News Column

Mexico's Long-ruling Party in Power With New Generation

Nov 30, 2012

Andrea Sosa Cabrios

Enrique Pena Nieto

Enrique Pena Nieto will be sworn in Saturday as Mexican president, and his inauguration marks the return to power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which governed Mexico from 1929-2000.

Only two Mexican presidents - the president-elections immediate predecessors, conservatives Vicente Fox and the now outgoing Felipe Calderon - have come from outside its ranks.

Pena Nieto, 46, a lawyer and former governor of Mexico state, which adjoins the capital city, won the presidential election in July to lead his party's back into power after 12 years in the wilderness.

The PRI's decades of unchallenged rule led to authoritarianism, corruption and this joke: A Mexican president asks what time it is, and and aid replies, "Whatever time you want it to be, Mr. President."

Historian Enrique Krauze calls it the era of "the imperial presidency."

Pena Nieto insists that the PRI has changed, and has promised a presidency that is "modern, accountable and open to criticism."

The battle cry of his supporters was "I am the PRI of the future!" as they celebrated his victory with 38 per cent of the vote.

The new president will not have the unchecked power of his party predecessors. The PRI lacks an absolute majority in Congress, though it remains the party with the most governorships and mayoralties.

After generations as an institutional party, the PRI is ideologically vague, moving along with its changing standardbearers. Having swung in the past from socialist to neoliberal, it is now a centrist party.

In 1938, then-president Lazaro Cardenas nationalized Mexico's oil industry. Pena Nieto now talks of opening up the inefficient state monopoly, Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), to much-needed private capital.

Luis Echeverria, a populist president in the 1970s, established ties with communist China, while neoliberal Carlos Salinas signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has been in effect since 1994.

The PRI's origins date back to the decade following the 1910-17 Mexican Revolution, when the military leaders who had once fought together started to kill each other for power.

In 1928, president-elect Alvaro Obregon was murdered, and then-president Plutarco Elias Calles decided to promote the creation of a party that peacefully channeled infighting. The PRI emerged, first as the National Revolutionary Party (PNR) and then as the Party of the Mexican Revolution (PRM) before taking its current name.

Mexico adopted a political system that Nobel literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa once called the "perfect dictatorship." Elections were held every six years, but the same party always won. In fact, the winner was always the candidate anointed by the outgoing president.

The PRI established a corporatist system with a workers sector, a peasant sector and a popular sector. To this day, the most powerful trade unions, like the one linked to the oil industry with its almost lifelong leaders, are linked to the party.

The repression of the student movement in 1968, on the eve of the Mexico City Olympics, and the 1985 quake that devastated the country, were milestones in Mexico's democratization efforts.

The quake left the government of president Miguel de la Madrid stunned for days. Civil society took on rubble removal and aid efforts, and realized its own power.

The PRI came close to losing the presidency in 1988. Salinas eventually won, albeit amid accusations of fraud, against the leftist Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, a former PRI member.

In 1997, the party lost its absolute majority in Congress and has never regained it. The same year, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas won the first free election for the position of Mexico City mayor, and the city has had leftist mayors since then.

In 2000, Fox broke the PRI's stranglehold on the presidency.

At the time, many predicted the death of the old political dinosaur. Now, 12 years later, the renewed PRI is back under another generation of leadership.

Source: Copyright 2012 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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