Mexico’s PRI-vival: How Big a Gamble Are Voters Taking?

Weary of a violent drug war and a limp economy, Mexican voters look to set hand the presidency back to the Institutional Revolutionary Party – the PRI, which ruled as a one-party dictatorship in the 20th century – in hopes of improving their democracy in the 21st

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

A man walks past a sign promoting PRI presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto following a rally in Tepeaca, Puebla, Mexico, June 12, 2012.

A Mexican politician once described for me the closed-door negotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, that took place 20 years ago. It was easy to tell which team was the U.S.’s and which was Mexico’s: “We were the guys with the Armani suits and the Montblanc pens. The Americans wore department store suits. They had Bics.” The Mexicans, he said, looked down on their gringo counterparts as uncouth plebeians, because the Mexicans were part of their country’s elite, its aristocracy, its masters of the universe.

Above all, they were PRI-istas – members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico as a one-party, vote-buying dictatorship from 1929 to 2000. The PRI called itself the inheritor of the Mexican Revolution; but as literary giant Carlos Fuentes saw it in his epic novel The Death of Artemio Cruz, the party instead betrayed the revolution’s democratic values and stood for little more than the cynical accumulation of power and spoils – each generation of “new masters equally ambitious and rapacious.” Its regime was so crooked that when an opposition candidate looked set to win the 1988 presidential election, PRI bosses shut down the vote-tallying computers and declared their man the winner. By the 1990s, Mexico had one of the world’s highest number of billionaires even as its workers earned some of the world’s lowest wages. And its NAFTA negotiators considered themselves the smartest guys in the room – until the peso crashed in 1994, and with it the PRI dictatorship soon after.

(PHOTOS: Mexico Elections: Former Ruling Party Eyes Return to Power)

Now, 12 years after it was finally toppled in the 2000 presidential election, the PRI is back. It never really left: its provincial machinery remained potent; the party still holds more than half of Mexico’s 31 state governorships. But on Sunday, July 1, it’s all but certain to recapture Los Pinos, the Mexico City presidential residence. PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto – an energetic 45-year-old former state governor who calls himself the centrist “face of the new PRI,” but whom critics deride as just a good-looking front man for the party’s nefarious dinosaurs – holds a double-digit lead in the polls over his closet rival, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD). “The PRI has eminently changed because Mexico has,” Peña insisted to me this month after a campaign rally in the town of Tepeaca south of Mexico CIty. “This is another Mexico today, a democratic culture, and we’re competing strongly again precisely because our proposals promise even more change.”

Still, that doesn’t explain why at least a plurality of Mexicans (Peña is expected to get about 40% or less of the vote) are poised to hand the keys to the entire country back to a party they once couldn’t trust to honestly count a box of ballots. And the answer, ironically, lies in the fact that Mexico is indeed a democracy now – but still a fledgling democracy, and one that has so far failed to meet most Mexicans’ expectations.

Mexicans do have clean elections today, but that doesn’t make up for their security dystopia – a drug war that has seen more than 55,000 murders since 2006 – and their financial frustrations – a limp economy that has averaged only 2% growth since 2000. The conservative National Action Party (PAN) that defeated the PRI in 2000, and which is still in power under current President Felipe Calderón, looks exhausted. (Mexican presidents are limited to one six-year term; PAN candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota is running a distant third.) The PRD, meanwhile, doesn’t yet look equipped.

(MORE: Mexico Can Survive a New President)

So Mexicans are taking a gamble. They know how responsible the PRI was in the 20th century for so many of the problems they still live with in the 21st, from the terrifying power of the nation’s drug cartels – originally nurtured by the epic corruption of past PRI governments – to the business monopolies and rampant inequality that keep almost half of Mexico’s 112 million people in poverty and looking for work in the U.S. But voters are betting that the party has spent the past dozen years out of power righting itself just enough to help right the country. López, who has enjoyed a recent surge in the polls thanks in part to student protests against the PRI-vival, warns, “The old mafia of power is imposing itself again.” Yet many Mexicans seem to think the PRI, as Peña argues, “is the only political force that can get things done” at this fragile moment in Mexico’s history.

