Watchers of goings-on in Mexico have long worried that the drug cartels might grow powerful enough to start buying themselves whole political parties and elections. But Sunday’s presidential election, which brought the country’s traditional political oligarchy back to power, shows that the cartels face a major contender for influence over national politics: television networks.
The telegenic young Enrique Peña Nieto easily won the election, bringing his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) back to power for the first time in twelve years. Previously, the PRI had ruled Mexico for 71 years, establishing an upper-class oligarchy in a country that until recently was composed of a very few rich people and a huge number of desperately poor ones.
One of the campaign’s dominant issues was Mr. Peña’s close relationship with Televisa, the nation’s leading television network, which has a dominant market share. When he was governor of the state surrounding Mexico City, he cultivated a close relationship with the network. An arrangement whereby the state provided Televisa with tens of millions of dollars in exchange for advertising and positive news coverage has become a topic of heated debate. It has further emerged that the producers at Televisa decided to raise Mr. Peña’s profile through a marketing strategy that has been hugely successful for the network’s soap operas: the ubiquitous telenovelas.
Vaguely evocative of a young Cary Grant, and always impeccably coiffed and polished, the dashing Mr. Peña seems less a political leader than a sex symbol: According to one poll reported in the Wall Street Journal, 88 percent of married Mexican women said they would cheat on their husbands with him.
People often say that he looks like a movie star. But he is a movie star. His image has been shaped by the country’s most successful and sophisticated media producers — and they have given him a lot of airtime. The popular mantra in Mexico is that nobody believes anything politicians say, and that was a drag on Peña’s candidacy. But the marketing strategy worked, and a lot of Mexicans like him.
Mr. Peña came in a comfortable five points ahead of his closest rival, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, leader of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD. Mexicans should be thankful for that. The last time Mr. López ran for the presidency, in 2006, he nearly won, and initially disputed the result. Calling forth a huge mob of supporters into the streets, he continued to claim the presidency for months. Since he is a friend of Hugo Chávez, that was more than a little reason to be worried. Addressing supporters Sunday night after preliminary results were announced, Mr. López was true to form: He charged that the results were constitutionally invalid given the unfair advantage in money and broadcast time enjoyed by the winner, and promised to await the official results; supporters chanted “President!” as he left the stage.
But the quiet fate of the third-place finisher speaks more loudly about what is really happening in Mexico. Josefina Vázquez Mota, of the incumbent National Action Party (PAN), came in at a desultory 25 percent; in the Congress, her party lost about a quarter of its seats in both chambers. The vertiginous fall of the party that had enjoyed ten years in power — with all the perks that entails — took many Mexicans by surprise. Even skeptical Mexicans are now wondering whether their democracy mightn’t be doing a little better than before. Perhaps political power isn’t all that it used to be when the PRI was in charge.
The PRI has not been able to escape completely from the image it created in the course of ruling Mexico for more than 70 years. The question on many people’s minds is whether today’s PRI is a new party, or merely the old guard in a new guise. A lot is riding on the question: In the words of one editorialist, “Has it returned, the old corrupt, authoritarian, undemocratic party, enamored of opacity and backroom deals; or will we see a modern, effective party capable of pushing forward the great reforms the country needs?”