Why Mexico's Voters Turned Back to the Future

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DANIEL AGUILAR / Reuters / Corbis

Mexico's President Felipe Calderon speaks during a ceremony to commemorate International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Drug Trafficking in Mexico City.

It may have sounded strange, on the campaign trail in 2006, when Mexico's President Felipe Calderon warned members of his conservative National Action Party (PAN) to repress "the little PRI-ista we all carry inside us." PRI, of course, is the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico as a corrupt one-party dictatorship for 71 years until the PAN finally ousted it in 2000. Unconvinced that the ruling party had indeed exorcised its inner-PRI, Mexico's voters in Sunday's midterm election indulged their own by voting in droves for the PRI.

The PRI emerged from Sunday's poll as the dominant force in Mexico's 500-seat legislature, and in pole position for the 2012 presidential race. The PAN lost almost 50 seats, leaving it with 146, while the PRI picked up 100 to secure 233. (The leftist Democratic Revolution Party won on ly 72 seats, continuing the downward spiral it began after coming within half a percentage of winning the presidency in 2006.) The PRI's quasi-coalition with Mexico's Green Party, which grabbed 22 seats, gives it a tacit congressional majority that promises to "paralyze" Calderon's presidency if not "mark the end of his term," says syndicated political columnist Martha Anaya. A political hobbling of Calderon could hamper Washington's efforts to help the Mexican administration tackle an economic downturn and relentless drug violence, which have raised fears about the stability of one of the U.S.'s most important trading partners.

Equally important is the question of what impact the PRI's comeback will have on Mexico's fledgling democracy. There are few indications that the party — notorious for epic corruption, vote-rigging and often violent co-opting of opponents when it held power — has been much chastened by its ouster from power in 2000. Numerous PRI officials on the federal, state and local levels continue to face allegations, for example, that they're cozy with Mexico's powerful drug cartels. Just as troubling is the party's vacuous political philosophy, which critics say still consists of little more than the cynical acquisition of power — and the incompetent exercise of it, evidenced by Mexico's chronic 20th-century financial collapses and the PRI's appallingly clueless response to a 1985 Mexico City earthquake that killed 10,000 people.

But the PAN has proven to be a disappointment, too, and many Mexicans seemed willing to give the PRI's still robust political machine another shot at navigating hard times. Calderon has received high approval ratings for his military offensive against the cartels and his generally adept handling of this year's swine flu scare. Still, Mexico's terrifying narco-killing keeps reaching record levels, and the recession-racked economy, which depends inordinately on the U.S.'s economic health, may contract by almost 8% this year. Amidst it all, the PAN's good-government image has plummeted, as its leaders and elected officials seem to have traded their vision of reforming Mexico for the same political expediency they used to decry in the PRI.

"I belong to a family that traditionally votes PAN, but this party became too pragmatic," says Beatriz Jarquin, 28, a voter in the impoverished southern state of Oaxaca who voted PRI on Sunday. "These years have not given us the change we wanted." Moreover, the PAN ran an attack campaign against the PRI that recalled for many voters the ugliness of the PRI's own traditional tactics. "It was very dirty and belligerent," says Mexican pollster Federico Berrueto. "The PAN needs to go back to its origins."

But the PAN, like Mexico, may simply be experiencing the same democratic growing pains that hit Eastern Europe a decade ago. In countries such as Poland, democracy's early disappointments brought former communists back to power in the 1990s. But they couldn't bring back communism; and it's just as unlikely that the PRI, even if it does recapture the presidency three years from now, could ever revive the authoritarian monolith that once suffocated Mexico.

While Mexico's midterm malaise has definitely bruised the PAN, Calderon may still be able to salvage enough personal popularity to forestall the early onset of lame-duck status. But he has a sierra-full of voter disillusionment to overcome: this year's election may be best known for the campaign waged by democracy activists urging voters to cast blank "nulo" or "none" votes as a way to register their disgust with Mexico's politicos. After the election, Calderon asked Mexicans to "put the race behind us" and "focus all our efforts on finding common ground." But Mexicans made it clear that what they're looking for most is higher ground.