Mexico Elections: The PRI Comes Back

Enrique Reséndiz says he has no intention of voting in his country's July 5 midterm elections. The 41-year-old Mexico City shop owner hates all the choices. He's fed up with the ruling center-right National Action Party (PAN) and its apparent inability to save Mexico's battered economy or stop the epidemic of drug violence that's wrecking the country. He's just as disgusted with the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), which can't put aside its own internal feuds long enough to help pull Mexico out of the ditch. And what does that leave? Nothing but the political machine that dominated Mexico for most of the past century and now seems to be rising again for lack of anything better: the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). "No way!" declares Reséndiz. "The PRI is the central reason for everything that's wrong here."

Sunday's vote is taking place as the very basis of Mexico's political system is in question. "What is at stake today is not just the result of an election, but the future of democracy," President Felipe Calderón warned in late June. The number of drug-trafficking murders this year is practically guaranteed to break last year's record of more than 6,000, while unemployment in nearly every legitimate sector is continuing to climb. This midterm contest will choose legislators, governors, and municipal administrators to face those urgent problems and many others. And yet turnout levels are projected to hit record lows. Three days before the election, Mexico's electoral tribunal predicted that no more than 30 percent of the country's eligible voters would bother to cast a ballot.

Although Mexico is no failed state, the government is definitely faltering. The country bounded forward after the PRI was finally toppled in 2000, ending 71 years of uninterrupted one-party rule. (The party took power in 1929 and adopted its present name in 1946.) Reformers took charge, and promises were made for a thorough housecleaning to undo decades of patronage and back-room politics. But amid the recent hard times, many Mexicans are having second thoughts, blaming the PAN for not being faster to fix the country's problems. For months polls have shown the PRI with a lead of roughly 5 percentage points. While its candidates are not predicted to win an absolute congressional majority on July 5, analysts say a plurality is more than likely. The PRI is marketing itself as a remade party, with the slogan "Proven experience, new attitude." Still, pollsters say most Mexicans aren't buying it. The public perception is that the party is being packaged in terms of nostalgia, says Mexico City–based pollster Dan Lund, whose surveys also show the centrist PRI comfortably out in front.

The campaign has been tarred on both sides by allegations of malfeasance in office. While the PAN excoriates PRI governments of years past for alleged protection of drug traffickers, PRI leaders denounce the current PAN administration as "fascist." No one worries much about challengers from the left. The PRD is paralyzed by infighting, deeply divided over the party's previous standard bearer, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The 2006 presidential runner-up remains the left's most powerful figure, but also its most controversial: he refuses to work with the nation's political institutions and devotes most of his energies to barnstorming the country and claiming he was robbed in 2006.

Neither of the two leading parties has laid out much of a political platform. The only clear plank the PRI has put forward, apart from the efforts of party president Beatriz Paredes to woo women voters, has been its promise to create a new chief-of-cabinet position by act of Congress. The proposal is the brainchild of Sen. Manlio Fabio Beltrones, a senior PRI leader and a likely candidate for the powerful new job if his young party colleague, State of Mexico Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto, can win the next presidential race in 2012. Peña Nieto, 42, has become the media face of this summer's campaigns although he's not running for anything. But political analysts say he's only a face; behind the scenes, they say, the PRI is still ruled by the "dinosaurs," as Mexicans call them: the party elders who have always wielded the real power in the PRI.

The public's frustration has spawned a nationwide drive to "null and void" the vote. One vocal advocate is Luis Manuel Pérez de Acha, a Mexico City lawyer who has launched an Internet-based protest movement against what he calls the "dysfunctionality" of the Mexican political system. The 49-year-old attorney is urging voters to mark their ballots with nothing but a big X. Staying home from the polls is no more than passivity, he says, while defacing your ballot proves you mean it. His site gets as many as 4,000 hits a day, he says, which he sees as a sign that voters are rallying to the cause, since about 50 similar campaigns are being waged across the country. "There's annoyance and anger at politics," he says. "[The response] has been intense." Even some PRI politicians have climbed on the bandwagon. "We're a democracy that has evolved, and is evolving," says Pérez de Acha. "But the attitude of government needs to evolve." Another movement, spearheaded by a Mexico City sporting-goods mogul, urges Mexicans to vote only for candidates who make public-security commitments in writing. His son was kidnapped and murdered last year. (In hope of stopping Mexico's seemingly endless cycle of unfinished reforms and civic projects, the movement also seeks a repeal of one-term limits for local officials,)

All the same, such grassroots efforts won't negate the election. The protest ballots aren't even likely to alter its outcome; because the null-and-void campaign crosses party lines and is directed against the system itself, the oddsmakers predict that no individual party will suffer disproportionately. That means the PRI can still expect to finish in first place. Even if Calderón's reform efforts won´t come to a complete halt, they're expected to be considerably slowed. Nevertheless, Mexico's climate has changed in recent years. It remains to be seen whether the dinosaurs can adapt—or whether this is their final roar.