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Return of the PRI: How did this happen? What does it mean for Mexico?

Harley Shaiken, director, Center for Latin American Studies, professor in education and in geography | July 5, 2012

Twelve years ago, hundreds of thousands poured onto Mexico’s streets to celebrate the defeat of the PRI, the party that had governed for 71 increasingly autocratic and corrupt years. Now, it appears that the PRI is returning from the wilderness with a decisive, though still challenged, victory. How did this happen, and what does it mean for Mexico?

Three powerful forces fueled this surprising turnaround. First, the conservative PAN failed to deliver. Despite democratic gains, Vicente Fox muddled through his six-year term, and then Felipe Calderón led the country into a murderous drug quagmire costing 60,000 lives and $60 billion over the next six years.

Second, the economy has averaged an anemic 2 percent annual growth for over a decade. Despite an expanding middle class, poverty and inequality remain high. Mexico has no shortage of billionaires — including the richest person in the world — but close to 60 percent of Mexican workers earn less than $14 a day. Many voters seemed to buy into the argument that the PRI, whatever its faults, at least knows how to deliver.

Mexican flagFinally, the PRI ran a slick, effective campaign. It managed to transform its image from the party of the status quo into the party of reform with minimal change to its structure. Enrique Peña Nieto, now the president-elect, provided a fresh face on the podium, obscuring the fact that the old-guard retains decisive roles behind the scenes. The New York Times points out that the two principal television networks, which together control 95 percent of Mexican broadcasts, displayed a strong bias against the left candidate, and The Guardian, a British daily, charged that millions of PRI dollars fueled favorable coverage of Peña Nieto while he was still governor of the State of Mexico.

The PRI won 38 percent of the vote in a three-way race, a clear plurality but hardly a mandate. The center-left PRD, which came within a hair of winning the presidency in 2006, did better than expected at 32 percent but was over 3 million votes short of winning. Its candidate, once again former Mexico City mayor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has yet to concede, and the electoral commission is recounting the votes in more than half the voting sites. The PAN slid into a dismal third place with about 25 percent of the vote. Adding insult to injury, Vicente Fox, the PAN president who unseated the PRI in 2000, supported it this time around.

What does this election mean for Mexico? A return to the bad old days of PRI hegemony appears unlikely given a far stronger political opposition, an engaged civil society, and more robust democratic institutions. The PRI, while the largest party in the congress, does not have a majority, and a vibrant student movement has emerged.

The 45-year-old president-elect has sought to portray himself as a fresh face surrounded by technocrats. In a New York Times op-ed he wrote, “I am part of a generation of PRI politicians committed to democracy,” adding that he would govern pragmatically going forward. Nonetheless, crony capitalism, less transparency, and a lethargic development strategy appear to be real possibilities.

Economic growth needs a jumpstart, which will require a bold, coherent strategy and reforms throughout the economy. Moreover, if the U.S. economy slows or Europe drives into a ditch, Mexico will feel the impact and then some: in the wake of the last recession, Mexico’s GDP plummeted 6 percent.

The drug wars present a debilitating, traumatic challenge to any leader, and the new president is caught between U.S. pressure to halt the flow of drugs north and Mexico’s need to contain the violence at home. While Peña Nieto has said he would continue his predecessor’s overall strategy with “adjustments,” he has been noticeably vague on how he would reform Mexico’s notoriously corrupt and ineffective criminal justice system, a key to moving forward.

The U.S. position on drugs and many other issues could prove critical. Business-as-usual here could undermine efforts to move forward made by our neighbor to the South.

A Mexico that slides when it should soar would be damaging to Mexicans and a loss to the United States and the rest of the world.

Harley Shaiken is a professor in the Graduate School of Education and the Department of Geography. He is chair of the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS). More coverage of the Mexican Elections is available on the CLAS Facebook page, which is reachable through clas.berkeley.edu.