In light of the upcoming U.S. presidential election, we are publishing a series of articles about global elections and transitions taking place in 2012. Join us as we explore a diverse set of countries and the repercussions associated with leadership change by reading our “Week of Elections” series!

By Taylor Marvin
Contributing Writer

On July 1 Mexicans overwhelmingly elected Enrique Peña Nieto as Mexico’s next president. Superficially Peña Nieto represents a new breed of Mexican politician: youthful, social media savvy, and eager to chart a new course for Mexico. However, the reality is more complicated. Peña Nieto’s election represents the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI), which dominated Mexican politics from 1929 to 2000, to the presidency. Peña Nieto is also distressingly vague about his incoming administration’s strategy to combat devastating drug cartel violence, by far the most urgent issue facing Mexico today. By electing Peña Nieto and returning the presidency to the PRI, Mexicans expressed their disgust for the status quo and desire for change. However, it remains to be seen if Peña Nieto, who takes office in December, can implement the reforms Mexico so desperately needs.

Peña Nieto’s election to the presidency is a sea change in the Mexican political landscape. Before being thrown out in 2000, the Institutional Revolutionary Party dominated Mexico for 71 years through a mixture of electoral fraud, endemic corruption, dictatorial abuses, and the durability of its entrenched position in Mexican politics. While economic growth and real improvements in Mexicans’ standard of living were attained in the PRI era, a succession of PRI presidents were not able to enact any of the reforms so desperately needed by the stagnant Mexican governmental and economic institutions. Anger over Mexico’s poor economic performance eventually helped the center-right National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional, or PAN), favored by conservative business elites disgusted with the PRI’s ossified rule, become an increasingly viable electoral challenger, winning several state governorships in the 1990s. In the 2000 presidential election Vicente Fox Quesada, representing a short-term alliance between the PAN and a minor Green party, was elected president and ended decades of PRI rule, though the PRI maintained the majority position in the Senate. In 2006 the PAN’s ascendency continued, with party candidate Felipe Calderón winning the presidency (Mexican presidents are limited to a single six year term with no possibility of reelection).

Calderón’s tenure was widely regarded as a failure among Mexicans, and arguably squandered away the goodwill earned by the PAN’s historic defeat of long PRI dictatorship. July’s election was a resounding rejection of the PAN legacy, a dismal electoral result that a former PAN party president termed “a disaster”, and illustrated voters’ disgust with the PAN’s inability to bring more jobs and end drug violence. Ironically, given the party’s previous dominance of Mexican politics, in 2012 the PRI represented the choice for reform and change, a vigor embodied in Peña Nieto’s cosmopolitan youthfulness.

Enrique Peña Nieto’s ascent to the presidency can be read two ways: either as Mexican politics’ break into normality, or the return of corrupt ossification. The 2012 election is certainly a watershed; just as Democrat-Republican Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 election over bitter Federalist rival John Adams signaled that American democracy worked in practice, the transfer of the presidency from the PRI to PAN and back again is a real victory for Mexican democracy. Over a decade of competitive party politics is certainly good for Mexicans, offering competing strategies for reforming the country and empowering ideologies disenfranchised during the decades of the PRI’s lock on power.

However, this rosy view was not shared by many Mexicans. Despite Peña Nieto’s telegenic charm, many view him and the party he represents as embodying corruption and the old dictatorial system. Before the election Peña Nieto’s campaign was dogged by allegations of favorable media bias and brutality during his time as a governor, allegations that eventually sparked a highly-visible student protest movement.

Whether or not Mexico’s two post-2000 transfers of the presidency are a signal the Mexican politics have ascended to the ranks of democratic normality, of course Mexico is not a normal country: in the last six years drug trade-fueled violence has killed at least 60,000 people. This violence is the dominant issue in Mexico today, and Peña Nieto’s legacy will rest on his ability to end the drug war.

During the decades of PRI rule, drug cartels were mostly ignored: traffickers refrained from excessive and publicly visible violence and engaging in non-trafficking crimes. In exchange the government closed its eyes to trafficking – anyway, corruption prevented the government from combating the cartels, even if it desired to. This equilibrium did not last. President Felipe Calderón’s decision upon assuming office to use the military, less corrupt and more capable than regional police, to combat the cartels dramatically escalated the conflict. Calderón’s understandable decision provoked greater violence – termed a “war” by Calderón as early as 2008 – from the cartels, both against government forces and citizenry, as well as between cartels whose established territory and balance of power was disrupted by the government’s escalation. Cartel kingpins killed or captured have been replaced by more violent leaders, and the government’s disrupting influence also paved the way for the emergence of less restrained groups, like the disturbingly violent and decentralized Los Zetas cartel founded by defecting Mexican special forces members.

The greatest legacy of the 2012 election rests on whether Peña Nieto can end Mexico’s drug violence; this is certainly the US government’s greatest interest in the election. However, it is unclear if Peña Nieto is capable of ending the violence, or even if he has a concrete plan of how to do so. Peña Nieto has expressed commitment to continuing the fight against the cartels, and the desire to “recover Mexican’s peace and freedom”. But the incoming administration seeks to chart a different course from Calderón. Peña Nieto appears to recognize that the Mexican state is incapable of militarily defeating traffickers, and has pledged to place a greater emphasis on fighting violent crime than the cartels themselves. This rethink of the government’s strategy is likely driven as much by popular opinion as military realities – Calderón’s policy of bringing the military into the anti-cartel fight is increasingly unpopular among Mexicans tired of the violence. More charitably, six years of brutality and mayhem are ample evidence that the government’s current, aggressive anti-cartel strategy is not working.

Many Mexicans appear to hope that the PRI’s real anti-drug strategy lies in its corruption, rather than rhetoric. Despite official statements to the contrary and an explicit pledge by Peña Nieto not to strike a deal with the cartels, it is often hoped that the PRI’s return to power will also mean a return to the days of the government tacitly ignoring traffickers. While this would not stem the flow of drugs, the removal of government interference would halt the brutal violence, or at least it is hoped.

This policy is not popular within the United States. The outgoing Calderón administration worked closely with the American government to combat the flow of drugs into the US, arguably the central goal of US-Mexican policy. However, American concerns may be for nothing. Peña Nieto may be a more zealous anti-drug warrior than his personal vagueness and party’s history of corruption suggests. More practically, it is unlikely that the present government is in any position to enforce the old order that tolerated relatively nonviolent cartels, or has any ability to prevent intra-cartel violence.

Ultimately whether the Peña Nieto administration will be any more effective at combating drug violence and reforming the country than its predecessor remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome, its progress will be closely watched in Washington.


  1. […] have a piece on Mexico’s presidential election up at my old haunt, Prospect Journal of International Affairs. The piece briefly covers the […]


  2. […] Peña Nieto's election represents the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI), which dominated Mexican politics from 1929 to 2000, to the presidency.  […]


  3. What about emphasis on growing the economy?


  4. […] military to a civilian gendarmerie, though these promises were often dismissed as evidence that Peña Nieto had no real strategy for or interest in tackling cartel violence. It was hoped that this new approach would led to a reduction in […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: