Peña Nieto’s recent blunders are well-known. He can’t name a book he’s read, other than “parts of the Bible” and Carlos Fuentes’ modern political masterpiece "La Silla del Aguila" (The Eagle's Throne), which he incorrectly attributed it to Enrique Krauze, a well-known historian. Then he couldn't quote the minimum wage or the price of tortillas, a staple since before the conquest.
Weirdly, he also seemed confused as to the cause of his first wife’s death.
Now, these are what are known as “gotcha” moments. The book title fiasco was similar to when Katie Couric questioned Sarah Palin on what newspapers she read. Palin’s response – “most of them”, “all of them”, and “any of them” – acted as proof of sorts that the correct answer was likely “none of them”.
The Peña Nieto situation is worse, however, as he was at the Guadalajara book fair promoting his own book "Mexico: The Great Hope", causing savvy pundits to opine that the presidential candidate was the first to have written more books than he’d read.
As for the price of tortillas – that was a throwback to president George Bush’s incredulity at a grocery scanner, which purportedly proved how out of touch he was, though there seems to have been some spin involved.
Nice haircut, but hardly presidential
But the problem with Peña Nieto is bigger than these slips, or even his daughter’s derogatory reference to his critics as lower-class “proles”. No, the real problem is that Peña Nieto is acting as a cover for the old guard, a dangerous group of PRI operators who would love to get back to the good old days.
During most of the 20th century Peña Nieto's PRI ruled Mexico with Soviet-style efficiency, rigging elections and keeping the peace. It lasted for seven decades until the PRI lost the presidency to the centre-right Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) in 2000, when Vicente Fox won the election.
The PAN won again in 2006, but president Felipe Calderon immediately embarked on an ill-advised, highly aggressive – and now very unpopular – war against the drug cartels. The result has been Mexico’s Vietnam: over 50,000 deaths, and an increasingly militarized country.
As a result of the PAN’s unpopularity, the PRI has won several governorships and legislative offices. The old party machinery has now been rebuilt, and they are good to go with Peña Nieto, a 45-year-old lawyer and former governor of the state of Mexico, the country’s most populous.
Largely untouched by controversy – even by a massive corruption scandal that has forced the president of the PRI to resign – Peña Nieto has been seen as a shoo-in for the presidency. Many young voters have no recollections of the PRI’s dark days, and Peña Nieto is young, clean, and telegenic.
Now, full disclosure: my own political affiliations are more to the left of centre than to the right. I am inclined to support Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the candidate for the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), who may have had the election stolen from him in 2006. Many Mexicans were exasperated by his street protests after the last election, but I thought he was right to do it.
If anything, then, I should be a bigger fan of the centrist PRI than the right-of-centre PAN. In my home country of Canada, for example, the left-leaning PRD would be akin to our NDP (now the official opposition), and the PRI would be like our Liberal Party (referred to for decades as Canada’s “natural ruling party”, now relegated to third party status). Canada’s present Prime Minister is Stephen Harper, a Conservative. He is a bit of a door knob, and I am not at all impressed by his ideological convictions.
Which is to say, my argument against Peña Nieto and the PRI in favour of the PAN would be like a PRD supporter saying that even the PAN would be better. That’s hard to come by, very hard. It means that Peña Nieto is more dangerous than a specific ideology, that he is at root anti-democratic and a danger to the integrity of the state.
Mexico City on the Volga
An analogy with Russia, strange as that might sound, can be of assistance here. Like Mexico, Russia and then the Soviet Union had single party rule, an “institutionalized revolution” that distributed wealth in such a way as to secure power. It locked-down on any real dissent, and extended perks to the ruling political class in order to stay in power.
When the system collapsed, people were thrilled. The problem was that institutions were weak. As a result, privatization led to oligarchic entrenchment by a few capitalists, just as in Mexico. Lucky for Russia, it was far from America and the drug trade. Sadly for poor Mexico – (¡Tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos!) – the drug cartels took advantage of “free trade”.
Now, in both Russia and Mexico organized crime does better when it has friends in government. So long as government rule is pandered to, or at least acknowledged, oligarchs and criminals are allowed to have their physical and economic spheres of influence – plazas in cartel parlance – preferably spreading some of their money around for the right to do so.
In Mexico, the PAN’s war on the cartels has resulted in a virtual disintegration of the PRI's old, corrupt system, in which everything from the price of churros (deep fried dough) is up for grabs. Now, even the smallest plazas are being fought over violently.
The result has been, perhaps predictably, a truly free market in crime, in which weak institutions and historically corrupt organizations are now sold to the highest bidder – or simply taken by the most violent.
It is tempting, then, to call back the old order. Many see a PRI return as being similar to the effective decriminalization of drugs, in which the cartels can go about their business and people can live in peace.
The problem is that the cat is out of the bag, and that cat is the utra-violent Los Zetas cartel. It would be one thing to allow the Sinaloa (Pacific) or Gulf Cartel to go back to business as usual, but Los Zetas are not about to settle down. It was, after all, the government who declared war prematurely, before its institutions were strong enough, and Los Zetas have taken up arms with gusto.
Which is to say that if Peña Nieto were in power he would have to capitulate to Los Zetas. That would be a nightmare scenario. As it stands, the old PRI operatives – among them the former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, certainly one of the shadiest characters of the modern era – think they can take the wheels.
They are wrong. The old PRI cronies, who want Peña Nieto in power so that they can manipulate him, are now out of their depth. The Sinaloa Cartel is not going to give up any more power, and Los Zetas – already in control of the eastern half of the country, from Brownsville to Guatemala – would love to get access to the Pacific ports of Manzanillo and Lázaro Cárdenas, where 90% of the methamphetamine precursor chemicals enter Mexico from Asia.
If not left, then right
The problem then is that Peña Nieto, a supposed centrist candidate well ahead in the polls and favoured by mainstream media like Televisa, is Mexico’s Medvedev, with the likes Salinas de Gortari acting as Putin, yet the country might be too weak to survive rule by back-room strong men.
And if it isn’t too weak – Mexico isn’t a "failed state”, not by a long shot – at the very least it deserves better. The PRI’s problems go well beyond corruption scandals. It is playing hard and dirty in a game that risks blowing up in its face.
This is not to say that the PAN or the PRD are clean. They aren’t (the list of all the parties’ foibles would fill an encyclopaedia). But for my money, if the PRD are stuck in third place, I’d much rather have the PAN in charge.
The PAN has yet to choose its candidate, but Vasquez Mota is in the lead. She is by far the best candidate to lead Mexico. Yes, she is socially conservative, but so is Mexico. And yes, she will continue Calderon’s war on drugs – but she has no choice, the game is in play and must be brought to a conclusion.
Mota is intelligent, highly motivated, untainted (so far) by corruption, and strong. That sounds like just what Mexico needs.
This is a high stakes election that cannot be left to a shallow puppet like Peña Nieto. Yes, Peña Nieto has proposed universal healthcare, social security, and unemployment benefits for all, but only a fool would believe him.
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