Mexico Picks A President Amid Drug War, Weak Economy

The clear front-runner in Mexico’s poll on Sunday is Enrique Pena Nieto, a member of the PRI, the party that ran Mexico for 71 years until ousted from power in 2000.

Pena Nieto insists his party has changed its old authoritarian ways, and he’s promised a new approach in the drug war, while saying he will take care of the country’s failing education system and boost the salaries of hard-working Mexicans.

That’s a much different tune then that of the old PRI, which had a reputation for widespread corruption, election rigging, and colluding with drug traffickers.

This week nearly 100,000 party faithful packed the massive Aztec Stadium in Mexico City to see the candidate. Many traveled hours from nearby states on buses, filled with meals and snacks, paid for by the PRI.

Pena Nieto told the crowd that together they will leave the old political practices behind.

“We will be a modern government committed to democratic values of liberty, transparency and a full accounting of resources,” he said.

Referring to the past 12 years under presidents from the National Action Party, or PAN, Pena Nieto said it was time to leave behind economic stagnation, social decline and violence

Polls show that his message is resonating. In nearly all polls, he’s had a solid double-digit lead for months.

Voter Romel Velez Gonzales, who came to the rally, said the current PAN administration hasn’t made country safer or more prosperous.

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Velez, who runs a small business, says when it comes down to it he doesn’t really believe the PRI has changed — but he’s willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

This is huge shift in popular opinion for the party that ruled Mexico with a strong arm for nearly all the 20th century.

But the right-of-center PAN party wasn’t able to fulfill its promises of political and economic reforms. For years, economic growth has been stuck at around 2 percent.

On top of that, current President Felipe Calderon’s war on narco-trafficking has left more than 50,000 dead and vast parts of northern Mexico are ungovernable.

Political Analyst Joy Langston Hawkes says the PRI masterfully regrouped and has come back roaring. They now hold hundreds of mayor’s posts, and more importantly, a majority of the governorships.

“Governors are very very important in vote winning and vote mobilization,” he says.

Langston says this time around the PRI picked — some say groomed — a very popular candidate in Pena Nieto.

He was the governor of the state of Mexico, just outside the capital, and left with high approval ratings. He is young, handsome and is married to one of the country’s most famous soap opera stars.

Pena Nieto has recently picked up some influential endorsements. To much surprise and criticism, former president Vicente Fox — who is from the PAN — announced he’s backing Pena Nieto.

Fox told NPR he’s convinced that Pena Nieto is the only candidate capable of breaking through Mexico’s political gridlock.

“Because I know him, because I worked with him. Me as president and he as governor. Because I know he is a professional. Because I know he is humble enough to form a talented team,” Fox says.

Fox’s former foreign minister, Jorge Castaneda, a longtime critic of the PRI, says people shouldn’t worry about what looks like an inevitable return of the PRI to power. Castaneda says Mexico is not the same country it was back in the 1990s. It’s democratic institutions, while not fully matured, are strong.

“I happen to think that our representative democracy is OK, so I can’t see how even a formerly authoritarian party would perform in an authoritarian way,” he says.

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