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Latin America
3:20 pm
Tue June 26, 2012

Mexico Picks A President Amid Drug War, Weak Economy

Originally published on Tue June 26, 2012 8:06 pm

The clear front-runner in Mexico's poll on Sunday is Enrique Pena Nieto, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ran Mexico for 71 years until ousted from power in 2000.

Pena Nieto, 45, insists his party has changed its old authoritarian ways, and he's promised a new approach in the drug war, while saying he will take care of the country's failing education system and boost the salaries of hard-working Mexicans.

That's a much different tune than that of the old PRI, which had a reputation for widespread corruption, election rigging and colluding with drug traffickers.

This week nearly 100,000 party faithful packed the massive Aztec Stadium in Mexico City to see the candidate. Many traveled hours from nearby states on buses, filled with meals and snacks, paid for by the PRI.

Pena Nieto told the crowd that together they will leave the old political practices behind.

"We will be a modern government committed to democratic values of liberty, transparency and a full accounting of resources," he said.

Referring to the past 12 years under presidents from the National Action Party, or PAN, Pena Nieto said it was time to leave behind economic stagnation, social decline and violence.

Polls Favor Pena Nieto

Polls show that his message is resonating. In nearly all polls, he's had a solid double-digit lead for months.

Voter Romel Velez Gonzales, who came to the rally, said the current PAN administration hasn't made the country safer or more prosperous.

Velez, who runs a small business, says when it comes down to it he doesn't really believe the PRI has changed — but he's willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

This is huge shift in popular opinion for the party that dominated Mexico for nearly all of the 20th century.

But many Mexicans feel the right-of-center party that's ruled since 2000, the PAN, hasn't fulfilled its promises of political and economic reform.

On top of that, current President Felipe Calderon's war on narcotrafficking has left more than 50,000 people dead and vast parts of northern Mexico are now ungovernable.

Out Of Power, Party Regroups

Political analyst Joy Langston Hawkes says the PRI masterfully regrouped and has come back roaring. The party now holds hundreds of mayor's posts, and more importantly, a majority of the governorships.

"Governors are very, very important in vote winning and vote mobilization," she says.

She says this time around the PRI picked — some say groomed — a very popular candidate in Pena Nieto.

He was the governor of the state of Mexico, just outside the capital, and left with high approval ratings. He is young, handsome and is married to one of the country's most famous soap opera stars.

Pena Nieto has recently picked up influential endorsements. To the surprise of many, former President Vicente Fox — who is from the PAN — announced he's backing Pena Nieto.

Fox told NPR he's convinced that Pena Nieto is the only candidate capable of breaking through Mexico's political gridlock.

"Because I know him, because I worked with him — me as president and he as governor," he says. "Because I know he is a professional. Because I know he is humble enough to form a talented team."

Fox's former foreign minister, Jorge Castaneda, a longtime critic of the PRI, says people shouldn't worry about what looks like an inevitable return of the PRI to power. Castaneda says Mexico is not the same country it was back in the 1990s. Its democratic institutions, while not fully matured, are strong.

"I happen to think that our representative democracy is OK, so I can't see how even a formerly authoritarian party would perform in an authoritarian way," he says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Mexicans go to the polls this Sunday to elect a new president. The current frontrunner is Enrique Pena Nieto. He's a member of the PRI party, which dominated Mexico for more than 70 years before being ousted in 2000. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the candidate insists his party has changed its old authoritarian ways.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Enrique Pena Nieto's campaign songs tell about an honest man who will bring peace to the country and point it in the right direction.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAHN: That is a much different tune then that of the old PRI party, which earned a reputation for widespread corruption, rigging elections and colluding with drug traffickers.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Enrique Pena Nieto.

KAHN: This week, nearly 100,000 party faithful packed into the massive Aztec Stadium in Mexico City to see the candidate. Many traveled hours from nearby states on buses, filled with meals and snacks, all paid for by the PRI. Pena Nieto told the crowd together they will leave the old political practices behind.

ENRIQUE PENA NIETO: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: He said we will be a modern government committed to democratic values of liberty, transparency and a full accounting of resources. Referring to the past 12 years under the National Action Party or PAN's presidency, Pena Nieto said it was time to leave behind economic stagnation, social decline and violence. Polls show voters reject the current PAN government and the leftist PRD candidate for Pena Nieto. In nearly all polls, he's held on to a strong double-digit lead for months. Voter Romel Velez Gonzales, who came to the rally, said the current PAN administration hasn't done much. The country isn't safer or more prosperous.

ROMEL VELEZ GONZALES: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Velez, who runs a small business, says when it comes down to it he doesn't really believe the PRI has changed, but he's willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. This is a stunning shift in popular opinion for the once reviled party that ruled Mexico with a strong arm for nearly all the 20th century. But the right of center PAN party wasn't able to fulfill its promises of political and economic reforms. On top of that, current President Felipe Calderon's war on narco-trafficking has left more than 50,000 dead and vast parts of northern Mexico ungovernable. Political analyst Joy Langston Hawkes says, meanwhile, the PRI party masterfully regrouped and has come back roaring. They now hold hundreds of mayorships and more importantly a majority of the governorships.

JOY LANGSTON HAWKES: Governors do a lot. They are very, very important in vote winning and vote mobilization.

KAHN: And Langston says, this time around, the PRI picked, or as some critics say groomed, a very popular candidate in Pena Nieto. He was the governor of the state of Mexico, just outside the capital, and left with high approval ratings. He's young, handsome and is married to one of the country's most famous soap opera stars. And recently, Pena Nieto has picked up some influential endorsements. To much surprise and criticism, former PAN President Vicente Fox announced he's backing Pena Nieto. Fox told NPR he's convinced that Pena Nieto is the only candidate capable of breaking through Mexico's crippling political gridlock.

VICENTE FOX: Because I know him, because I worked with him, me as president, him as governor. Because I know he's a professional. Because I know he is humble enough to form a talented team.

KAHN: Then Fox's former foreign minister, Jorge Castaneda, a longtime critic of the PRI, said people shouldn't worry about what looks like an inevitable return of the party to power. Castaneda says Mexico is not the same country it was back in the 1990s. Its democratic institutions, while not fully matured, are strong.

JORGE CASTANEDA: I happen to think that our system or representative democracy is OK, so I can't see how even a formerly authoritarian party would perform in an authoritarian way.

KAHN: And Castaneda says Mexico's relationship with the world is much different too. Mexico has signed on to multiple commercial and human rights treaties with countries who'll exert immense pressure at the first signs of a backward democratic retreat. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.