook if it can steer the country to safer and more tranquil waters.

Judging from what they're telling reporters, Mexicans are looking for a leader to grow the economy, turn Mexico into a first-world country, and, most of all, stop a war with the drug cartels that has in the last 5½ years resulted in the deaths of more than 50,000 Mexicans.

That is the PRI's promise. The party racked up major victories in the 2009 midterm elections by insisting that it could provide prosperity and security. That's code for: "Elect us, and we'll stop the drug war."

But can it deliver? I doubt it. What started nearly six years ago as an offensive by the government against the drug cartels has now morphed into a messy turf war between rival gangs eager to gobble up the country one city at a time. My sense is that the PRI couldn't stop the war, even if it wanted to.

Besides, if you listen to what Peña Nieto has been saying in the last several weeks about combating drug violence, it sounds like what the Mexican people typically hear from Calderon. Consequently, most experts don't expect a dramatic shift in the drug war or how the government goes about fighting it.

Shortly after winning, Peña Nieto told the Financial Times that while he is committed to reducing the violence, "There will be no pact or truce with organized crime."

For those of us who believe that this is a righteous cause and a battle worth fighting, one that affects countless lives on both sides of the border, that's good news.

Meanwhile, we'll have to wait and see whether the election of Peña Nieto turns out to be good news for Mexico.

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