Analysis: Young face promises new dawn for old Mexican party
MEXICO CITY |
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - In his campaign to be Mexico's next president, Enrique Pena Nieto has struggled to name a single book he has read, upset some women with a sexist remark and had to admit he fathered two children outside marriage.
But none of that has seriously threatened his hopes of winning the election on July 1.
The telegenic Pena Nieto carries the hopes of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century until it lost power in 2000.
Six years ago, it suffered its worst ever election defeat and many wondered then whether it would even survive.
Instead, the party has regrouped behind the 45-year-old Pena Nieto and capitalized on discontent with the conservative ruling party to present itself as the only solution to Mexico's troubles.
Pena Nieto, a former governor of the State of Mexico near the capital, has a big lead in opinion polls and analysts say only a major scandal could derail him in the election campaign that formally starts on Friday.
"All Pena Nieto needs to do is go on holiday to Hawaii, come back, vote, and he's in," said Javier Oliva, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "He just has to avoid making mistakes."
The former law student, who has led polls for the presidential race for over two years, has already made a series of gaffes in the past four months. But he has so far survived them without seeing a significant drop in support.
Critics poured scorn on him when, speaking at a book fair in December, he fumbled a question to name any books that had influenced him. After stumbling badly, he finally managed to identify two -- the Bible and a novel by disgraced British author and politician Jeffrey Archer.
Soon after, Pena Nieto got the minimum wage wrong and upset some female voters by telling an interviewer "I'm not the woman of the house" when asked the price of corn tortillas, a staple of the Mexican diet.
Then in January, he admitted he had cheated on his first wife and fathered two children with other women. That wife later died.
Despite the blunders, polls on Monday showed Pena Nieto holding a lead of between 17 and 19 percentage points over Josefina Vazquez Mota, the candidate of President Felipe Calderon's conservative National Action Party, or PAN.
Political analyst Jorge Zepeda said Pena Nieto had benefited in part from a recovery in the PRI's stock. And the prevalence of "macho" attitudes in Latin cultures like Mexico means that womanizing is often not damaging to a politician, he added.
"There's a tendency not to punish successful men for having several women," he said. "It can be seen as a sign of success."
When it ousted the PRI in 2000, hopes were high that the PAN could deliver on its promises to end the corruption and authoritarian rule of its forerunner.
There have been some advances but Mexico has lagged regional peers in economic growth, drug gang violence has soared and the PAN failed to push many of its main reform proposals through Congress.
Calderon vowed to tackle poverty and bring violent drug gangs to heel when he took office in December 2006.
Instead, the number of Mexicans living on 2,100 pesos ($170) a month or less leapt by more than 12 million to almost 58 million between 2006 and 2010. And the drug war intensified, claiming 50,000 lives in the last five years.
The PRI have seized on these statistics, insisting that Mexico is worse off under the PAN.
The ruling party counters by saying a PRI government would be a return to the economic crises, corruption and mismanagement that marred the last decades of its rule.
However, because about a quarter of Mexico's 80 million voters were still minors when the PRI was last in power, and many others barely out of their teens, these attacks are unlikely to pay off, said Ulises Beltran of polling firm BGC.
"It's a message that lacks content," he said.
Many young voters have seen enough of the PAN - and are susceptible to PRI claims to being Mexico's natural rulers.
"It's unemployment that's generating the violence. At least in the days of the PRI, everyone had food to eat. Now they don't," said Juan Olivares, a 23-year-old selling orange juice in Ecatepec, a large town in the State of Mexico.
The PRI party leadership has tried to sell Pena Nieto as a successor to Luis Donaldo Colosio, a presidential candidate who became celebrated as an outsider with a bold vision for the poor and the downtrodden after his assassination on the campaign trail in 1994.
That message has borne fruit in some quarters.
"I've never voted in Mexico. But I would have voted for Colosio," said Gustavo, 52, an ex-convict in Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood. "Pena Nieto has something of what he had."
But critics charge that the impeccably turned out Pena Nieto is a creation of Mexico's dominant television company Televisa, where his second wife was under contract as a soap opera star.
Leftist rival Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who narrowly lost to Calderon in the 2006 election, last year described Pena Nieto as a "meringue" cooked up by the broadcaster.
Though many Mexicans voice misgivings about a comeback by the PRI, they are even less enthusiastic about Lopez Obrador, who alienated voters by staging massive, disruptive protests in the capital after his loss to Calderon in 2006.
"I don't believe in any of the candidates. They're all the same," said Jessica Cruz, 27, a Mexico City architect. "Why do I want to vote for a president that's going to steal my money?"
Disenchantment with the choice on offer could result in a low turnout - another factor which tends to favor the PRI.
With 20 of the country's 31 state governments under its control, the PRI has the biggest organizational structure, helping the party to get its vote out on polling day.
If he wins, Pena Nieto is likely to have more scope to ring changes, especially if the PRI can add to the plurality of seats it won in the lower house of Congress in 2009.
That congressional victory also gives the PRI a bigger campaign advertising budget thanks to new rules which allocate funds according to the party's last share of the national vote.
Pena Nieto's campaign chief said he would seek quick reforms if elected, including a shake-up of the state-owned oil industry, new tribunals to resolve competition disputes and measures to increase bank lending.
By contrast, Vazquez Mota's campaign is struggling to gain traction and her proposals lack ambition, said Federico Estevez, a political scientist at Mexico's private ITAM University.
"It looks like they're going for third place at the moment," he said. "She hasn't offered anything."
(Additional reporting by Ioan Grillo; Editing by Kieran Murray)
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