MEXICO CITY – New polls published Monday show approval ratings for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto falling to some of the lowest levels in recent memory.
Just nine months after Pena Nieto appeared on the cover of Time magazine with the headline "Saving Mexico," scandals and crises have pushed his approval rating down to around 40 percent.
It's one of the lowest levels for a Mexican president since Ernesto Zedillo presided over the 1994-1995 economic crisis.
A Buendia & Laredo poll for the El Universal newspaper showed Pena Nieto's approval rating falling from 46 percent in August to 41 percent in November, with a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points. A poll by the Reforma newspaper showed approval dropping from 50 percent in August to 39 percent in late November. It had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Francisco Abundis, director of the Parametria polling firm, said his company's figures showed Pena Nieto in a similar range of approval, between 42 and 43 percent, and noted that was low for a Mexican president. "It's very difficult for them (Mexican presidents) to fall below 55 or 60 percent."
But he also said that Pena Nieto has never achieved high ratings in Mexico, despite enthusiasm abroad for his market-oriented reforms.
"What we have is a president who is stuck in the high to low 40s ... but there is no tendency," Abundis said.
Political consultant Ruben Aguilar, who served as spokesman for former president Vicente Fox, said the disappearance in September of 43 students in the southern state of Guerrero played a partial role in the president's low approval ratings. The students were detained by local police in the Guerrero city of Iguala, who apparently turned them over to a drug gang that reportedly killed them and incinerated their bodies.
Aguilar also said the execution by soldiers of about 15 suspects at a warehouse in southern Mexico on June 30 played a role. "Not only were these events extremely regrettable, but the government was also slow to react," said Aguilar.
The governmental National Human Rights Commission said Monday that "violence, illegality and impunity are putting the country's stability and peaceful coexistence at risk, as never before."
That contrasts with the administration's ability to strike back-room deals to get reforms through Congress. Pena Nieto has opened the country's state-owned oil sector to private investment, tightened telecom regulation and passed a reform of the country's notoriously bad public school system.
But when events like mass disappearances or executions occur, the government — which had long downplayed violence — was caught flat-footed. "This appears to be an administration with a lot of skill ... for things that are in their game plan, but an administration that reacts badly and slowly to unexpected events that aren't in its plans," Aguilar said.
In a way, it's not surprising that Pena Nieto isn't lower; he was elected with only 38.15 percent of the vote in a three-way race. Mexico has no runoff elections. And for many other major leaders, like U.S. President Barack Obama, approval ratings in the low 40s have become the norm.
Abundis said Mexicans generally appear to try not to be negative in answering pollsters' questions: "It's for unusual for a Mexican to give a flunking grade to an authority figure."