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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MEXICO ELECTION XVI – Stuttering on

This blog has been live in Mexico covering the general election and the disputed results. This is the last post on the 2012 vote from inside the country

As the coverage on this site comes to an end, the tangible discontent from many students and young professionals rumbles on but at less frantic and energetic a pace than last week, when there was more of a momentum behind the mass movement. There appears to be a sighed resignation creeping in: that the result is done and that Enrique Peña Nieto will be the next presidente. However, you would be mistaken for thinking that the movement is over. Their calls for a more open society are as sharp as ever and the leader of the #YoSoy132 told me recently that their work has only just begun. They are determined not to be silenced in their drive for more accountability, more responsibility and more democracy in this nation.

The legal challenges from Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), the defeated presidential candidate of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), may be losing a bit of steam. The president of the PAN has accepted and denounced the irregularities identified by the Federal Electoral Institute but has said his party will not back AMLO’s call for the whole set of election results to be contested and officially impugned.

This constant chipping away at the PRI, be it either from the marching students, AMLO’s challenges or from outside media (see videos below) seems to be getting on the nerves of the party’s hierarchy. The president-elect, Enrique Peña Nieto, has rejected allegations that the PRI carried out voting fraud and the party’s president, Joaquín Coldwell, came out on 10 July and denounced those who say his party gave out gift-cards for the supermarket Soriana in return for votes for Mr Peña Nieto, calling those claims “accusations with a large media coverage but without any demonstrable proof”.

It seems that the PRI is getting tired of the continued questioning of the results and criticism of its glamorous leadership. That said, it would help if their man in the hot-seat were a more accomplished television interviewee. Enrique Peña Nieto has been vilified on social networks over the last couple of days because of a couple of bizarre, stuttering performances in recent live interviews with CNN.

Firstly, he was questioned by Christiane Amanpour about the results, the Soriana crisis, the drugs war and trying to pass bills in a Congress where he lacks a majority. Peña Nieto cruises through the first block of posers but then stutters on the fourth and final question, where he pauses erratically during his wavering response (interview in English and Spanish).

He also suffers the same strange answering technique, a faltering reply punctuated with long pauses, in an interview with Fareed Zakaria for the same news channel (clip below). There has been debate as to whether the president-elect was trying to listen to simultaneous translation (a more harmless reason) or rather being fed the answers in his ear and not doing a very good job of covering up the trick (a less transparent way of facing the media). Watching the Amanpour interview makes the second reason the more plausible, as Peña Nieto has no problem with immediate responses for three answers but then inexplicably stumbles slowly through the fourth. The title of the video “They tell Enrique Peña Nieto what to say in an interview!” shows the uploader to be unashamedly anti-PRI but there is no hiding the politician’s strange responses.

Source: miauctortv, 10 July 2012 (interview in English and Spanish)

Enrique Peña Nieto already has questions hanging over his head (albeit claims that he firmly denies) over an all-too-cosy relationship with media giant Televisa over alleged favourable treatment for him and smear coverage against his rivals. The odd exchanges above with an international channel highlight once again the many media challenges he faces before he can move into Los Pinos. Although he may have the telegenic looks and the soap-star wife, he is going to have to clean up and tidy up his attitude towards press plurality and public presentation before he takes over in the presidency, as he is expected to do on 1 December.

MEXICO ELECTION XIV – Students on the march

Mexicans appear to have returned the PRI to power in general elections. This blog is covering the results live from inside the country

On Monday 2 July, the day after the former autocratic political behemoth, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, was seemingly put back into power in Mexico (many vote recounts have started after “irregularities” were found), thousands of members of the #YoSoy132 protest movement massed just off Mexico City’s grand Paseo de la Reforma boulevard ahead of a march against the election results, in particular the voting in of Enrique Peña Nieto to the presidency.

Alert! Alert! Watch what is coming: the student fight for Latin America

Mexico without the PRI, Mexico without the PRI

Supporters of the #YoSoy132 movement give their thoughts

MEXICO ELECTION XII – Peña to the presidency

Mexicans have voted in a general election. This blog is live in the country covering the results

A wide selection of exit polls, including the official one calculated by the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), show that Enrique Peña Nieto has won the presidency for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) after 12 years in opposition. Voting predictions also paint Mexico overwhelmingly red, for the campaign colour of the PRI, in the local, state and federal elections that have also taken place.

