How Enrique Peña Nieto Won Himself and His Party the Mexican Presidency

Mexico's President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto took up the centrist mantle of his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — which once stood for little more than amassing power (and keeping it for over seven decades) — and outflanked rival liberals and conservatives

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Alexandre Meneghini / AP

Enrique Pena Nieto, presidential candidate for the Revolutionary Institutional Party, greets supporters at his party's headquarters in Mexico City, early Monday, July 2, 2012.

Shortly before he was assassinated in 1994, Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio admitted he had a dilemma. The long dictatorial reign of Colosio’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had ruled Mexico since 1929, was under threat from two increasingly potent opposition groups: the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD). While the PAN and PRD represented genuine political philosophies, the PRI stood for little more than amassing power — and holding onto it in the most corrupt manner possible. Colosio knew the PRI had to bring something more meaningful than fraud to the ballot box.

So Colosio took a cue from Bill Clinton, a Democrat who had recently won the U.S. presidency with a centrist approach. “That’s where the PRI is going to position itself,” Colosio told me in an interview then, “as the socially progressive but more economically responsible alternative.” Colosio never got a chance to break in that platform: most Mexicans believe that PRI hard-liners, fearful that Colosio also planned to make Mexico more democratic, had him murdered in March 1994. His replacement, Ernesto Zedillo, won the election, but the PAN finally toppled the PRI in the 2000 presidential race.

(PHOTOS: Mexico’s PRI and Enrique Peña Nieto Eye a Return to Power)

The PRI recaptured Mexico’s presidency last night, July 1 — and its candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, may have shown the country’s conservatives and liberals that Colosio’s vision wasn’t that far off. Peña hardly won a mandate: he won just 38% of the vote and his margin of victory was half the double-digit spread most polls had predicted. The PRD’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who narrowly lost the 2006 contest to current President Felipe Calderón of the PAN, took second with 32%, while the PAN’s Josefina Vázquez Mota barely topped 25% at a distant third. (Mexican Presidents are constitutionally limited to one six-year term.)

But Peña’s victory, just six years after the last PRI candidate got only 22% in the 2006 race, makes it clear that there is room after all in Mexico’s presidential politics for a third, centrist alternative. Peña, 45, a lawyer and former governor of powerful Mexico state, adjoining Mexico City, hails from a prominent old PRI family. But he cast himself as the more democratic “new face” of the party, even in his victory speech last night. “Mexicans have given our party a new chance,” Peña said before insisting that his is not the nefarious dinosaur PRI of the 20th century: “I am,” he declared, “the PRI that’s coming.”

Many Mexicans feel that when Peña ran Mexico state from 2005 to 2011, he did prove himself a more progressive administrator than they were used to seeing from a PRI-ista. And as a presidential candidate he laid out the kind of pragmatic platform Colosio tried to envisage 18 years ago. Mexico’s gravest crisis is security — a never ending drug war has seen more than 55,000 murders and 10,000 disappearances since 2006 — and neither Peña nor his rivals offered much in the way of new solutions to that hydra-headed problem. (Peña last night had to reassure Mexicans — and Washington — that he has no plans to go soft on drug trafficking, as the PRI did in the late 20th century.) But Mexico’s limp economy and gaping inequality run a close second, and when I asked Peña last month about his presidential priorities, he went straight to the pocketbook issues: “Mexico urgently needs a series of structural reforms that will detonate its true economic potential for once and generate more public welfare.”

(MORE: Are Mexican Voters Taking a Gamble on the PRI?)

Among them, he said, was an energy overhaul — the same PRI dinosaurs who allegedly put a bullet through Colosio’s head would be apoplectic about Peña’s proposal to amend the Constitution to permit private and even foreign investment in Mexico’s state-run oil monopoly, Pemex — as well as labor, tax and social-security reforms. He has also pledged to rein in the nation’s economy-suffocating monopolies.

Yet critics say Peña, who is married to Angelica Rivera, one of Mexico’s famous telenovela (soap opera) stars, should start by dropping his own cozy relationship with the leviathan television network Televisa, which was the PRI’s mouthpiece in the 20th century and has allegedly given Peña favorable coverage. They also accused Peña’s campaign of vote buying — an echo of the old PRI’s standard modus operandi — which included handing out grocery and department-store debit cards at rallies.

But the PAN and PRD were accused of some of the same shenanigans. What the two losing parties really need to scrutinize this morning is a mirror, and then ask why Peña and the PRI were able to wedge themselves between Mexico’s conservative and liberal presidential votes this time.

They can start with the very real notion that López, who finished so strongly in 2006, should have won this year — and probably would have had he not become the unhinged leftist back in 2006, after electoral authorities gave the victory to Calderón with a razor-thin, half-percentage-point margin. López, who is an admired former Mexico City mayor but is known for his petulant streak, didn’t just protest the results; he had his supporters close down Mexico City’s streets for weeks. He still won the PRD’s 2012 nomination, and to his credit, he set a more moderate tone and had another strong finish on Sunday. But his 2006 antics were too fresh in too many voters’ minds: to them, the PRD, with López as its standard bearer, still seemed the party of the erratic left.

(MORE: From 2006: An Election Standoff in Mexico)

Even today, with a clear 6-point loss staring him in the face, López has yet to concede. Fortunately for the PRD, his likely successor for 2018, popular Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard, looks more pragmatic.

The PAN, meanwhile, looks like a spent force 12 years after it played Mexico’s democratic hero. And that’s due largely to the dour, prickly figure of Calderón. His predecessor, Vicente Fox, wasn’t a particulary effective President, but he at least gave the PAN a more modern and appealing image that helped Mexicans forget the party’s stern, conservative Roman Catholic DNA. Calderón, however, is one of the most inept communicators in Mexican presidential history — and his party has suffered not just from his bold but ill-conceived military strategy against Mexico’s powerful drug cartels, but also from a sense that the PRI-ista prepotencia, or arrogance, of the 20th century was simply being replaced by PAN-ista prepotencia in the 21st.

All of that helped open the door for the PRI’s second chance as much as Televisa favoritism and gift cards did. At the same time, the fact that Peña was held to under 40% of the vote proves that while the PRI may have scored a presidential return, this was hardly a restoration. (It’s a reminder too that Mexico may need to create a second-round runoff election.) The PRI also looks likely to lose control of the lower house of Congress, and many of its gubernatorial candidates, especially in states where PRI corruption has persisted, were roundly defeated. Mexico’s fledgling democracy performed well in that regard  — which means the “PRI that’s coming” will have a much harder time amassing the kind of power the party once had.

—With reporting by Dolly Mascareñas / Mexico City