Enrique Peña Nieto: Mexico's new face

Enrique Peña Nieto, the fresh-faced politician Mexicans elected this week to be their president, represents the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which completely dominated Mexican politics for 71 years until 2000. Many Mexicans are concerned that the PRI's return will lead to a restoration of autocratic rule, an officially sanctioned detente with organized crime or a marked deterioration in bilateral cooperation. But these things are unlikely.

Equally unlikely, however, is any kind of wide-ranging reform. For good or ill,Mexico'snew president will not have the power to transform Mexico into something strikingly different from what it is today. But he will have the opportunity to make limited but significant advances on the economic and security fronts.

Peña Nieto will take office with a weak mandate and without a congressional majority, both of which will constrain his ability to change Mexico. Contrary to pre-election polls that gave Peña Nieto a large double-digit lead and suggested that the PRI would sweep back into power with a congressional majority, Peña won by about 7 points, collecting only 38% of the vote in a four-way race. His party fell far short of a legislative majority.

This outcome was humbling to a party that had expected to win it all, and it will require the PRI to build alliances with opposition parties — to use the tactics of negotiation and compromise that are the foundation of democratic governance, rather than falling back on its past practice of imposing its will on the nation.

Peña Nieto will also face significant citizen activism. His victory has been greeted by demonstrations led by theYoSoy132 student movement that emerged during the final weeks of the campaign. The movement was a reaction to what students saw as biased news coverage of a protest at a Peña Nieto campaign appearance at a Mexico City university. After television news broadcasts intentionally mischaracterized the demonstrations as the work of leftist agitators, students took to the streets, decrying what they saw as an obvious pro-Peña Nieto bias in the media. Their postelection rallies and marches have denounced the "imposition" of Peña Nieto on Mexico by the country's power elite. The protests, along with growing citizen activism throughout Mexico, impose an additional check on Peña Nieto's power that his PRI predecessors never faced. A return to authoritarian governance in Mexico is not in the cards.

At the same time, Peña Nieto's weak mandate and lack of a congressional majority will make it difficult to pass legislation needed to fulfill his campaign promises to jump-start economic growth and cut crime and violence in half. Forming legislative majorities will require difficult negotiations with the opposition and among the competing factions within the PRI, a particularly challenging prospect because Mexico is in a time of deep ideological divide on many issues. Reform is made more difficult by the fact that some key proposals would require a two-thirds majority to approve them.

Breaking the political gridlock caused by a divided Congress has bedeviled Mexican presidents since 1997, but Peña Nieto has four advantages his predecessors lacked. First, after 12 years in the wilderness, stalwarts in the PRI will be unlikely to risk weakening their president by blocking his initiatives early in his six-year term. Second, although defeated President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party, or PAN, is in disarray after its thrashing at the polls Sunday, the party's long-standing support for many of Peña Nieto's proposals should make its members receptive to the new president's advances. Third, the governors of Mexico's states are powerful independent actors whose cooperation is essential for implementing national policy initiatives, and Peña Nieto will benefit from the support of most of his party's 21 governors. And finally, Peña Nieto is known for his pragmatism, political skills and ability to make deals. The new president is thus well positioned to make real but limited advances in economic and security policy early in his term, even if he is unlikely to reach his goals of 6% economic growth and a 50% reduction in crime.

The PRI has reasserted itself in Mexico, but it is a different party operating in a new era. The country has come too far down the democratic path to tolerate a renewal of the PRI's old authoritarian practices. In addition, the overwhelming dominance that enabled the party to make sweeping policy changes at will no longer exists. This means that Mexico is likely to continue slogging forward on the economic front and to make modest but real advances on the security front. Mexico will continue to be a challenging and often prickly neighbor to the United States, but it also remains willing to cooperate on issues of common concern.

Pamela K. Starr is an associate professor of international relations and public diplomacy at USC and director of the U.S.-Mexico Network.

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