20 September 2011

Presidential front-runner declares his intentions

Former State of Mexico governor Enrique Peña Nieto speaks Sept. 14 to residents of a flooded out neighbourhood in Cuautitlán after distributing pre-paid cards for replacing damaged furniture and appliances. His term as governor ended the next day and he now is pursuing the PRI presidential nomination.

To no one's surprise, former State of Mexico governor Enrique Peña Nieto acknowledged his plans to run for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) presidential nomination. Even less surprising, he did so while appearing on Televisa, the media empire long-accused of providing him with plenty of favourable coverage – and exposing him frequently to a nationwide audience in a country where most people get their news via television broadcasts – during his six-year gubernatorial administration.

Derisively branded "Gel Boy" (pronounced, "hell-boy," in Spanish) by detractors for the copious amounts of gel in his hairstyle, Peña Nieto enters the contest with a massive lead among over any of the probable presidential candidates as the governing National Action Party (PAN) appears spent after 11 years in power and President Felipe Calderón lacks a popular heir-apparent. The left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), meanwhile, has been plagued by infighting since nearly capturing power in 2006 and its nomination process is another civil war waiting to happen.

The 45-year-old Peña Nieto puts a young face on an old-school PRI, which has recovered from losing the presidency in 2000 and being decimated in 2006 (after vicious infighting) and has gone on to dominate politics on the local level – and become a party of powerful state governors, who preside over jurisdictions with little transparency and weak autonomous institutions.

He hails from a political clan known as "Grupo Atlacomulco," which has wielded power in the State of Mexico for decades and grew rich from the largess of generous government concessions. Its most famous patriarch, former State of Mexico governor and Mexico City regent, Carlos Hank Gónzalez, coined the infamous Mexican political maxim, "A politician who is poor, is a poor politician." Peña Nieto appears to have the backing of the church hierarchy, too – something unthinkable a generation ago for a PRI politician.

Peña Nieto will likely face PRI Senate leader Manlio Fabio Beltrones in the nomination battle – and emerge the victor: The State of Mexico carries enormous weight in PRI matters. Additionally, his reputation has been burnished by having presided over an administration savvy in public relations and which focused heavily on the completion of public works projects. He also survived fiascoes unscathed, such as the botched Paulette investigation in 2010 – in which a four-year-old girl was found dead in her own bed nine days after investigators supposedly had searched her room – or his fumbling for answers during a television interview when explaining the circumstances of his first wife's death.

His current wife, soap opera star Angelica Rivera, draws no shortage of favourable coverage, too – and their union was made possible after the Archdiocese of Mexico City annulled her first marriage because it took place on a beach in Acapulco. Even his teenage daughter was named one of the 10 hottest girls in Mexico by Quién, a society magazine.

The former governor has outlined no specific plans for a PRI administration, although the behaviour of the PRI delegation in the lower house of Congress – which he heavily influences – might offer hints at what to expect. The PRI delegation has thwarted attempts at labour reform, failed to pass money laundering and national security laws, steadfastly opposed the reelection of politicians and has fought every year during the budget process to devolve ever more money to opaque state governments,
Even details of his accomplishments seem vague – such as the claim made in his final informe (state of the state address) that the homicide rate dropped by half in the State of Mexico during his administration and doubled in the rest of the country. This all at a time when at least four cartels have battled for territory in the suburbs of Mexico City and the neighbouring Federal District has remained relatively free of organized crime nonsense.

During recent reporting trips to the State of Mexico, people have carried on enthusiastically in interviews about how Peña Nieto has kept his word and improved life in the state. When asked to provide examples, the conversation usually turns to some distant project, which quite possible included federal funding, or highways charging tolls far beyond what an ordinary motorist might be able to afford.

When posed with questions about security, everyone says it has worsened – especially for anyone riding the over-priced public transit network in the State of Mexico, which has been a target for armed thugs in recent years. But, again, they seem willing to give Peña Nieto the benefit of the doubt, proving that voters overwhelmingly view security as a federal matter and seldom will hold a local mayor or governor responsible. Some interviewees even figured the arrival of a priísta in Los Pinos would somehow bring the crime problem under control – just like during the "golden age" of PRI rule that so many in Mexico now have fond memories of recalling (when narcos were kept in check) and hope to see come to pass once again.

The presidential election goes down July 1, 2012, leaving time for the frontrunner to be reeled in – just like Calderón did with Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2006. But how that might happen remains a mystery, especially when many voters appear apathetic about the political process (witness the low turnout in the July 2011 State of Mexico gubernatorial election,) young voters with more bad memories about the PAN in power than the PRI are actually opting for the PRI, and so many people, like one participant leaving comments on the Reforma website, gush enthusiastically, "Finally a primary candidate with a project and real proposals. Enrique Peña Nieto, President of Mexico!!"