Candidates for president promised action to improve the economy and take action against the cartels
Troy Media - by Terry Field
With the electoral return of the party that ran the country as a form of dictatorship for 70 years until its defeat in 2000, Mexicans are asking themselves whether a new leader and president, Enrique Peña Nieto, brings with him real change.
Have the internal workings of this “new” old party, Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), evolved enough to place democratic and social reform at the top of its agenda?
During the 12 years it was out of power, two right-wing presidents served six-year successive terms that saw Mexico change in many ways. Its population grew to more than 100 million, poverty levels have been reduced, more children in poor areas are able to attend and stay in school, the economy improved overall, the middle class expanded, and its trade with countries beyond the U.S.- including Canada – expanded.
The last six years have also played out in wildly negative ways. Even though the number of Mexicans living in abject poverty is down, the majority of Mexicans, and particularly those in indigenous south and jungle states like Chiapas, still experience poor living conditions and limited economic futures.
At the same time, sophisticated and wealthy drug cartels have been in an all-out conflict with Mexican authorities. More than 50,000 people have died during the now-ending presidency of Felipe Calderon, and the end of 12-year presidential reign of the National Action Party (PAN). Calderon boosters praise his approach, but with that many deaths it must be considered a failed strategy.
The drug war, or “security issue” as most Mexicans refer to it, formed a significant backdrop to the July 1, 2012, vote for president. But it is important for Canadians to understand that Mexican families are as concerned with their economic status and jobs for their children.
Candidates for president promised action to improve the economy and take action against the cartels. Fatigued, worried, resigned – and likely resentful – Mexican voters went warily to the polls.
The Mexicans I know were truly excited in July 2000 when Vicente Fox was elected by a substantial vote count in what many watchers said was the first clean election in Mexico since the 1930s. In the years before that vote, the news media seemed to re-engage as a useful voice in the debate over democratic reform, and the public at large too emerged from a decades-long political slumber. They danced and laughed and cried that night in July 2000 and naively considered it a renaissance of democratic principles.
From 2000 to 2012, however, Mexico’s political and judicial systems did not move as much as hoped. The old dictatorial party, which shifted as needed from the centre to the right and even the near left, still retained political control in many if not most of the country’s states, while also holding substantial influence in the bicameral government.
It fought reform efforts at every turn with vetoes and slowdowns and, as a result, the impetus for effective reform of political institutions was generally deflated. One of the few significant wins was the idea to start paying police officers higher wages as an effort to reduce corruption.
The July 2012 vote (with the new president set to start a single six-year term this fall) was a tight one, with the results still being disputed and a court challenge pending. The PRI’s Peña Nieto won 38 per cent of the vote, with the left of centre candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador coming second, and with the right wing PAN, which had controlled the president for the past 12-years, finishing third.
Is the party of the new president the same old dictatorial party, as many observers suggest it is, or can it be a positive force for change? Early reviews suggest it could be another tough six years for Mexico (a country I have a great affection for).
Peña Nieto had said he will continue military efforts to break the drug cartels. Since winning, he now suggests he will welcome debate on social and legal measures to deal with the cartels, including decriminalization and legalization of drug use: measures many high-placed Latin American politicos and human rights groups are advocating, and measures the U.S. and Canada firmly reject.
The new guy needs his North American business partners on his side, which means he needs to be on theirs. He also needs support from other political parties to encourage and ensure reform. And he needs the old guard in his own party to allow for change or get out of the way.
The final wild card is Peña Nieto himself, a former state governor. He is well educated, has charisma and, at age 45, youth on his side. But does he have the personal strength and integrity the office requires of him?
He should use the first three years of his term to establish limited action agenda for Mexico, focusing on human rights as the basis for economic growth and reform, political reform, and security. It would a step in the right direction, and perhaps set Mexico up for the democratic renaissance it had glimpsed in 2000.
Esperamos! We wait, we hope.
Troy Media columnist Terry Field is an associate professor and journalism program chair in the Bachelor of Communication – Journalism program at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta.