The upcoming Mexican elections are generating plenty of interest in Mexico, but almost none at all out there in the world. Yet the friends and partners of Mexico would do well to take a closer look. The voters seem to like Enrique Peña Nieto, of the PRI - the single party, famous for corruption, that governed Mexico for more than 70 years. But according to most media commentators, his victory would constitute a restoration of authoritarian rule; corrupt, nationalist, discredited. Has the PRI, like the French Bourbons in 1815, indeed "learned nothing, and forgotten nothing?" Or would the PRI's return to power constitute an alternation of the normal democratic variety?
I worked for PRI's first (and so necessary) defeat in 2000. But now I think a Peña Nieto presidency need not be a restoration, or a cause for apprehension, for three reasons. In the first place, Peña Nieto would be the first PRI president not picked by his predecessor. Even Zedillo, the last PRI president, admitted that his election had been unfair. So were those of all his predecessors. Under the PRI, every head of state of Mexico chose his successor. The elections were a formality, a fraud.
Secondly, Mexico is not the same. The context is different from that of 1994. Now there are countervailing forces. The new president, particularly if he is Peña Nieto, will face hostile majorities in several legislative chambers, national and regional. Though their quality often leaves a lot to be desired, the Mexican media are freer and stronger than they used to be; and civil society more organized and energetic.
Above all, the new president must coexist with a variety of official bodies that have grown up in recent years, which are not just sounding boards for the president. The Supreme Court has hit hard at both Fox and Calderón, to the great benefit of Mexican society. The Federal Electoral Institute gives a seal of legitimacy to each election in Mexico, presidential or legislative. The Bank of Mexico has been fully independent since 1993, and is a partial guarantee of macroeconomic prudence. The Federal Institute of Access to Information, also autonomous, stands for transparency and is a headache to several political powers. So does the Statistical Institute, which has largely curbed the old practices of cooking the books. The external context has also changed. Mexico is now enmeshed in a tangle of free-trade agreements, most of them with clauses concerning corruption, human rights, the environment and indigenous peoples, which cannot all be broken at whim. Admittedly, not all these clauses have been effective; human rights violations are on the upturn under Calderón, and do not seem to have cost him much. But the clauses are there.
The economic, socio-cultural and political integration of Mexico into North America, and its growing openness to the rest of the world, have generated a different view of Mexico abroad. It is no longer a view centered on colorful history and beaches, but a more rigorous examination, often arrogant and interfering, of our property rights, the probity of our institutions, the transparency of public and private companies, security, the freedom of the press and the rendering of accounts. The case of Walmart and its bribes, which rated three whole pages in The New York Times, is emblematic. Neither the newspaper, nor the SEC, nor, indeed, Walmart, used to pay any attention to Mexico.
No doubt there are plenty of people in the PRI who will go back to their old ways - that is, stealing. But either our democracy is a real one, where the will of the voters prevails, or it is useless. Mexico has survived many catastrophes in its history; it will survive a return of the PRI, and may even benefit by the election - an honest one - of Peña Nieto.
Jorge G. Castañeda is a political analyst and member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.