Swine Flu: The Political Stakes for Mexico's Government — and Obama

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Ronaldo Schmidt / AFP / Getty

Mexican President Felipe Calderon listens to US President Barack Obama during a banquet in Mexico City on April 16.

The year 2000 — when Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was toppled after 71 consecutive and authoritarian years in power — is considered the moment democracy arrived south of the border. But the process started 15 years before, after a horrendous 1985 earthquake that left 10,000 dead in Mexico City. The PRI's response to that tragedy was appalling, and it sowed the opposition anger that proliferated as the jaded ruling party kept making blunders, including a disastrous 1994 peso crash. In the next presidential election, six years later, Mexico's Berlin Wall finally fell.

The swine flu epidemic gripping Mexico probably won't claim as many lives as the 1985 earthquake did. But it could still claim political victims — and this time Mexico's nascent democracy could stand to get a kick in the head instead of a shot in the arm. Even before the flu emergency hit Mexico last week, the PRI was enjoying leads of as many as 10 points in polls asking voters which party they preferred in upcoming national midterm elections on July 5. President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party (PAN), which vanquished the PRI in 2000 and again in 2006, but which is struggling now with a bloody drug war and an economic downturn, is second. The leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), which came within a half-percentage point of winning the presidency in 2006, is a distant third. If Calderon's federal government, and the Mexico City administration of PRD Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, don't contain this epidemic to Mexicans' satisfaction, the PRI may position itself this summer to regain the presidency in 2012. (See pictures of the swine flu outbreak in Mexico.)

That would be bad news for Mexico, and bad news for the U.S. The PRI came to power in 1929 by reestablishing order after the bloody chaos of the Mexican Revolution. It set up an elective dictatorship, one of the world's most corrupt, infamous for ballot-box fraud and notorious for blaming all its epic failings on Washington. The party was also as soulless as its massive, East German-style headquarters in Mexico City. It stood for little more than the cynical acquisition of power and its spoils — the manifestation of Octavio Paz's premise that Mexico is a country sadly divided between chingones (the screwers) and chingados (the screwed). The conservative PAN and liberal PRD at least have identifiable platforms. But even today, if you ask most PRI-istas to articulate their party's political philosophy, you'll get rollo, or meaningless blah-blah. (Read about why the virus seems to be deadlier in Mexico.)

Nor is there much indication that the PRI is a reformed or even chastened entity. In fact, as democracy has engendered federalism in Mexico, critics say many PRI state governors have gotten even more brazen than their 20th-century forerunners. In the impoverished southern state of Oaxaca, PRI Governor Ulises Ruiz is widely accused by opposition parties, media and labor unions of winning his 2004 election through vote fraud, of muzzling the media and violently harassing indigenous groups. Ruiz denies the charges and rejects calls by the opposition for his resignation. But he's a reminder that if the PRI were to take federal power again, Washington would most likely be dealing with a less transparent, competent and cooperative government than Calderon's. Calderon has at least led a military offensive against powerful and violent narco-cartels — in contrast to the PRI's lingering reputation for cozying up to Mexico's drug lords. (See pictures from the war on Mexico's drug lords in Juarez.)

So why is the PRI leading voter polls? Because democracy raises expectations that the PAN and PRD have yet to meet. Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, was the Lech Walesa of Mexico, a democratic hero who turned out to be a mediocre President. Calderon has pushed through some much needed economic changes like tax reform; but the drug war, which has produced more than 7,000 murders since the start of last year, has consumed much of his agenda. Almost half the population still lives in poverty, and that won't improve any time soon thanks to the U.S. economic calamity across the border. Meanwhile, the PRD shifted too far to the left for most voters' tastes.

Calderon's response to the flu epidemic has been assiduous compared to the PRI's indifference to the 1985 earthquake. Dr. Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday thanked Mexico for "being very open and transparent" with its flu case data and for providing the "kind of political support" that she said helps the WHO "get to the bottom" of the pandemic. But questions have already arisen about whether Calderon's government jumped on the crisis as rapidly and adeptly as it should have. Has the PAN, for example, done enough since 2000 to improve Mexico's threadbare public health infrastructure? It's not the kind of issue any ruling party wants to be defending two months before critical congressional elections.

Then again, that's democracy, hombre. If Mexican voters were right to oust the PRI nine years ago, who's to say they're wrong if they resuscitate the party this summer? We've seen this phenomenon before — like Walesa's Poland, where democracy's early disappointments brought former communists back to power in the 1990s. But democracy survived there, and the communist-era holdovers were forced to govern more from the center. They were defeated in the 2005 presidential election, and today the country has a center-right President, much like Calderon.

Democracy will survive in Mexico, too, even if the PRI moves back into power in three years. But the Obama Administration should do as much as it can to help keep that from happening — starting with epidemiological aid to Calderon's government. From trade to immigration to the drug war, the U.S. has much more at stake in Mexico than it has in Poland. All the more reason for Washington to make sure swine flu doesn't become Calderon's earthquake.

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