The Return of the PRI and its Implications for the Democracy in Mexico

Mexican Presidential election took place on July 1st. Only 12 years ago Mexican voters kicked out the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled for seven decades. Now, Mexico has voted the PRI back to office, although it was denied a majority in Congress.

Many Mexicans seem confused and the international community cannot fully understand why a controversial presidential candidate from a historically antidemocratic political party was elected. The primary question after the election seems to be whether Peña Nieto’s victory implies the return of authoritarianism and the old fashion politicians into power.

The conventional theories of Political Science can easily explain the return to power of a political party. After all, transitions from one party to another are a common and healthy practice in any given consolidated democracy. However, a glimpse into the guts of the PRI and its history, even after losing the presidency in 2000, will reveal its pragmatism and its resistance to renovation.

The PRI has not transformed radically mainly because both the political system and voters in Mexico are somehow stuck in the past. Mexicans politicians have not fully embraced democracy. In fact, the PRI never lost power completely: it kept control over most of the States and had the majority in Congress in more than one legislature.

Peña´s victory was primarily due to the incapability of the right wing party (PAN) to deliver, the contempt for the drug war led by President Felipe Calderón, and the unpopularity of the left wing party (PRD) and particularly of its presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who had rejected the electoral result six years ago and taken the streets of Mexico City. Peña won not because he conveyed to people that he would deliver or because he truly inspired the nearly 20 million citizens that voted for him, but because there was no other better option.

Peña Nieto will arrive to Los Pinos in a very controversial way. His candidacy was supported by a powerful alliance with Televisa and TV Azteca, the two major broadcasting television networks in Mexico, and spent millions of dollars in advertising, even exceeding the limit established by law (332 million pesos or 25 million dollars), according to his adversaries. After the British newspaper, The Guardian, revealed information about his association with Televisa, there is little doubt that Peña used the TV to promote himself for several years, which violates the Mexican Constitution. Although there is not enough evidence to declare the election null, what clouded the election the most was the vote buying and coercion, practiced mainly by the PRI.

There are other factors that contributed to Peña’s victory. According to the World Bank, only 31 percent of Mexico’s population has access to the Internet, which is well below from peer Latin American countries such as Brazil (42 percent). Education in Mexico is widely controlled by the Teacher’s Union (SNTE), whose role has gone beyond the defense of teachers’ rights and has therefore negatively impacted the quality of education. Mexico ranks last in the list of OECD countries that have taken standardized tests like the report PISA.

In light of the recent social and democratic movements in North African and Middle East countries, some optimistic analysts argued that a massive democratic wave would extend to other regions in the world, including Latin America, and in particular Mexico, a country that had been cleverly ruled by a so-called “perfect dictatorship”. Many Mexicans would have also expected that the antidemocratic practices of the PRI had been marginalized and a profound social movement had taken place to strengthen the young democracy in Mexico. Nevertheless, the wide victory of Peña Nieto illustrates that the democracy in Mexico faces a challenge that requires the involvement of a variety of actors in society.

Indeed, recent international events show us the necessity to ensure democratic institutions and the inherent dangers of postponing it. In Taiwan, the Kuomitang –another authoritarian party–, was able to survive and was restored in power after this year’s election; Vladimir Putin’s return to presidency in Russia threatens democracy in a country that had dissolved the Communist Party 21 years ago; Honduras’ coup d’état in 2009 against Manuel Zelaya; In Paraguay, the Colorado Party, which ruled the country for 61 years, removed leftist Fernando Lugo from office in alliance with other parties; In Syria, the authoritarian government continues to suffocate a social movement and has killed hundreds of people. In summary, antidemocratic forces continue to exist in the world.

On the other hand, there are reasons to believe in Mexico’s ability to ensure democracy. I believe that the return of the PRI represents a challenge to the country’s young democracy but Mexico is capable to overcome it. Mexico is a crucial actor in today’s globalization and that involves benefits and also a great deal of responsibility. 

