What if they held an election and nobody came? That’s more or less what happened last Sunday in Mexico, at least as far as most American journalists (including me) are concerned.
That’s a vivid contrast with the last three presidential elections in Mexico, which had enormous consequences for that country and for the United States. I happened to be in Mexico on vacation in the spring of 1994, when Luis Donaldo Colosio, the candidate of the ruling PRI party, was assassinated. I listened to the radio broadcast as Ernesto Zedillo, speaking shakily, accepted the party’s nomination to succeed him. As with every PRI candidate since 1929, he won the election.
In 2000, I was in Mexico to cover the election in which Vicente Fox, candidate of the center-right PAN party, was elected — the first opposition victory in 71 years. I was there as the PAN crowd was celebrating at the Angel of Independence statue on the Paseo de la Reforma. As they jumped up and down in rhythm to a classic Mexican song, I felt the earth move — it turns out that the boulevard is built on spongy fill land that vibrates under stress.
And in 2006, I was in Mexico City as PAN candidate Felipe Calderón beat the left-wing mayor of Mexico City, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, by 1 percentage point. AMLO’s followers protested the result for months, occupying the Reforma Boulevard and separating the capital in two. These elections effectively ended the one-party rule of the PRI, whose very name — the party of the institutional revolution — suggested its peculiar nature.
The PRI was established in 1929, after two decades of revolutionary violence. Each Mexican president would serve for a single six-year term, and in the last year would pick his successor — put his finger, or dedazo, on him — who would be nominated by the PRI. After a campaign of elaborate ceremony around the country, he would be routinely elected. Bad things would tend to happen in each president’s sixth year, or sexenio, and after he left office he would be reviled and in many cases would leave the country altogether.
The PRI system appealed to an Aztec sensibility, containing as it did elements of elaborate ceremony, calendrical regularity, and (in the expulsion of the former president) human sacrifice. For about 35 years, the PRI system worked tolerably well. Mexico’s economy grew, and its centralized institutions — the government-owned Pemex oil monopoly, the favored Televisa broadcasting network — accommodated themselves to one handpicked president after another. From 1968, when soldiers massacred several hundred protesting students in the weeks before the Mexico City Olympics, it worked less well. Carlos Salinas, the winner in 1988 in an election many considered fraudulent, saw that the system had to be changed.
Salinas negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement and ordered Televisa to conduct an exit poll to validate the next election. He nonetheless handpicked Colosio and then Zedillo to succeed him. Zedillo declined to exercise the dedazo, and on election night in 2000, when the PRI candidate claimed fraud, went on television and said, “I recognize that Vicente Fox is the next president of Mexico.” That was the end of 71 years of one-party rule.
Six years later, Mexico narrowly avoided a victory by the leftist López Obrador, which would have undoubtedly held back its economy. Now it has better economic growth than the United States, and as former foreign secretary Jorge Castañeda points out, it’s a majority middle-class country.
And one with something like a normal politics. The winner in Sunday’s election was PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, who got 38 percent of the vote, to 32 percent for AMLO and 25 percent for PAN’s Josefina Vázquez Mota.
Peña will not bring back the old PRI system. He won based on his record as governor of the state of Mexico and his fame as the husband of a telenovela actress. He has promised to get rid of the law prohibiting Pemex from making contracts with private oil-service firms, one of the hallmarks of the old PRI system. It’s not clear whether he’ll keep that promise, or whether he’ll continue Calderón’s aggressive fight against drug traffickers. As for immigration, it appears that the flow of Mexicans to the U.S. has been reversed since 2007.
What is clear is that Mexico has become a neighbor much easier to live with.