In a televised address at 11.20pm, the head of the IFE, Leonardo Valdés Zurita, said that the more than 49m people who had cast a ballot made this the most ‘voted-for’ election in Mexican history. He gave the preliminary results, based on the IFE’s ‘conteo rápido’ system, as:

Josefina Vázquez Mota, from the National Action Party – between 25-27% of the vote

Enrique Peña Nieto, from the PRI-PVEM alliance – between 37-38% of the vote

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, of the PRD-PT-CM alliance – between 30-31% of the vote

Gabriel Quadri de la Torre, of the New Alliance party – about 2% of the vote

MEXICO ELECTION X – The PRI’s Rebecca Black factor

Today Mexicans are going to the polls in a general election. This blog is live in the country covering the vote

As millions of people head to the voting booths, or casillas, to what extent will they have been influenced by social media and the parties’ online presence?

There are endless videos for and against all four candidates online. There are parodies, songs, criticisms and conspiracies but perhaps nothing is as surreal as the 14-year-old singer Rebecca Black declaring her support for the PRI, after being flown in by the PRI to the city of Cuernavaca, just south of the capital. This was seen as a bizarre attempt by Enrique Peña Nieto’s party to try to combat the rapid growth of the #YoSoy132 students’ movement viral success by rolling out a big YouTube name to show the party’s ‘youth touch’. It was heavily criticised and it is debatable whether or not the viral singer really knows what she signed up for:

Source: MiGueLPoRTeSMX

The use of online campaigning is a well-recognised technique in Europe and in the US but it is still a young method in Mexico. The parties have much preferred tried-and-trusted ‘wall painting’ as a way of connecting with the electorate. However, as you can see below, the governing National Action Party (PAN) has printed banners with links to this particular candidate’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. On one hand, this shows a recognition of the power of social media but, on the other hand, this will surely only be a successful venture in the cities.

The #YoSoy132 movement re-ignited the focus on an online agenda but, outside the metropolitan areas, the Mexican countryside is not really a hotbed of social media activity. With patchy connections to the Internet itself, let alone a political hashtag discussion, the drama of the online student movement has really only remained accessible to Internet-savvy voters. The results later today will show us whether or not it has had managed to move out and spread its message to the regular voter.

MEXICO ELECTION VIII – Upset still on the cards

Tomorrow, on Sunday 1 July, Mexico will hold a general election. This blog is covering the vote live from inside the country

If you were to use the opinion polls alone to choose a winner then Enrique Peña Nieto would have romped home even before he officially declared his candidacy. But if you look wider and harder it is possible to catch glimpses of hope for those wishing to knock the former Mexico State governor from his perch. Speaking with a woman last night in Jilotepec, she rubbished the telephone polls, saying that she never gave an answer when prompted by a calling pollster because “el voto es libre y secreto”. Her actions flew in the face of her own advice, as she told me of her belief that the parties know who has said what in each house and they “will punish you subtly if you say you will not vote for them, by cutting your electricity for example”.

Another woman I spoke to also wrote off the voter surveys. She is a PRD local activist though, so it does serve her party to maintain the hope that the race is still open and that their presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador or AMLO, can still land Los Pinos tomorrow. But she accused the PRI of ‘acarreando’ its ‘supporters’, and that is an allegation I have heard a few times over the past days, even in the traditionally PRI, or priísta state. ‘Acarrear’ roughly translates as bussing people to your rally to inflate the numbers. In Jilotepec I am told all the PRI gives you in return for being driven to their meetings is ‘a sandwich and a piece of fruit – and the people only go because they want some free food’.

The PRD activist glows as she describes the big campaign closing events of last Wednesday. She says the governing party’s candidate, Josefina Vázquez Mota, filled the 49,000-seater Guadalajara Chivas football stadium of people who attended of their own accord. She denounces Peña Nieto for filling up national Aztec Stadium in Mexico City, which can hold 110,000 people, with ‘supposed supporters who were bussed in for free’. And she then visibly lights up as she recounts the PRD event. AMLO filled the capital’s massive central square and many side roads as well with more than one million people, all still believing that the man affectionately known as ‘Grandpa’ can swipe the presidency from under Peña Nieto’s nose. She firmly denies the PRD would ever ‘acarrear’.

She says many of the protesters in the #YoSoy132 movement have yet to decide who to choose. The activist gets excited by her own calculations – saying that the race is not over and that there could still be one of the biggest surprises in political history tomorrow. However, I found one reservation that some students in Mexico State have about their colleagues and the #YoSoy132 campaign. They are worried that the movement is being manouevred by hidden vested interests working behind the scenes. That may be true; with anti-PRI pro-PRD interests being the most likely to be involved in any such allegations.