Mexico’s population has grown by 600 percent over the last century. Only another 10 countries have larger populations. If we add the 11 and half Mexican citizens that live in the U.S., the country’s total population would be around 123 million.

Despite a general perception of paralysis within society, the country’s gone through a 15 year-period of economic stability, a remarkable contrast from the financial crises it suffered every 6 years since 1976. As a result, the middle-class is growing bigger, poverty is decreasing, and even inequality has been reduced. In spite of a dramatic fall in GDP in 2009 –derived from the financial turmoil that began in the U.S.—at the end of 2010, Mexico’s GDP per capita was 13,900 dollars. Compared to the other two largest economies of the region, it was lower than Chile’s (15,400 dollars), but bigger than Brazil’s (10,800 dollars). In terms of inequality, according to data from UN’s ECLAC, Mexico reduced its Gini coefficient by more than 5 percent between 1999 and 2008, Brazil reduced it by 3 percent, and Chile by 1 percent.

Similarly, Mexico has made remarkable progress regarding political and electoral institutions. Today, the country has a true balance of power, there is more accountability, corruption has decreased, and an electoral fraud is almost impossible.

Mexicans also used social networks as a means to spur the interest of people in the election. A wide flow of information about the candidates circulated through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which complemented that from conventional media. Moreover, social networks are more and more balancing the biased information coming from the big television networks in Mexico.

Despite the progress made, Mexico still faces an enormous challenge ahead. Democracy in Mexico, unlike other countries in Latin America, was born in a peaceful way in 1997 when the PRI lost its majority in Congress for the first time in history. Yet, it’s been developing in a slow pace ever since. Little by little Mexicans are starting to become better citizens, more involved in public affairs, but it’s not enough yet.

It was quite remarkable the massive social participation in the presidential election, both turnout and volunteers who helped. In spite of torrential rain in the capital and the competing temptation of a European football final, 63 percent voted, almost five points up from 2006.

Mexicans are awakening and are more aware of their reality than ever before. Many young Mexicans have recently taken the streets to demand an end to corruption and to the excessive power of the elites. They demand more and better democratic institutions, and accountability from the government. They must seize this momentum to generate the mechanisms to balance a government that may be tempted to rely on corruption, authoritarianism, corporatism, and clientelismo. The will be tempted to do so, not because there are no democrats in the PRI, but as Murice Duverger stated in his Genetic Model, “a party’s organizational characteristics depend more upon its history, i.e. on how the party originated and how it consolidated than upon any other factor”.

As the youth led movement #yosoy132 show, Mexicans are increasingly exhausted of the unwillingness of politicians to deliver. Media in Mexico is controlled by a duopoly that has been undermining the right to impartial and accurate information. In order to exist, a democracy needs the participation of citizens, and in order for them to get involved, they need to be well informed. Indeed, the only way that Peña Nieto’s government will deliver is by increasing social pressure and awareness.

Mexicans need to understand the raw power of information. Most of politicians’ power derives from the fact that they hoard it. Once that information is made public, especially the government´s lack of results, much of this elite´s advantage disappears. As Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis once wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants”.

Peña Nieto could have the incentives to build a coalition government with the citizens and the opposition parties. Mexican citizens must create those incentives. The world may come to witness a moment in which a country builds itself from the bottom, by creating citizens less dependent on the government, but more critic of it. This may in fact be unique in a region where states have the historical temptation to become bigger instead of smaller.

In a real democracy, defeats as well as victories do not last forever. Ultimately, we´ll see an enormous challenge for the Mexican society. Mexicans will have to decide whether they will make the government accountable for their actions or will simply sit down with their souls in their laps and watch another chapter of a well-known telenovela. It´s time to prove that the return of the PRI does not mean a time travel but could be a jump into the future. It´s time to show some intelligent patriotism and defend their young democracy. It´s time to show that Mexico is a better and greater country than the one in their minds. It´s time to wake up and become what Mexico can truly be: a great nation.

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