Is the Party of Mexico’s Old Dictatorship Poised to Return to Power?

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Governor-elected of the state of Michoacan, Fausto Vallejo celebrates his victory in the local election in Morelia, Mexico, on November 13, 2011. AFP PHOTO (Photo: Alfredo Estrella / AFP / Getty Images)

It’s rarely a good sign for the leader of any country when his party loses a governor’s election in his home state less than a year before the next presidential election — especially when that party’s candidate is the president’s own sister. So while I was in Mexico City this week it was hard not to notice Mexican President Felipe Calderón and his ruling conservative National Action Party (PAN) wringing their hands after Calderón’s sibling, Luisa María Calderón Hinojosa, lost the Nov. 13 gubernatorial race in Michoacán state. And their angst has a lot to do with the opposition cohort that won the vote – the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which after Sunday’s victory looks more set than ever to recapture the presidency.

That’s still an unsettling prospect to a lot of people. The PRI ruled Mexico for 71 uninterrupted years as a one-party dictatorship until the PAN scored a presidential upset in 2000. Calderón was elected in 2006, but his chances of seeing the PAN continue in Mexico City’s Los Pinos presidential residence after he leaves office next year (Mexican presidents are limited to one six-year term) have been hurt by his controversial military campaign against the country’s powerful drug cartels. That war has seen some 50,000 often ghastly gangland murders and 10,000 disappearances in the past five years. The election in Michoacán, where his army offensive started, was a “symbolic confirmation of whether or not Calderón’s security strategy had support,” political analyst Alberto Aziz wrote this week in the Mexico City daily El Universal.

It was also an important gauge of whether or not Mexicans now see the PRI as their alternative, not just to the PAN but to the liberal Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), which nearly won the presidency in 2006 but has since stumbled and finished third in Michoacán. The PRI’s comeback had already started with the 2009 mid-term elections, when it became the dominant force again in the Congress, picking up 100 seats while the PAN lost 50. The PRI has also been picking up more governorships in recent years. But after the Michoacán results showed PRI candidate Fausto Vallejo unexpectedly defeating Calderón Hinojosa by a 35%-to-33% margin, the PRI’s likely presidential candidate for 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto, crowed: “This triumph consolidates the PRI’s position to win the presidency.”

Given how hobbled both the PAN and PRD look right now, Peña may well be right. The question then, of course, is whether his party – one of the most authoritarian and corrupt of the 20th century – has reformed sufficiently to bring Mexico out of its spiraling security crisis but also maintain the macroeconomic health that Calderón has stewarded. Calderón’s bold but ill conceived anti-narco crusade may be unpopular, for example, but the PRI when it ruled was shamelessly cozy with the drug cartels. To critics, the party hasn’t done enough since its 2000 comeuppance to prove it stands for more than just the cynical acquisition of power – and they point to PRI leader Humberto Moreira, who is now under scrutiny after $2.8 billion was found to be missing from the coffers of Coahuila, the state he governed until early this year. (Moreira denies any wrongdoing.)

But the PRI is in the 2012 driver’s seat at least in part because its elected officials have demonstrated some good-government bona fides over the past decade. Peña, 45, the respected former Governor of Mexico state, argued this week during a visit to Washington, D.C. – where the U.S. has pledged $1.5 billion to Mexico in anti-narcotics aid – that the PRI has evolved as a modern and more transparent centrist party “best endowed to push through the reforms Mexico needs.” Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and hoping to show U.S. pols and pundits the PRI’s new face, Peña called it unfair to attack today’s party for the sins of Mexico’s undemocratic past. “I neither see it nor live it today,” he said, referring to the PRI’s sordid history. “What I’ve lived is the more democratic period of competition. I believe we have indeed changed.”

One irony is that many Mexicans say they’ll vote against the PAN in the July 1 presidential election because, after 12 years of holding Los Pinos, the party’s prepotencia, or arrogance, reminds them a bit of the old PRI. And that may help reopen the door to Los Pinos for what everyone hopes is the new PRI.