What a PRI Comeback Means for Mexico

Predictably, Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) looks to be the winner of the country's presidential elections, as results from the vote are finalized this morning. Equally predictably, the narrative that the anglophone media has taken from the victory is simple: The old, autocratic party that was defeated after seven decades in power in 2000 is suddenly back at the helm.

This narrative is, to be blunt, a bit annoying. Isn't the whole point of democracy the alternance of power? Besides, now ten years out of the federal government, PRI's once monopoly of power is shattered; Nieto was winning less than 40 percent of the popular vote at last count.

But more fundamentally, telling this story avoids asking two difficult questions that now follow from the election: How will history view outgoing President Felipe Calderon's drug war, and can the PRI really bring back what voters seem to be nostalgic for: Calm? It's the answer to those two questions—not one election—that will determine whether the PRI is truly "back."

Start with the first question. It may be difficult to remember now, but back in 2006 when Calderon won a very tight election, the move against organized crime was a way to win the confidence of the electorate. Going after crime, after all, seemed like something that few could object to. On top of that, Calderon promised to clean up the police and security forces—something needed and desperately craved.

But something went wrong along the way. Countless analysts have theories about what. But the drug war has swung in a vastly different direction for Calderon. What was once a move with widespread support is now a grinding conflict that has claimed more than 50,000 lives in just one presidential term. Some have argued that Calderon took the wrong approach—that he prioritized picking off the big crooks to emphasizing local security. Others say he shouldn't have sent in the army, a move that seems to have escalated—rather than tamed—the violence. What's clear is that Calderon departs from office in a country that is vastly different from the one he took on in 2006.

Regardless of what you think about Calderon's crackdown on organized crime, and the incredible orgy of violence that has followed, it's hard to imagine a post-Calderon presidency that simply drops the fight. Calderon failed to convince the population that his war was a worth the cost, despite countless—often emotional—pleas that this was the right, and only, choice for Mexico's history.

Now many are reading the election results as the culmination of that public trial of Calderon's choice. The PRI, who had a long history of relative accommodation with the cartels, seized on the nostalgia for the more-secure days before Calderon began fighting.

But there's one problem: It's not clear that the PRI can really ever go back to those days. Let's assume for example, that local party officials wanted to try to work out some sort of truce with the organized criminal organizations. Once upon a time, maybe there was just one organization operating in a given place. But now, in a word, it's complicated. Calderon's administration has argued that much of the violence that we've seen is between warring cartels, competing for scarce space. It's not clear they could be so easily contained.

Nor is the United States eager for such a strategy. Allies in Congress have been keen to support Calderon's war against organized crime—one which uses parallel strategies to the long conflict in Colombia, that latter drug war being fought with $6 billion in American aid over the years. Strong law enforcement, zero tolerance, strong intelligence, and extradition are among the tools that American lawmakers are already pushing for Nieto to stick to.

But first and foremost, the PRI will have to change because the violence is already out of the cage, and it can't be put back in without a radical change in tactics. Accommodation doesn't work when you have a wave of violence sweeping the country, leaving mistrust, destruction, and a growing cadre of victims and their families in its wake. As Shannon K. O'Neil of CFR put it, it's a "old guard in a new Mexico." And no, the PRI cannot just make it all end.

This may be one reason that, unlike American media accounts of the election, the campaign rarely focused on the drug war. It was all about the economy, which is sputtering back to life after being hit hard by the Great Recession.

Of course, security remains a top concern for Mexican voters, who will be keenly watching Nieto's moves there. Which is why I wonder if it's really a good thing for the PRI's "comeback" that it will take the helm at at time as challenging as any in the last several decades. Nieto will take office with a limited mandate from an unresounding win. He'll do so at a time when the US economy—closely linked with that of Mexico—is still wavering between comeback and recession. He'll promise change, but he'll have to fight all the same violence that Calderon found himself trying to contain by the end of his term. Whether he succeeds there will determine whether Mexico's old party is truly back to stay.


Photo Credit: Protoplasma Kid/WikimediaCommons 

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