MEXICO CITY – The political party that ruled Mexico for seven straight decades is back, assuring Mexicans there's no chance of a return to what some called "the perfect dictatorship" that was marked by a mixture of populist handouts, rigged votes and occasional bloodshed.
The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, reclaims the presidency Saturday after 12 years out of power, and President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto calls it a crowning moment of an effort to reform and modernize the party that ruled without interruption from 1929 to 2000.
He promises an agenda of free enterprise, efficiency and accountability. He's pushing for reforms that could bring major new private investment in Mexico's crucial but creaking state-owned oil industry, changes that have been blocked for decades by nationalist suspicion of foreign meddling in the oil business.
PRI leaders acknowledge the party is returning to power in a Mexico radically different from what it was in the party's heyday. The nation has an open, market-oriented economy, a freer, more aggressive press, an opposition that can communicate at the speed of the Internet and a population that knows the PRI can be kicked out of power.
"The skeptics say that the PRI will return to the past, as if such a thing were possible," PRI leader Pedro Joaquin Coldwell told a party gathering earlier this month. "It's not, because this is a different country."
Yet critics already see hints of a yearning for the old days of an imperial presidency in some of the measures the PRI is pushing through Congress.
A bill proposed by Pena Nieto would gather the police and security apparatus under the control of the Interior Department, an office long used by the PRI to co-opt or pressure opponents, rig elections and strong-arm the media.
PRI leaders say the measure would unify a fractured security apparatus and produce a more coordinated strategy in Mexico's fight against drug cartels.
Political analyst Raymundo Riva Palacio says a return to the old ways is unlikely, noting there are now independent electoral authorities, judges and rights groups to help keep authorities in line. "I don't think they'll try to restore the old regime, like we saw in the 1970s," he said.
But Alejandro Sanchez, the assistant leader of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, warns of an attempt "to return to the authoritarian regime of the 1970s, when torture, contempt for opponents and impunity were the norm."
The PRI no longer holds a majority in Congress, so it will probably have to negotiate more.
PRI members in Congress, who include several autocratic labor leaders, this month successfully maneuvered to block a measure that would have required secret ballots in union elections and approval by union members of proposed contracts.
The PRI also supported a bill that would give federal and state auditors more authority to block spending by state governors, who currently face little fiscal oversight. That may help curb the unchecked power governors have acquired since the PRI lost power, but some critics see the measure as a bid to return to the days when presidents controlled the states from Mexico City.
Another PRI proposal would restore the president's ability to hire and fire hundreds of mid-level government officials at will, removing the posts from civil service protections. Sen. Javier Corral of the National Action Party, which has held the presidency for 12 years, said the PRI "wants to bring back the old custom that has done so much damage in Mexico, of treating power as booty, and giving out these jobs according to the party's criteria."
The PRI was widely seen as an able if autocratic party from 1929 to the mid-1960s, with strong economic growth and government hand-out programs balancing the corruption and lack of truly free elections.
But repeated harsh crackdowns on unions, students and other protesters inspired opposition movements in the 1960s and 1970s, and economic mismanagement and graft fed rampant inflation and led to recurring economic crises that repeatedly slammed the middle class in the regime's final quarter-century in power.
"We have learned from the mistakes we made," Coldwell, the PRI's leader, told a local radio station. "The people have given us a chance, and we have to be very conscious of the fact that if we don't do well, they won't give us a third chance."
In fact, the PRI had already begun changing in the 1980s. Stung by public outrage over some of the economic messes it had made, the party oversaw the privatization of inefficient state-owned industries that were once vast reservoirs of patronage jobs. It gradually allowed electoral reforms that finally gave opponents a chance to win elections.
During its time in power, the conservative National Action Party tried to lend a more informal air to the presidency. The office also became weaker in the face of the rising independence of the Supreme Court as well as state governors, many from opposition parties who owed no allegiance to the president. Opposition also increased in Congress.
Ruben Aguilar, who was a spokesman for then President Vicente Fox, the National Action candidate who defeated the PRI in 2000, said he's willing to give the PRI "the benefit of the doubt," in part because the party is known for pragmatism. It never had much ideology beyond keeping itself in power, and returning to old abuses could be suicidal.
"If they tried to return to the old ways, it would be very clumsy, very shortsighted," Aguilar said.
Some things are clearly gone forever, such as the PRI's role as "daddy government," handing out state-built housing and jobs at state-owned enterprises. The government firms have been privatized and the oil-fattened government budgets have shrunk.
Instead, Pena Nieto aims to fulfill his main promise, to create more job and boost economic growth, by going even further in developing the private sector. He also pledges to preserve the main achievement of the two National Action Party presidents: responsible government finances and macro-economic stability.
The PRI was never a classic, bloodthirsty dictatorship. It often bought off enemies and pardoned when it could.
When students at the national university pelted President Luis Echeverria with rocks in 1975, blaming him for ordering the shooting of student protesters seven years before, Echeverria simply left the campus.
While Echeverria imprisoned leftist rebels or allowed them to vanish in the maw of the security system, his successor pardoned those who remained jailed, giving rise to a generation of opposition politicians.
Many Mexicans retain a cynical fondness for the old party's populism, as reflected in one old saying that translates roughly: "They stole, but at least they let others get what they dropped."
Some expect a comeback of the PRI political style that combined a devotion to high-flown rhetoric, strict obedience among party members and an unquestioned respect for the authority of the president.
"I think we're going to see a lot of the old informal rules come back," said Andrew Selee, director of the Washington-based Mexico Institute.
He noted PRI members show tight party discipline and try to keep political disputes behind closed doors. That could reinforce the PRI's claim that it knows how to govern efficiently, unlike the two National Action presidents, who at times seemed to flounder.
The PRI's discipline is enshrined in another old saying. Counseling against jostling for political position, late PRI union boss Fidel Velazquez counseled, "He who moves around doesn't show up in the photo."