All polls tell us that Enrique Peña Nieto, the telegenic 45-year-old candidate of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), will win this Sunday’s presidential election in Mexico. His advantage (at 44 per cent, to 28 per cent for Andres Manuel López Obrador, of the PRD, and 25 per cent for Josefina Vásquez Mota, of the ruling PAN), seems solid enough to assume we shall witness a return of the PRI to power in Los Pinos, Mexico’s presidential compound. The conventional wisdom is that this is somehow regrettable.
According to this story line, the past 12 years of PAN rule, first under Vicente Fox (2000-2006), and now under Felipe Calderón, have been a model of modern, enlightened, pro-market policies that have brought Mexico kicking and screaming into the 21st century. This allowed Mexico to leave behind the 71 years of allegedly corrupt, one-party rule of the PRI (described by Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa as “the perfect dictatorship”), and bring progress to the land of the siesta and the sombrero.
So: Will it be back to square one for Mexico, the third most populous nation in the Americas, with 120 million people, and a power to contend with in world affairs?
For Canadians, this matters. At $27 billion in 2010, Mexico is Canada’s third largest trading partner (after the United States and China). Some 1.6 million Canadians visited in 2010. Many make it their retirement home. Quite a number have settled near Los Cabos, in Baja California, where the G20 summit was held last week, in another indication of Mexico’s high international profile.
Yes, we shall see changes in Mexico if the PRI regains the presidency. Yet the notion that it will somehow step back to the days of the dinosaurs of yore, of crony capitalism and rampant corruption, is mistaken.
To start with, the so-called “bad old days” of the PRI, were not so bad. Modern Mexico is the product of what PRI rule did for much of the past century, bringing stability, growth and a measure of social justice to a country with an extraordinary history. Mexico City is, to this day, the cultural capital of Latin America. It was also governments by the PRI, in the 90s, that opened the political system and the economy, joining NAFTA. And, yes, in these past 12 years, Mexico has continued to change at a fast pace, with a growing middle class and strong, independent institutions.
Alternation in power is healthy, and Mexico needs a fresh impetus. Felipe Calderón has not been a bad president, despite having been dealt a bad hand. After a 7-per-cent GDP dip in 2009, driven by the U.S. recession, Mexico is poised to grow at 4 per cent this year. Its $23-billion automobile industry is leaving the Brazilian one behind. The U.S. slowdown and Mexico’s demographic changes have meant that net migration to the U.S. is at zero.
The big problem is the so-called “war-on-drugs” that Calderón took head-on in 2007. Shootouts with the army and police and related violence have led to the loss of 50,000 lives since. Only a few days ago, three federal police officers were shot to death in broad daylight in Mexico City’s International Airport Terminal 2 Food Court as they tried to arrest two fellow officers involved in drug-running.
All three candidates have promised to change this confrontational approach with the cartels and the trafficking to the $70-billion illegal drug market in the United States (“Abrazos y no balazos,” “embraces, not bullets,” says López Obrador). Yet violence and citizen security are not the only problems Mexico faces. Its inability to modernize the state-owned oil company Pemex is another. Invidious comparisons with Brazil’s Petrobras, which floated a $70 billion (U.S.) IPO some years ago, make Mexicans cringe. An anachronistic tax system that brings in barely 10 per cent of GDP, as well as antiquated labour legislation, are others.
If he wins, Peña Nieto, part of a new generation of leaders, and whose party, polls say, will also win a majority in both houses of parliament, will have his work cut out for him.
Jorge Heine is CIGI Professor of Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University. His book with Andrew Cooper, Which Way Latin America? Hemispheric Politics Meets Globalization, is published by United Nations University Press.