But Mexican politics has functioned in a similar way before and even here in such a príista place the actions of the PRI in its 70-year rule as an autocracy – when election results were massaged – are not quickly forgotten. Some quarters see the coronation of Enrique Peña Nieto as imminent and inevitable and it is still likely that he will win. But you cannot deny that there is simmering belief that the PRI can be defeated once again, even if such a result is unlikely. Hasta mañana.

MEXICO ELECTION V – ‘I was close to dying too’

On 1 July Mexico will hold a general election. This blog is live in the country covering the vote

It is late morning in Jilotepec, a small town 90 minutes’ drive northwest of the capital, and the daily heat is starting to build. The municipal seat of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is quiet the day after the end of campaigning but there are still a dozen young activists meeting in cool rooms in the flowery quandrangle. The 10ft outside walls which enclose the courtyard are coated with the names of different candidates, painted brightly in the PRI’s colours of red, white and green. The huge neat letters bellow at passers-by that the men and women of the PRI “promise to deliver” and that “Jilotepec is our commitment”.

Inside the party’s town headquarters I speak with José Alberto May Montiel, who is the secretary for electoral action of the PRI’s ‘New Mexico’ youth movement. At 24, he is my age and dressed casually with a baseball cap on to shield his eyes from the bright summer sun. He speaks clearly and calmly about his love for the PRI, the once-dominant party that ruled Mexico as an autocracy for more than 70 years until it lost its parliamentary majority and the presidency in 1997 and 2000.

One of the concerns I have heard from Mexicans as the PRI has built had large lead in the municipal, state, governor, parliamentary and presidential polls is that the party that would be put back in power by the people has not changed in its twelve years in opposition. They are fears that it is still the PRI of old, when winks, nods and backhand deals allowed it to maintain itself in power for decades and get rid of any opposition to its one-party rule. José Alberto admits that the PRI of the past “was bad and there was corruption” but he is iron-firm in his belief that the party has cleaned up its image, got rid of all the old problems and has a fresh, youthful team to lead it back into power.

But what will the PRI do when it gets there? José Alberto says the most important issue is to improve the education system and then to get more Mexicans into jobs. And he says this is how Enrique Peña Nieto is going to combat the appalling violence across the country. He cannot find words enough to condemn the policies of outgoing president, Felipe Calderón, of the National Action Party (PAN), who deployed the Mexican armed forces to fight the gangsters. The PRI activist assures me that Peña Nieto would use “more subtle tactics, such as educating the people better and providing gainful employment” to tempt the gang members away from a life of crime. But these are long-term policies: what does he suggest now? “There is no immediate solution” he confesses.

He tells me that the government knows where Joaquín ‘Chapo’ (Shorty) Guzmán is. The most-wanted drug lord in the world, who heads up the powerful Sinaloa organisation, escaped from prison in 2001 and José Alberto is convinced that the PAN, which was in power at the time, facilitated the laughable prison break in which Guzmán made off hidden in a laundry basket.

He closes by recounting a chilling tale from 2010 when Rodolfo Torre Cantú, PRI candidate for governor in the northern state of Tamaulipas, was shot dead alongside two of his advisers. José Alberto was working on Torre Cantú’s campaign and was travelling in the convoy that was attacked by armed men. He tells me of the frightening ambush and looks at me straight in the eye to say “I was close to dying too that day”. Once again, he is certain that it was not a simple gangster attack and he accuses the police of being involved at some level. His happiness from earlier fades slightly and with a huge poster of Enrique Peña Nieto behind him, his gaze ahead suggests that he realises on a very personal level that size of the task facing his beloved candidate to try to bring some semblance of calm back to the streets of his country. But he is sure that the PRI has changed itself and can change Mexico as well if it wins power again this Sunday.

MEXICO ELECTION II – One last hurdle for PRI

On 1 July Mexico will hold a general election. This blog will cover the vote live from inside the country. This is the second build-up post; click here for the first article

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) governs 20 of Mexico’s 32 states. It has 48% of the seats in the lower house of Congress and has the second-biggest number of senators. In the latest presidential poll, published today for national daily Reforma, its hot-seat candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, had a comfortable 12-point lead over his nearest rival. Ever since the 1997 general election when the PRI lost its lower-house majority for the first time and the 2000 presidential vote, when they relinquished the top job as well, the political behemoth has been chipping away at the opposition in an incessant aim to reclaim its position at the head of Mexican politics. And now it is on the verge of sitting astride the national eagle once again.

