“The Mexican version of the Soviet Politburo is poised to make a comeback, with potentially disastrous consequences for North America,” writes John M. Ackerman.
“In 2000, the world hailed the end of more than 70 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, as a sign of democratic transition,” notes Ackerman, a professor at the Institute for Legal Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “Today, the PRI’s presidential candidate in the July 1 election, Enrique Peña Nieto, threatens to bring back the authoritarian ways of the past.”
The front-runner in the contest for Mexico’s July 1 presidential election yesterday pledged to respect transparency and plurality. In a 10-point “democratic presidency” manifesto aimed at intellectuals, civil society and students, Peña Nieto pledged to respect human rights, free speech and the right to protest. It also commits the PRI – notorious for systematic electoral fraud, repression and corruption during its uninterrupted rule from 1929 to 2000 – to support fair and fair elections, religious liberty and the autonomy of the legislative and judiciary branches.
But leaving aside the historic record, the experience of PRI rule over recent years is not encouraging.
“The PRI has not cleaned up its act or modernized over the last 12 years,” notes Ackerman, editor in chief of the Mexican Law Review and a columnist for Proceso magazine and La Jornada newspaper:
To the contrary, it has deepened its networks of corruption and illegality in the territories it still controls. The 10 states where the PRI has never lost power are among the most violent, underdeveloped and corrupt in the country. In these states, democratic transition and accountability are exotic concepts and the local governors rule like despotic feudal lords.
Peña Nieto is “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” says Ackerman, noting that in the state of Mexico, where he just completed a six-year term as governor, rates of homicide, poverty and “femicide” — targeted killing of women – “skyrocketed.”
“A recent study by scholar Guadalupe Hernandez found that millions in government ‘social spending’ went unaccounted for while Peña Nieto was governor, most likely to illegally fund his presidential campaign. Independent civil society groups rank the state at the bottom in competitiveness and tops in corruption.”
Thousands of young activists demonstrated this week against the prospect of a reversion to authoritarian rule, prompting some observers to suggest that Peña Nieto’s clear lead in the polls could be eroded if popular protests spread.
“If we start to see constant and repeated confrontation and rejection of Peña Nieto, than this could have an effect,” said Ulises Beltran of the polling firm BGC:
Protesting students booed Peña Nieto when he visited an upscale private university in Mexico City earlier this month. The demonstration on Saturday was promoted vigorously on social media sites, which are favored by young voters. Other analysts said the protests would be unlikely to swing the race.
“The young, upper middle-class university students (active on social media) are not that important in population terms, but they are a group that can make a lot of noise,” pollster Roy Campos said.
The elections “will pose a new test for Mexican democracy” when the authority of the state has been undermined by powerful narco-traffickers, said Dr. Luis Carlos Ugalde, former president of Mexico’s Federal Electoral Commission, at a National Endowment for Democracy forum.
Endemic corruption has also sapped the legitimacy of the state, said Ugalde, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the NED.
“We have good laws. But they do not have an effect on the real world of corruption,” Ugalde wrote in Nexos magazine, in a dissection of corruption and impediments to cleaning it up:
As deep as the bribery, as well as the resulting frustration, is the acceptance. So the report in The New York Times over the weekend that Wal-Mart de México had paid bribes to speed up the expansion of its empire here and then sought to cover up the payments came as no surprise. What raised eyebrows were the amounts involved — more than $24 million — and that the surreptitious behavior, which Mexicans are confronted with on a much smaller scale in their everyday lives, was so publicly revealed.
The Mexican chapter of Transparency International said corruption over all was on the rise in Mexico and last year ranked it 100 out of 183 countries in its perception of corruption index, and last among the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
A study in January by Global Financial Integrity, a research group in Washington, said Mexico over all had lost $872 billion between 1970 to 2010 to crime, corruption and tax evasion, with an acceleration of losses since the North American Free Trade Agreement began in 1994 and ushered in a wave of foreign investment.
Endemic corruption is one reason why the Economist Intelligence Unit’s “Democracy Index” grades Mexico as a “flawed democracy” and the 2012 Freedom House survey relegated the country from “free” to “partly free.”
Some observers fear that the PRI may benefit from a low turnout by its critics, especially Mexican youth, a reflection of growing disillusion about the political process.
The Los Angeles Times ran a story on May 12 about the disenchantment that has kept many young Mexicans detached from the presidential race:
Only 12 years ago, young people flocked to the polls with high hopes as part of what would be a historic ouster of the long-ruling PRI. Now, as the country prepares to pick a new president in July, Mexico’s young sound mostly disillusioned by the choices before them, and by joblessness and skyrocketing drug violence that have hit them especially hard.
While Mexico now features cleaner, more competitive elections and a multitude of civil society groups engaged in policy debates, the article suggests that many young voters have lost faith in politicians after paying the price of recession and five years of drug-related violence. Scholars argue that their disengagement with politics is worrisome: “It’s not just traditional apathy and indifference toward politics,” according to sociologist Enrique Cuna, who has conducted a lengthy study of young people’s political attitudes. “This is not a case of ‘It doesn’t interest me.’ ” Instead, young Mexicans are well-informed and engaged, but are disappointed with democracy in their country.
In a March 2012 post on the Center for Strategic and International Studies blog, Deputy Director of Fundación Ethos Alfonsina Peñaloza too argued that the current policymaking process leaves citizens out, especially young people:
[Their] apathy is due, in part, to decades of presidentialism in Mexico, which have led to a general belief in Mexico that politics and policy are tasks exclusively of the government. In addition, a severe lack of accountability between Mexican politicians and their constituencies have entrenched this gap
The country’s democratic forces need to seriously address the social agenda, observers suggest, as growing inequality is undermining the quality and legitimacy of Mexican democracy.
“Mexico is one of the most unequal societies on the planet,” writes Ackerman:
Only 10 families control 10% of Mexico’s gross domestic product. Meanwhile, more than 50 million people languish under the poverty line.
If the next president does not attack inequality and stimulate economic growth, the violence and discontent will only deepen. This could lead to expanding social protest and political instability as well as significant new outflows of migration to the United States.