The PRI Returns in Mexico

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Young supporter of Mexican presidential front-runner Nieto attends one of his last campaign rallies in Toluca (Tomas Bravo/Courtesy Reuters).

Young supporter of Mexican presidential front-runner Nieto attends one of his last campaign rallies in Toluca (Tomas Bravo/Courtesy Reuters).

Twelve years after being voted out of power, Enrique Peña Nieto and the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, are coming back to Los Pinos, Mexico’s White House. Yesterday Peña Nieto won an estimated 38 percent of the national vote, (roughly 6 percent more than his nearest rival, the PRD’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador) and the PRI looks to become the largest party in Mexico’s Congress.

The question now is what the PRI’s return means for Mexico. Systematically, not that much should change. While many fear the return of an opaque and even authoritarian style government, Mexico’s institutions, even with their imperfections, can withstand such an assault—if one should indeed come. In the past decade, Mexico’s Congress has shaped legislation as much as the president; its Supreme Court has shown itself to be independent, often ruling against the government and vested interests; the media has worked to hold those in power accountable; and Mexico’s civil society has also been increasingly vocal in its demands for a transparent and democratic government. These advances provide important checks on abuses of power, and would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the new government to roll the political system back to that of the PRI’s halcyon days.

Government policies are where Mexico might see real changes. Enrique Peña Nieto faces many serious challenges. The most pressing is security. To diminish the violence, Mexico needs to build on and expand efforts to professionalize its police, moving beyond the federal to state and local forces. The new president also needs to make judicial reform a reality. In 2008 Mexico passed a series of constitutional and legislative reforms to fundamentally transform Mexico’s justice system, introducing oral trials, better ensuring the presumption of innocence, and improving access to an adequate defense. But the law gave the states until 2016 to implement the changes, and so far efforts have lagged. Mexico’s security and basic public safety depends on Peña Nieto getting behind this reform, as without a strong justice system a democratically based rule of law will remain elusive.

Economically, domestic and international audiences alike will be looking to the next government to pass the structural reforms needed for Mexico to become more productive, more competitive, and grow faster. This starts with the state-owned energy sector. Though notoriously a political third rail in Mexico, during the campaign Peña Nieto promised to open up the sector to private investment, à la Brazil’s Petrobras. Also on the business sector’s docket is labor reform to make hiring and firing less rigid; codes that keep many in the informal (and much less productive) sector. And, with tax collection rates some of the lowest in the hemisphere, Mexico needs a fiscal reform, boosting revenue both to replace diminishing oil intakes (now nearly a third of federal government revenue) and to better fund vital public goods—such as infrastructure, social security, and basic safety. Finally, Mexico needs to strengthen its regulatory agencies in order to level the often uneven economic playing field.

Enrique Peña Nieto will take office on December 1, 2012. The coming weeks and months will provide hints at how the president-elect will govern as he begins to fill cabinet posts, prioritize issues, and outline policies. What is clear is that the new government needs to make the most of its electoral momentum. If the PRI pessimists are correct, and these opportunities go wasted, Mexico will continue to fall behind its global peers. But if Peña Nieto makes the most of his political capital and pushes through much needed changes, he and the PRI can help Mexico on its way to a better place, both at home and on a global stage.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.