Mexico Returns To Authoritarian Rule


When the result of Mexico’s election was announced last weekend, Mexican academic and diplomat Jorge Castañeda’s shrewd book Mañana Forever? Mexico and the Mexicans, seemed more relevant than ever.

"No one wishes to go back to the authoritarian system symbolised by the PRI, though many still vote for it," Castañeda wrote. This is exactly what happened last weekend.

While Mexicans didn’t want to go back to the old authoritarian system, they still voted for the return to power of the maligned Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In a hasty reading of the result, this is in many aspects a political regression. But it’s not the whole story. It’s just possible that Mexico might be entering a new era.

The election of Enrique Peña Nieto — described ad nauseum as young and telegenic — marks the return of el PRI to the presidential house of Los Pinos. In the context of its 71-year rule the PRI’s iron grip on power has only had a short political interregnum — the six-year governments by the National Action Party (PAN) of Vicente Fox in 2000 and Felipe Calderon in 2006.

And this political interregnum left Mexicans with little to cheer about. President Calderon will hand over the presidential band to Peña Nieto next December leaving behind an appalling political, social and economic toll.

52 million of Mexico’s 112 million live in poverty and the "informal economy" has reached 30 per cent. Economic growth has been described as mediocre at best. Corruption rules and impunity has become a defining character of Mexico.

However, it is for his war against narcotraffic that Calderon will be better remembered and scorned. The war against the narcos, a key element of Calderon’s political platform when he came to power in 2006, is a lost war that has left 55,000 people dead. Under his rule, Mexico has become af failed state.

No wonder Josefina Vasquez, the candidate nominated to wave the flag of the right wing PAN, was consigned to third place last weekend. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, from the leftwing Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD), came in second.

The election of the PRI at last seems to endorse Castañeda’s quip that Mexicans "truly miss the authoritarian ways". This is exactly what the PRI means to many Mexicans — an authoritarian return to the old ways of governing — and perhaps nostalgia for a recent past when Mexicans had some level of certainty and governability.

The nostalgia of a past when corruption was still rampant, but it was acceptable; when poverty was still abject, but it didn’t grow; when violence was part of every day life, but was not a violence of "inconceivable and dehumanising extremes" as was described by the late Mexican writer Carlos Monsiváis.

While Mexican society has become more "politically aware" over time, political scientist and Universidad Iberoamerican academic Juan Luis Hernández told New Matilda, "it is still politically conservative." This is why Mexicans favoured the PRI over the PRD, the left option is regarded as "a bit too radical," he said.

Interestingly though, the PRD won the capital, Mexico City, with an overwhelming 63 per cent share of the vote. "[Because of] this and the fact it didn’t obtain the absolute majority in Congress, the PRI will be forced to negotiate with the PAN and the PRD," Hernández said.

Peruvian writer and 2010 literature Nobel Prize Mario Vargas Llosa once called the PRI’s decades in power the "perfect dictatorship" — the camouflaged dictatorship of a political party. This is an unflattering tag that the newly elected president Peña Nieto wants to remove.

During the campaign Peña Nieto insisted that his party has broken with the past. However, the election process gave little evidence to support his claim. The well-greased political machine of the PRI was in full swing, especially in the last stages of the campaign.

Accusations that the PRI was engaged in vote buying and coercion, exceeding political spending beyond that established by law and claims of bogus opinion polls and bullying have began emerging. Mexican authorities are also recounting up to half the 143,000 ballot boxes used during Sunday’s vote after finding inconsistencies in the vote tallies.

According to Revista Proceso, the courageous independent Mexican magazine, Peña Nieto was involved in 2005 in collusion with Televisa, the powerful Mexican media group, to propel his ascendancy to the presidency. As Hernández said, "the fraud began six years ago, with the sinister antidemocratic and corrupt pact between Peña Nieto and Televisa."

Commercial television channels, especially Televisa and TV Azteca, overwhelmingly and unashamedly favoured Peña Nieto. Television is the main source of information for 80 percent of Mexicans. Peña Nieto is "a character of fiction created by television channels, especially Televisa," Puebla University media academic Dr Claudia Magallanes told New Matilda.

A law graduate from the Universidad Panamericana with links to Opus Dei, Peña Nieto is married to the star of a popular soap operas. He is a "fashionable product able to follow the script handed to him," said Magallanes. "He is not a politician."

While there are good reasons to see the PRI election as a political lapse, it is also true that this political contest has ignited a new social and political dynamic in Mexico.

"Mexican society is changing," Hernández told NM. "Mexican voters are discovering the power of their vote to reward or punish; in our incipient democracry this doesn’t seem to be much, but it is great step foward in terms of political consciousness."

The massive voting participation of 49 million people — an increase from 58 per cent in 2006 to 62 last weekend — seems to show that Mexicans are ready to ditch the "lack of faith in democracy" Castañeda suggests.

Nothing better reflects this empowerment than the rise of #YoSoy132, the social media movement headed by young Mexicans utterly fed up with their country’s old, stagnant institutions. Mexican civil society is already on the streets and will keep a close eye on the PRI. And who knows, perhaps what has been been already hinted at sotto voce will be spoken aloud — the seeds of a Mexican spring may well be blossoming.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.