But it is not just the survey out today that seems to show the the PRI juggernaut is heading unstoppably back to the top of the country. Enrique Peña Nieto was winning the polls even before he declared his candidacy and has held double-digit leads for many months. But despite the seeming inevitability about the PRI’s return to the steering-wheel, it has not been a problem-free drive. There have been widespread student protests against what is perceived to be Peña Nieto’s backing for big business and media interests and a lack of empathy with the ordinary Mexican on the street.

In fact, tonight the #YoSoy132 movement is holding an unofficial third presidential debate. The campaign has its roots in 131 students at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City who heckled Peña Nieto at a conference. The politician accused them of being “manipulated youth from outside the university” but the demonstrators do actually all study at the institution and showed off their matriculation documents in a video response. The ‘132’ is designed to reflect all other Mexicans who are dissatisfied with the former Mexico State governor. The anti-PRI fervour has been inflamed again as Enrique Peña Nieto has declined to take part in tonight’s debate, leaving the three other presidential candidates, PAN’s Josefina Vázquez Mota, the PRD’s Andrés López Manuel Obrador and PANAL’s Gabriel Quadri de la Torre, to battle it out without the favourite in the race.

This is not the first controversial coming together the candidates have had on the campaign trail and the first debate between the four of them was overshadowed when the production team selected a well-endowed model to help the politicians choose who got to speak first. But the two debates they have had were lacklustre. In the most recent one, on 10 June in Guadalajara, the student protests – which could have been a real problem for Peña Nieto – were not raised by the opposing candidates when they could have been tapped into to heap more pressure on the PRI man. Instead, he floated through without entering into any damaging mud-slinging.

Mexico is on the international stage at the moment as it hosts the annual G20 summit during its year as the head nation of the bloc. But far away from the global chit-chat in the beautiful resort of Los Cabos, the stage has been set for a very different kind of summit: an unplanned, student-led debate with the contenders for the top job. And Enrique Peña Nieto has decided not to show, giving himself an unnecessary hurdle on his coast towards power, when he could have seized the opportunity and really given his supporters a political belief to cherish, not just a telegenic smile to accept passively.

Enrique on the way

In a year’s time Mexico will have a new president and it seems the race to Los Pinos is one man’s to lose

The state governor elections in the year before the Mexican presidential election are often taken as a barometer of public opinion in the lead-up to the crunch vote. The barometer is showing pressure building in two areas and for two very different reasons.

Firstly, the president, Felipe Calderón, is seen more and more as a lame duck leader. Heads of state in Mexico only get one, six-year turn at the top and on 1 July, 2012 his time will be up. His defiant ‘war on drugs’ has claimed more than 35,000 lives since it was launched when he came into office in 2006, his reforms have stalled (notably his education changes) and he has lost his majority in the lower house. Constitutionally, he himself has to leave office. But notably, after 12 years in the presidential residence of Los Pinos (first with 2000-2006 president Vicente Fox and then with Calderón), the National Action Party (PAN) is also heading for the salida as Mexico’s dominant political force.

And returning to the fray will be the country’s political behemoth: the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Their likely presidential candidate is the second man under pressure: Enrique Peña Nieto. He was the outgoing governor of Mexico State who was replaced by Eruviel Avila in a landslide win in the elections on 3 July. Free from state politics, he now has a year in which to ram home his growing advantages over his rivals.

Peña Nieto leaves behind a state with many healthy public works projects and many unhealthy crime and poverty problems. But two years ago, in the middle of his term as state governor, nearly everyone I spoke to had already signalled him out as the main man to take on the PAN at the next presidential elections. They were in awe of his photogenic charm and smooth political operating. He has overcome personal tragedy, losing his first wife to a heart attack associated with epilepsy. He has remarried a soap star. He is younger than Calderón and has the backing of the most populous state in the country (Mexico State; population 15 million) and will now set out to win over the rest of the country.

Mexico is ready to be won over; it is ready for a change. The drugs war is making very slow and very bloody progress. The government is tired. In 2000 Calderón’s PAN managed to boot out Peña Nieto’s PRI from office after more than 70 years in power. After eleven years in opposition the PRI machinery is oiled and ready for its presidential comeback. The PAN is seemingly already beaten, going by the Mexico State election results. The PRI now has to see off its rival opposition challengers, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, whose candidate for the presidency may well be the combative and equally smooth Mayor of Mexico City Marcelo Ebrard. If Peña Nieto can do that, Los Pinos is his for the taking.