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OPINION
Text in which the author defends ideas and reaches conclusions based on his / her interpretation of facts and data

Where is Mexico headed?

Peña Nieto could take the country back to the heart of Latin American politics

On Saturday Enrique Peña Nieto, of the PRI party, will become president of Mexico. The PRI, by election-fixing, governed the country for over 70 years, only yielding power to the Catholic-right PAN in 2000. Since his July electoral victory -- the first time a PRI candidate has been elected democratically -- Latin America has been wondering just what kind of party is making a comeback: that of the "perfect dictatorship," or one prepared for fair play. But surely a better question would be this: what kind of Mexico are we now looking at?

The Mexican columnist Jorge Cepeda paints a relatively hopeful picture. "The public wants a strong presidency, after the paralysis of the PAN governments: state governors turned feudal masters, drug lords in control of whole regions, entrepreneurs stronger than the state and immovable union leaders. Everyone wants an arbiter to impose logic on the free-for-all." He concludes: "Peña Nieto might be a democratizer in spite of himself."

Mexico does not much resemble what it was 20 years ago. Early in the 1990s, the then-President Ernesto Zedillo tried to implement reforms, which were soon disjointed by the economic crisis of 1994, and finally squashed by the PRI's loss of its parliamentary majority in 1997 elections. In Mexico there was no great democratizing consensus such as that in Spain after Franco's death. Democratization took place by a sort of osmosis, and against the very DNA of the party itself that promoted it.

The proposed reforms are contrary to the PRI's genetic hardwiring of clientelism and mob connections"

Under the PAN presidents, Vicente Fox (2000-06) and Felipe Calderón (2006-12), Mexico has looked away from Latin America, while its government talked only to Washington and became mired in a disastrous fight against the drug trade. The PRI now has a clear majority in both chambers, but everything indicates that both PAN and the leftist PRD will support a revival of the 1990s reform program. Reform will have several fronts: a labor market bill, flexibilizing it (euphemism for easy firing), and stimulating growth (read inequality); a reform of the public administration, with the creation of an anti-corruption body to oversee state expenditure; and a new anti-drug-trade security strategy, including the progressive withdrawal of the 50,000 soldiers that Calderón brought out in the streets, with catastrophic results. To this end he will recruit a new corps of federal agents, who will rely more on selective CSI procedures than on indiscriminate club and bullet.

Yet the historian Enrique Krauze is skeptical: "Many of these reforms are contrary to the PRI's genetic hardwiring of clientelism, with its guild-like structures, antiquated ideas, vested interests and mob connections." There are plenty of reasons for suspicion, for the party is still home to survivors of the authoritarian Pleistocene, cheek-by-jowl with modernizers such as Luis Videgaray -- economist, campaign manager and right hand of the president-elect. Peña Nieto himself is a building still under construction. Proceeding from one of the party's most hidebound factions, the Atlacomulco group, he rose in the shadow of his political mentor, Arturo Montiel, who was governor of the State of Mexico. He is anything but an ideological politician. Traveling light as far as convictions are concerned, and apparently much more Catholic than the general run of PRI barons, he is still an unknown quantity. All this may favor the democratizing line needed for transforming the country. Mexico now has a better-organized opposition, and has seen a rapid urbanization and growth of the middle classes, inhibiting the fixing and coopting arrangements of the past, while the social networks sustain active public debate.

The fact that, before reporting to Washington, Peña Nieto first toured Guatemala, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina and Peru, and his obvious interest in developing the Pacific Alliance suggest that Mexico City aspires to be seen as the political capital of the Spanish-speaking world. And this is good for Latin America, and for Spain.

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