Mexico City – The party that ruled Mexico for more than seven decades takes back the presidency today after 12 years with the inauguration of Enrique Peña Nieto.
Peña Nieto has painted his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) as new and improved, thoroughly reformed of its authoritarian past. Now it’s trial by fire for the resurrected government, and beginning today, Mexicans will find out if the PRI’s cleaned-up image has substance.
Concerns about the new government’s commitment to playing nice in Mexico’s evolving democracy abound. Between 1929 and 2000, the PRI governed through a mix of coercion, corruption and repression in what was marketed as democracy but was widely viewed as the “perfect dictatorship” in a phrase coined by Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.
Power has changed hands before but the pueblo remains the same—oppressed.
- Luciano Salinas
Luciano Salinas, 55, sells tortillas near the Basilica of Guadalupe where he lives in Mexico City. Salinas, who came to the historic city center to protest the new government’s inauguration, says he has little faith that a changing of the guard will mean much for people like him.
“Power has changed hands before but the pueblo remains the same—oppressed,” he said.
Peña Nieto’s inauguration began with a morning ceremony at congress, where a small number of protestors reportedly tried to pull down security barriers and scuffled with police. There were reports of injuries on both sides.
That event was followed by a speech at the National Palace flanking the sprawling Zocalo plaza attended by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Porfirio Lobo Sosa, the president of Honduras.
"As a democratic president, I will respect each and every one of the voices of society." Peña Nieto said.
The president vowed to lead Mexico "where it needs to go." "We need tangible results," he added.
Outside, small groups of protestors congregated as close to the Zocalo as they could get. Several hundred police officers and soldiers blockaded the surrounding blocks, leaving the usually packed Zocalo nearly empty.
Peña Nieto enters Los Pinos, the presidential residence, with a full plate of policy issues on the table in matters of security, the economy, energy and education.
He inherits a drug war that has killed some 60,000 Mexicans and destroyed security in once tranquil and prosperous regions. Although violence is ebbing in hard-hit cities like Ciudad Juárez and Monterrey south of the Texas border, the country’s homicide rate grew 30 percent between 2007 and 2010 and remains elevated, according to research firm México Evalúa.
Peña Nieto has said he will focus on reducing homicides, kidnapping and extortion—possibly indicating a shift away from attacking cartel leaders and a move toward improving the safety of Mexican communities.
That’s a reflection of popular sentiment: While many Mexicans approve of the government combating organized crime, when asked in a recent survey by research firm Gabinete de Comunicación Estratégica who was winning the drug war—the government or the criminals—66 percent of respondents said the criminals.
The new president won the July election in large part on promises to create jobs. Mexico’s economy – while stable and steadily growing – continues to depend heavily on informal work, which accounts for between 50 percent and 62 percent of jobs according to a World Bank study.
Peña Nieto should be helped toward that jobs goal by an expanding economy. After a decade of growth averaging below 2 percent per year, Mexico’s economy is expected to grow 4 percent (twice the rate of Brazil), and Peña Nieto hopes to achieve 6 percent growth before his six-year term is up.
Meeting those security and economic goals may help satisfy the 62 percent of Mexicans who didn’t vote for Peña Nieto, especially if he manages the difficult trick of stimulating the economy and wages, as well, which have been stagnant in Mexico.
Taxi driver Israel Arébalo, 39, says he didn’t vote for Peña Nieto but he wishes the new president—and Mexico—well.
“He has to do well because he’s going to face a lot of pressure,” he said.
Whatever concerns Mexicans have about the PRI's return—and a possible regression to corrupt practices of the past—the country has changed, and so has society.
"Despite surveys that say people aren't totally satisfied with democracy," said Helena Varela Guinot, director of the Iberoamerican University’s Department of Social Sciences and Politics. "What we have today is society that is far less willing to leave everything in the hands of the president."