To his supporters, Enrique Pena Nieto is the telegenic pragmatist to lead modern Mexico; to his detractors, he is a pretty-boy vesicle through which the country will be carried back to dictatorship.
The former governor of Mexico State, the country’s most populous region, Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) are leading the polls for Mexico’s July 1 presidential election.
“The PRI bills Pena Nieto as representing a younger, fresher, and more modern party adapted to the new political realities of a democratic Mexico,” notes a 2009 WikiLeaks cable from the US embassy in Mexico City. “Nevertheless, the governor hardly appears to be cut from a new cloth.”
The PRI ruled Mexico for more than 70 years, ending with the election of the National Action Party (PAN) in 2000, which governs the country today. During its tenure, the PRI was constantly accused of cronyism, vote-rigging, corruption and human rights abuses, including the 1968 massacre of students in Mexico City.
“China and India are opportunities; the US is our reality.”
– Enrique Pena Nieto
“Pena Nieto is not known for transparency when it comes to his friends and allies,” the US embassy noted in WikiLeaks cables. “He helped shield former PRI Mexico State Governor Arturo Montiel Rojas from prosecution for corruption charges early on in his tenure.”
Known as el gober (“the guv”), Nieto, 45, has invested heavily in public works across Mexico State, which he has governed since 2005. Funding for Mexico State’s human rights commission seemed to increase during Nieto’s tenure, according to WikiLeaks, which could signify his desire to reduce impunity.
When his former wife died in 2007, Nieto was considered one of Mexico’s most eligible bachelors. Crowds of swooning women, followed by TV cameras, attended his public events chanting: Pena Nieto, bombon, te quiero en mi colchón (“Pena Nieto, honey, I want you in my bed”).
He has since remarried a soap opera star, in a twist of fate which itself could be the plot of a day-time drama.
During his time as state governor and – according to PRI officials – as president in waiting, Nieto actively courted the US through an international trade department in his state, reportedly saying: “China and India are opportunities; the US is our reality.”
Drug war dilemma
In the campaign, however, he has taken a slightly different tack, particularly regarding the drug war, which has killed more than 50,000 Mexicans since 2006.
He has tried to walk a fine line between appeasing Washington hawks who want Mexico to aggressively target cartel kingpins, and voters who believe Mexico is paying an unfair price for US drug consumption.
Mexico should not “subordinate to the strategies of other countries”, Nieto has said, likely referring to the US.
“The task of the state, what should be its priority from my point of view, and what I have called for in this campaign, is to reduce the levels of violence,” he recently told the New York Times.
One of the reasons for the PRI’s polling dominance is linked to their past policies regarding social stability.
“There will be special support for small, medium and large companies,” Eduardo Sanchez, a spokesman for Nieto’s campaign, told Al Jazeera. “Eighty per cent of the jobs come from businesses. The PRI is focused on results.”
During its heyday, the PRI was able to maintain dominance by building what some analysts call a “big tent” including most labour unions, farmers groups, business associations and – according to some – drug cartels.
Some Mexicans believe the PRI and cartels had an unwritten agreement or pact, in which territories were divided between various factions and drug dealers sent payments to local politicians in return for free rein in their areas of influence.
While some might hope for a return to a pact with cartels if it means reducing violence, many analysts are not sure this is possible or advisable. “You can’t go back to the pre-2000 era when the PRI had power and the pact narcotic put unwritten agreements and certain rules in place,” Sanho Tree, a drug policy expert, told Al Jazeera. “They won’t be able to find that equilibrium again; that is what these turf wars are about.”
Recently, Nieto has come under fire from students for his links to powerful media companies.
“It is widely accepted… that television monopoly Televisa backs the governor [Nieto] and provides him with an extraordinary amount of airtime and other coverage,” WikiLeaks reported in 2009.
Recently, the Guardian alleged that Nieto’s campaign had paid Televisa, Mexico’s largest news broadcaster, for favourable coverage. The TV network has vehemently denied the allegations, demanding a public apology from the newspaper.
Despite critiques from students and some anti-corruption activists, Nieto looks set to win the presidency on his good looks and reasonably competent record as governor. “A number of factors contributed to the PRI’s electoral success in Mexico State,” WikiLeaks noted in 2009, “including the PRD’s constant infighting and the PAN’s unlucky affliction with a struggling economy.” A comparable set of problems now seems to be plaguing other parties in national elections, contributing to the resurgence of the PRI and its telegenic front man.
Additional reporting from Elizabeth Melimopoulos.