A long way to go

The new Mexican president tries to ease himself into an uncomfortable chair

After a five-month hiatus that followed his election win in the summer, the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s Enrique Peña Nieto has finally settled down into the presidency. He has had a busy few days since taking the presidential sash from the outgoing Felipe Calderón. And, just like the election on 1 July, this time of political change has not been free from controversy.

The man at the helm of the Mexican ship is young and claims to be leading his refreshed PRI party out on a new message of national unity and endeavour. But his agenda and the political mystique surrounding the PRI’s comeback have been under scrutiny during the long campaign, the election, the summer interregnum and now the handover of power. Critics say that the PRI is simply an old book that has been re-covered and its return to the top job is like the re-issuing of a booming, controversial tome that once kept all other books out of the shop window and pushed back onto the dusty shelves.

The conservative PAN and their embattled former president were seen as increasingly tired as Calderón’s six-year term was coming to an end. Enrique Peña Nieto has clearly tried to highlight the change at the top by underlining his rhetoric with energetic plans and policy announcements. And, just one day after his inauguration, he oversaw a cross-party agreement to try to overcome the infamous squabbling in Congress. (Even though the PRI retook the presidency, it does not have a majority across the two houses of parliament.) The ‘Pact for Mexico’ saw the three chiefs of the big party beasts (the PRI, the PAN and the left-leaning PRD) agree to work together in three main policy areas: telecommunications; education; and local government finances.

There were serious street protests ahead of and during the handover ceremony on Saturday 1 December. This was nothing new: the president came to power in the face of massive student demonstrations spearheaded by the ‘YoSoy#132′ group and this blog witnessed first-hand the energy of the youth protests which often coupled their anti-PRI heartbeat with a pro-PRD leaning. This time around 92 people were arrested amid violent scenes: police had to fire tear gas to contain protesters who showed their ire at the congressional confirmation of power on a man they see as a puppet for a fraudulent few moving behind the scenes at the top of Mexican society. Stones and firecrackers were thrown, banks and hotels’ windows were smashed and bonfires started in the roads of the capital.

The PRI has had to continue to dampen the ongoing claims that it secured its new election success through the old techniques of vote-buying, smear campaigns and manipulation of the media. But in the summer, after the defeated socialist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador launched a legal challenge to the result, the country’s highest court found in the PRI’s favour and Mr Peña Nieto was free to prepare for his groundbreaking move to the presidency.

But the major national issue that overwhelms all Mexicans and belittles all the legislative changes and electoral arguments is the wave of violent and organised crime that still floods the country. On Sunday, as the co-operation agreement between the three parties was announced, there was a timely reminder of Mr Peña Nieto’s biggest challenge. Nine people were found dead in the northern city of Torreón. In one house, seven men had been dismembered and Chihuahua state authorities found heads, torsoes, arms and legs stuffed in plastic bags; across town another two bodies, riddled with bullets, were discovered.

66,000 Mexicans have died and thousands more are desaparecidos after the war that ex-president Calderón declared on the gangsters. Civilians, police officers, members of the armed forces and criminals have all been killed in this civil war. There have been some successes for the authorities (25 of the 37 most-wanted barons have been killed or captured) but the public would like a new way to try to quell the fear of extortion, rape, kidnap and torture that exists across large swathes of the nation. For the moment, the new leader has maintained the deployment of the army and navy on the streets and he has categorically denied that there will be any secret, shadowy handshakes and winks with the gangsters, a tactic his party has been accused of using in the past.

The president may be new but the violence is not. And, in fact, the PRI has never been denied the chance to discuss combative policies to sort out the destruction as it has never fully been beaten out of office. Despite missing out on the last two presidencies it has held on to many state governorships (including Peña Nieto himself in Mexico State from 2005-11) and it too has suffered from the crime: PRI politicians have been threatened and killed.

Mr Peña Nieto has won the hearts of many housewives with his good looks and he undoubtedly won the votes of many Mexicans in the election. But his road to the presidency has not been smooth and the challenges he now faces are not small in number or in scale. He has a long way to go to prove to the country that whilst the Mexican political behemoth may be back, it is a reformed political creature with a taste for fair governance rather than widespread corruption.

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