Peña, a personable, telegenic lawyer married to a Mexican telenovela (soap opera) star, is the scion of a prominent old PRI family from Mexico state, adjoining Mexico City. He’s not known as a particularly deep or detailed thinker. But whereas many PRI officials allegedly remain as corrupt as they were in the old days—the U.S. recently accused one former PRI state governor of laundering drug cartel money—others like Peña, who was Mexico state Governor from 2005-11, have won kudos for “being much more responsive to voters instead of trying to co-opt them with grubby clientelism and handouts, as the PRI had always done in the past,” says political analyst Federico Estévez of the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM) in Mexico City.

Peña backers point to his landmark energy proposal as evidence of his reformist bona fides. Mexico’s state oil monopoly, Petróleos de México, or Pemex, has always been a sacred as well as a cash cow, but poor management and weak investment have taken their toll. So Peña is calling for what would have been blasphemy inside the old PRI: a constitutional amendment to permit private, minority investment in Pemex.

(More: A Return to Power: Mexico’s PRI Tries to Sell Itself As the Party of the Future)

Upgrading Pemex, however, could prove a lot easier than downgrading Mexico’s horrific drug war. Peña says he disagrees with Calderón’s bold but ill conceived strategy of sending troops against the traffickers, but he realizes Mexico can’t yet trust its corrupt and incompetent cops to do the job either. Peña’s major alternative idea so far is a “national gendarmerie,” a force of soldier-police officers that to many people sounds like a fancier name for what Calderón already has on the streets. Like Calderón, Peña wants more professional and uniform training of judges, prosecutors and police, but that’s a long-term project.

It’s Peña’s short-term agenda – or assumptions about it – that has raised eyebrows in Mexico and the U.S., which has pledged $1.5 billion in drug-war aid. Peña asserted last month that “our priority should be reducing the violence,” adding that the crimes he wants to focus on are murder, kidnapping and extortion. Many wondered if that meant he intends to go soft on drug trafficking, much as the PRI did in the late 20th century as a way of getting the cartels to agree to reduce narco-violence. “We really don’t believe [Peña] thinks that way,” one U.S. official involved in drug interdiction told me, reflecting on Washington’s strained relationship with the PRI when it ruled Mexico. “But you’d be naïve not to be mindful of his party’s past.” Peña denies the inference: “I want to signal very clearly that there will be no truce or deals with either organized crime or drug trafficking,” he told me. “It’s our duty to finish them off.”

But critics ask: Where was all the progressive spirit when the PRI, which controls the lower house of Mexico’s dysfunctional Congress, was blocking many of the PAN’s reform measures over the past decade, including the overhaul of an ossified political system that still bars independent candidates in election? What’s more, they say, if Peña and the PRI are serious about fixing onerous millstones like the business monopolies that choke Mexico’s economy, they should back off their own cozy relationship with leviathans like Mexico’s largest television network, Televisa. It was the PRI’s virtual media ministry in the 20th century and has been accused of giving Peña inordinate, and inordinately flattering, coverage.

(MORE: Is the Party of Mexico’s Old Dictatorship Poised to Return to Power?)

Peña calls the charges part of an “anti-democratic conspiracy” against the PRI. But either way, especially if López keeps Peña below 40% of the vote on Sunday, it will be hard for the PRI to recreate the 20th-century reign that Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa called “the perfect dictatorship” (since it was “camouflaged” with elections so as not to look dictatorial). Mexicans are betting that if Peña and his party still consider themselves the smartest guys in the room, they’re intelligent enough to realize that holding on to power today requires creating a more perfect democracy.

-with reporting by Dolly Mascareñas/Mexico City