World

Amid calls to resign, Mexico's Peña Nieto up for a sad 'shout' this independence day

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 15: Mexico's President Enrique Pen–a Nieto delivers a speech flag after giving the traditional 'El Grito', during the anniversary of the 'Grito de Dolores' made by the priest Miguel Hidalgo in 1810 to begin the struggle for independence against Spain as part of Mexican Independence celebrations at Palacio Nacional on September 15, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 15: Mexico's President Enrique Pen–a Nieto delivers a speech flag after giving the traditional 'El Grito', during the anniversary of the 'Grito de Dolores' made by the priest Miguel Hidalgo in 1810 to begin the struggle for independence against Spain as part of Mexican Independence celebrations at Palacio Nacional on September 15, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)  (2015 Anadolu Agency)

The image shows Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto lying in bed, fearfully anticipating an angry mob donning the hashtag #RenunciaYa – Resign Now. Titled "El Otro Grito" ("The Other Cry"), the cartoon published on Wednesday's Mexico City newspaper Reforma seemed truer than many. 

President Peña Nieto was looking forward to his Thursday night address to the country with a higher level of anxiety than usual.

Traditionally, September 15th marks the evening before Mexico celebrates its Independence Day. The date usually provides presidents an opportunity to bask in the patriotic passion of their citizens as they appear on the balcony of Mexico City's presidential palace to deliver the traditional "Cry of Independence," joined by the crowd in a fervent "¡Viva México!"

More On This...

But to Peña Nieto, this year's grito came with yet another public-relations headache looming on the horizon, barely two weeks after a visit of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump made him the target of a nationwide fury and mockery.

Angry citizens were planning a protest rally on Thursday afternoon, in the run-up to the event on Mexico City's central Zócalo plaza, to demand the president's resignation.

Several major human rights organizations announced their support to the protest and several thousands were expected to attend the protest.

“There are lots of reasons to believe this year will mark a sad grito,” writer and reporter Sebastian Barragán told Fox News Latino before the address. “With historically low approval ratings, I believe there will be plenty of people marching against him.”

Last year’s grito was already considered by many to be somewhat of a disappointment. More austere than usual, the president and his family were perceived to be giving a rigid and austere acte de présence on the palace’s balcony. Also, critics said the number of people on the Zócalo was artificially inflated, with thousands of people brought to Mexico City by the ruling Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI) to cheer the president.

Be that as it may, this year few Mexicans mustered any enthusiasm at all to join the president in the grito -- a president whose approval ratings had plummeted to below 25 percent even before the disastrous visit of Trump to Mexico.

“They should just throw rotten eggs at him instead of cheering with him,” Juan Manuel López, a Mexico City taxi driver, told FNL. “People don’t like him anymore.”

Beyond the Trumpean PR disaster, Peña Nieto’s government, in office since 2012, already faces myriad crises and a severe lack of credibility and trust from its people. A stalling economic reforms agenda amid sluggish growth has disappointed many who hoped the president would be a job creator, while the homicide rate in Mexico’s violent drug war is on the rise again after a lull during his first two years in office.

And even if the economy and violent crime could be considered situations somewhat beyond the government’s control, the poor handling of several major human rights violations and the lingering conflict with a renegade section of the national teachers’ union – which has ground an ambitious overhaul of the country’s abysmal education system to a halt – are not.

September 26 will mark the second anniversary of the mass abduction and likely murder of 43 students of a teachers’ college in the southern state of Guerrero. The case is far from being solved and Peña Nieto’s government has been harshly criticized by both foreign and domestic rights groups for botching the investigation. 

It comes on top of several other major human rights crises, including the 2014 execution of 22 civilians in the town of Tlataya by soldiers and last June’s disastrous clash between law enforcement and striking teachers in the town of Nochixtlán, in the southern state of Oaxaca, which left at least nine dead.

“September now marks the second anniversary of the Ayotzinapa disappearances in what is usually a month of celebrations in Mexico”, Carin Zissis, editor-in-chief of Americas Society/Council of the Americas Online, told FOX News Latino. “That’s a major challenge to Peña Nieto at this particular time.”

Mexican presidents are no strangers to sluggish economy, social unrest and violence, but Peña Nieto’s personal integrity has also been repeatedly called into question. He continues to be dogged by the "Casa Blanca" scandal, in which his wife, first lady and former actress Angélica Rivera, was revealed to have bought a mansion from a contractor with close ties to the president. The case continues to spark nationwide outrage over what is perceived as a blatant conflict of interest.

Peña Nieto and his wife were cleared of charges of any wrongdoing by an internal investigation and the president recently apologized, but his credibility and approval rating have not recovered since the scandal first broke in late 2014.

“There’s corruption on both state and federal level, and that, together with the human rights violations, have made his position critical,” said Sebastián Barragán, who co-authored a book chronicling the scandal. 

“The president has shown to be unable to have the tools to communicate with his people at this point,” he added.

To make matters worse, the president also appears to become more isolated politically. Earlier this month, his finance secretary Luis Videgaray, considered to be one of Peña Nieto’s closest political allies, resigned in the wake of the Trump visit he helped organize. 

And according to Raymundo Riva Palacio, a well-respected political commentator for the El Financiero newspaper, Peña Nieto’s ruling party seems to be "rebelling" against the president.

“There is an increasing number of PRI members who ignore the president’s authority,” he wrote on Wednesday. “Governors and congressmen of the PRI have stopped going to meetings with secretaries of state and events with the president as a result of their distancing from Peña Nieto.”

And so, to Peña Nieto, who is set to leave office in 2018 and is constitutionally barred from re-election, this year’s grito is hardly a festive event.

“It seems as though each year is more challenging for him,” Carin Zissis told FNL. “In the first couple of years he had high approval ratings and strong public support, not to mention abroad," she said. “But for Mexicans looking at this president now with this low approval rating, the question is: What can still be achieved with two years left in office?”

 

Jan-Albert Hootsen is a freelance writer based in Mexico City. Follow him on Twitter: @Jayhootsen