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Mexico elects PRI's Enrique Pena Nieto president: What's next for Mexican-US relations?

by Dava Castillo Wednesday, Jul. 04, 2012 at 1:15 AM

With more than 80 percent of the votes counted from Sunday's elections, Mexico's federal election institute put Pena Nieto of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party in the lead, winning 37 percent of the country's votes. Leftist candidate Andres Lopez Obrador gained 32 percent of the votes, and ruling party candidate Josefina Vasquez Mota trailed with 25 percent.

Mexico elects PRI's ...
93437821-mexico-president.jpg, image/jpeg, 609x480

With more than 80 percent of the votes counted from Sunday's elections, Mexico's federal election institute put Pena Nieto of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party in the lead, winning 37 percent of the country's votes. Leftist candidate Andres Lopez Obrador gained 32 percent of the votes, and ruling party candidate Josefina Vasquez Mota trailed with 25 percent.

There are concerns, however, that Pena Nieto's PRI party will fail to secure a clear majority in Congress, limiting his ability to carry out reforms.

"The concern is that (the opposition party) will effectively retaliate for the next six years if the PRI hasn't got the majority in Congress this time around," said David Rees, emerging markets economist at Capital Economics in London said in a report to Reuters.

Mexico growth and oil interests

Pena Nieto aims to lift growth to 6 percent a year by making labor markets more flexible, boosting tax revenues and allowing more private companies to enter the oil industry. But is this move what Mexicans want? Privatization of Mexico’s oil resources has been controversial since 2008, and if Pena Nieto plans to invite international private investment interests into Mexico, his opponent Andres Manual Lopez Obrador will be leading the nation against privatization and with it anti-American sentiment.

In 2008, thousands of Mexican shouted “No to robbery!” in a nationwide demonstration against President Felipe Calderon’s effort to open the state to oil monopoly and private investment.

Organizers said at the time they were ready to seize oil wells in Mexico, the third-biggest supplier of petroleum to the United States after Saudi Arabia and Canada, but were only convening rallies. Opposition lawmakers were staging sit-in protests in the Mexican Congress to prevent debate on Calderón's bill.

"We cannot accept or allow . . . a small group of people to take the inheritance of all Mexicans for themselves," protest leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador told tens of thousands of people gathered Mexico City's main Zócalo plaza in 2008.

Obrador might have lost this election, but his voice will not be silenced as he no doubt will continue to advocate for preserving Mexico’s resources for the Mexican people, not relinquish them to private foreign- owned investors that includes the United States. There could be a repeat of 2008 with mass demonstrations and political unrest if Nieto proceeds with privatization.

State-owned Petroleos Mexicanos, known as Pemex, has controlled the oil industry since Mexico nationalized all private oil companies in 1938.

Opponents fear that if U.S. companies get a foothold in the Mexican oil industry, the U.S. government could tamper in Mexican affairs or even take military action to protect their interests, which is farfetched but nonetheless a fear that is real to some.

PRI and the Middle Class

With nearly half the Mexican population living in poverty, the economy was one of the main issues in the campaign, while unemployment remains low at 4.5 percent. There is a huge gap between the rich and poor, but the rising middle class is a block of voters who want to maintain their economic status and felt Peno Nieto and the return of the PRI was the best choice, although Nieto’s win was only 5 percentage points over the leftist Obrador.

In the past the PRI Party has been fraught with deceit and violence. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) controlled Mexican government for 71 years, from 1929 to 2000. The party is characterized by political patronage, violence, fraud and undemocratic hand picking of successors. Their politicians often looked the other way with drug smuggling.

Mexicans have lived 12 years under National Action, and the party is widely blamed for a sluggish economy and tens of thousands of deaths in a militarized war on drug-trafficking gangs.

"The middle class is the big prize for the candidates," said Oscar de los Reyes, professor at the Monterrey Technological Institute. "When the government does not solve their problems, they want change, but not ideological change, what they want is change so that they can maintain their status."

Pena Nieto had been presented as the new face of the PRI, a break with the party's long and at times fraudulent past that included links with drug gangs.

Pena Nieto built his reputation on the "pledges" he set out for his governorship in Mexico state, focusing on public works and improvement of infrastructure.

Pena Nieto has vowed to address drug war violence while letting salaries rise and ensuring medicine is available to all, though he has been short on specifics. He has made “change” a watchword of his campaign. Like many presidents, he will rely on a congenial congress to push through his reforms.

Analysts cite the "middle class" as largely a state of mind in Mexico, a nation of 112 million people that is home to the world's richest man and to tens of millions who still struggle to find enough to eat.

Some define middle class there to cover people making more than a day. Others say it applies to people who have cars, cable TV and some education. Whatever it is, many Mexicans believe they are part of it.

"I am convinced that Mexico today is mostly a middle class country, but this doesn't mean that there are no poor people," said Luis de la Calle, an economist and former commerce undersecretary. "If they consider themselves to be middle class, well, who are we to tell them they're not? Being middle class is a question of attitude,” in an AP report.

Mexico/US policies

As Mexico’s Pena Nieto begins his presidential term, political watchers will be evaluating his policies. If he does not have the support of a PRI majority in Congress, his policies could face opposition particularly with the move to privatize oil interests. While campaigning, Nieto said his top security priority will not be arresting the leaders of the organizations that move hundreds of millions of dollars of narcotics each year into the United States. Instead, he and his advisers say, they will focus the government’s resources on reducing homicide, kidnapping and extortion — the crimes that do the most damage to the greatest number of Mexicans — by flooding police and troops into towns and cities with the highest rates of violent crime.

“This doesn’t mean that we don’t pay attention to other crimes, or that we don’t fight drug-trafficking, but the central theme at this time is diminishing violence in the country,” Pena Nieto told Associated Press in a recent interview reported in the Mexican newspaper Tu Decides Media.

With Mexico’s election, the U.S. is aware of the close ties binding Mexico with the U.S.. The countries share billions of dollars in trade and a border of 2,000 miles. Millions of U.S. citizens travel to Mexico every year, and likewise millions of Mexicans come here, both legally and illegally, to live in the United States.

"Almost no other country affects the United States as much on a day to day basis as Mexico," said Shannon O'Neil, a Latin American studies fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in a CNN report.

"What happens in Mexico is hugely important for the United States."

For nearly six years, a brutal drug war in Mexico with a staggering death toll of more than 47,500 people has dominated discussions between the two countries and will continue to be a concern as the new president attempts to change the trajectory of Mexico’s foreign and domestic policies.

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