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Critics fear PRI party revival in Mexico

Mexico’s powerful PRI party, which ruled Mexico for 71 consecutive years before it was ousted from power in 2000, is poised to make a triumphant comeback in Sunday’s presidential poll. However, many are worried it will be a step back for democracy.


Mexico’s powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is poised to make a triumphant return to power in general elections on Sunday, 12 years after it was ejected from the presidential palace.

Before its defeat in the 2000 election the nationalist PRI ruled over Mexico for 71 consecutive years, and many have voiced concern over the comeback of what they consider a fundamentally corrupt and undemocratic political party.

Enrique Pena Nieto, the young and affable former governor of the State of Mexico running as the PRI's presidential candidate, is tipped to claim between 36 and 39 percent of the vote in the winner-takes-all poll on July 1. Pena Nieto, 45, maintains a double digit advantage in voter intentions over his closest rival, left-wing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

At a massive campaign rally at a soccer stadium in Mexico City on June 24, Pena Nieto promised supporters he would leave behind the old practices that damaged his party’s reputation. “I am part of a new generation that grew up under democracy,” the frontrunner told the crowd.

While most of the media’s attention is on the presidential poll, Mexicans will also be voting for a new parliament. According to Felipe Maldonado of Consulta Mitofsky, a Mexican polling firm, the PRI is also on track to secure a parliamentary majority that would allow Pena Nieto to easily pass reforms.

“If they can win 42.2 percent of all parliamentary votes, they should have an absolute majority. Our estimates show they will get 46 percent of votes,” Maldonado said.

New era of corruption?

The possibility of seeing the PRI retake control of government with unchecked powers has brought back memories of decades of corruption and autocratic rule, fears that political opponents have been stoking throughout the campaign.

“The PRI was in power in Mexico longer than the communists were in power in the USSR,” said Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky, an expert on Latin America with France’s Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS).

“Some analysts evoke the PRI’s years of rule as the ‘perfect dictatorship’ in which other parties existed and elections were held, but the PRI always fixed things so that it would win,” Kourliandsky explained. “Election fraud was systematic and clientelist politics rampant.”

The PRI’s long legacy of undemocratic practices is one of the reasons the #YoSoy132 student-led movement has organised mass protest marches against Pena Niet across Mexico in recent weeks. Student protesters also argue that Pena Nieto’s presidential bid has received the tacit support from Mexico’s main television companies, which have showered him with positive coverage.

The dissatisfied youth movement says the alliance between the PRI and powerful media groups announces a new era of cronyism. “The TV corporations and other big businesses see in Pena Nieto the opportunity to place their interests ahead of those of the general public,” said Julio Colin, one of the leaders of #YoSoy132.

Others view the PRI’s widely-expected success at the ballot box as a subtle acceptance of corruption among voters. According to the French researcher Jean Rivelois, author of the book Drugs and Power: From Mexico to Paradise (L’Harmattan, 2000), many Mexicans think the PRI is capable of striking a deal with the drug cartels and thus reduce the violence that has claimed around 60,000 lives in past six years and devastated entire regions.

“If they vote for the PRI, it’s because the priority is to reduce violence,” said Rivelois. “For many, the PRI in power means increasing corruption, but also buying peace.”

No resurrection

According to IRIS’ Kourliandsky, claims that the PRI’s surge signals a return to a de facto dictatorship in Mexico are exaggerated. The scholar says the PRI is no longer the party it once was, and above all, Mexico is not the same country.

“There was a change in power 12 years ago. These elections are taking place in the same electoral and political climate as the 2000 and 2006 elections,” Kourliandsky said. “The PRI’s advantage in opinion polls is not the result of corruption or police intimidation. [Pena Nieto’s] advantage is objective.”

Kourliandsky added that corruption and vote-buying were a real and unfortunate reality of Mexican politics, but that inappropriate practices were by no means the sole monopoly of one single party in the country.

For Mitofsky’s Maldonado, the PRI’s forecast victory is especially due to the confluence of two important factors: a likeable candidate and a party with a strong image to back him. “The PRI has worked hard to win back political terrain and recast its image. In 2006, it had the worst image among parties, but in 2009, it had become the party with the best image,” the opinion expert said.

Maldonado noted that if the PRI wins back the presidency on Sunday, it is not as if the party is being resurrected from the grave. The party already controls 20 of Mexico’s 32 state governorships. The presidential palace and parliament would rather be icing on the cake.

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