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The PRI’s young contender steps into the presidential ring

October 1, 2011

Surprising no one, the early frontrunner in next year’s presidential election officially announced his candidacy live on television last week.

“To be clear, frank and open,” Enrique Peña Nieto told Televisa’s El Noticiero program, “yes I want to be president, yes I want to be the candidate of my party.”

With a commanding lead in the polls, the photogenic 45-year-old former governor of the State of Mexico is firm favorite not only to clinch the nomination of the resurgent Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), but also to win the presidential election outright. Made four days after leaving the governor’s office, his announcement confirmed the news many in Mexico had long been awaiting.

The heir apparent of the PRI must now persuade voters that his party is different from that which ruled Mexico with an iron fist for seven decades until 2000. Many commentators are sceptical as to whether the party, which was notorious for both buying and stealing votes, has really changed.

Nobel literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa once famously labelled the PRI as the “perfect dictatorship.” Peña Nieto’s main campaign strategy will be to present himself as the leader of a new generation of priístas, distinct from those of old.

His political rivals have already seized upon the PRI’s shady past as their primary line of attack.

“We are operating in the face of old school political machinery, but with a lot of money and a lot of technology,” said Manuel Camacho Solis, a leading member of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). “What we are seeing is the return of the worst of the PRI.”

While such criticisms may be valid, they do not necessarily echo opinion within the electorate. Time has softened the image of the PRI and today nearly a third of Mexican voters are aged under 30, meaning the party has not been in power since they have been eligible to vote. Many now see the PRI as a necessary change from the National Action Party (PAN) that has held power for almost 12 years.

The policies of panista presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon have left voters disillusioned, while the latter’s national security strategy has provoked an almighty surge in drug-related violence. For many Mexicans, the most pressing task facing their next president will be bringing an end to this violence that has claimed over 40,000 lives during Calderon’s term in office.

The PRI, which largely avoided such chaos by turning more of a blind eye to the activities of drug cartels, is seen by many as the party to re-establish order and stability in Mexico. Peña Nieto has said he wants to prove “that we can renew hope among Mexicans, that we can build a better nation, that we can live in a country of quiet and peace.”

Under Mexican law, presidential candidates must leave other political posts ahead of the campaign, which does not commence officially until February of the election year, when all parties have chosen their candidates.

In early September Peña Nieto delivered his sixth and final annual state address in Toluca, the capital of Mexico State where he served as governor since 2005.

“Let there be no confusion,” he told the crowd. “Mexico has a clear project, which is contained in its political Constitution. What is missing is an efficient state that can make it a reality, that will put it into practice in the daily lives of all Mexicans.”

Although not yet officially underway, Peña Nieto’s campaign already seems to have accrued strong support from the Mexican media. Not only did he choose to announce his candidacy on Televisa, Mexico’s most powerful television network, he is also married to popular soap (telenovela) actress Angelica Rivera, one of the channel’s biggest money makers.

Referencing the media giant’s widely perceived backing of Peña Nieto, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the PRD candidate who was narrowly beaten by Felipe Calderon amidst allegations of voting fraud in the 2006 presidential election, described Peña Nieto as “a meringue made by the Televisa chefs, he’s got no substance.”

This is another criticism that has been leveled at the candidate: that he is more style than substance. Peña Nieto is famed for his movie star looks and will be hoping the electorate can be seduced by a pretty face. Young, handsome and charismatic, he contrasts strongly with the older and less inspiring Francisco Labastida and Roberto Madrazo, the party’s defeated candidates in the 2000 and 2006 presidential elections, respectively.

Senate leader Manlio Fabio Beltrones, 59, is also expected to challenge for the PRI candidacy, but the younger Peña Nieto remains widely tipped to win both the party nomination and the election.

Come election time, the question on many Mexicans’ lips might not be whether this slick candidate will be president or not. The greater mystery is, once in office, if Peña Nieto will really make a break from the PRI of old, or if in fact he represents a step backwards for Mexico – a country that in many ways is still just a fragile, fledgling democracy.

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