Mexico has apparently decided to turn back the clock. Widespread frustration with 12 years of uneven political progress and stunted economic growth under the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) has driven part of the Mexican electorate to desperately call the old-guard Institutional Revolutionary (PRI) back to power. Meanwhile, in a repeat of the country's last presidential race in 2006, the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) has once again finished a close second.
According to the most recent LatinBarometer study, a whopping 73 percent of the Mexican population is dissatisfied with the performance of democracy (Mexico is tied with Guatemala for last place in Latin America in this category.) Such an attitude can be healthy for political development if it pushes citizens to work on improving the political system. But it can also produce a dangerous social malaise, which is the perfect breeding ground for the retrenchment of authoritarianism.
Last November, for instance, Guatemala voted in retired General Otto Pérez Molina as its new president in a worrisome embrace of the past. Pérez Molina has been implicated by civil society groups in systematic violations of human rights during the civil war that wreaked havoc in the country between 1960 and 1996. Activists have even filed a formal report with the U.N. special rapporteur on torture accusing Pérez Molina of war crimes for his direct role in the protracted conflict, which left more than 200,000 people dead and tens of thousands "disappeared."
Mexico has now followed Guatemala's lead. Instead of trying something new and joining the "pink tide" of progressive social democratic politics that has swept through Latin American in recent years, a plurality of Mexicans has apparently succumbed to frustration and turned back to the past.
One of the clearest messages from yesterday's election is that Mexicans are fed up with sitting President Felipe Calderón. They bitterly punished the PAN's candidate, Josefina Vázquez Mota, by relegating her to a distant third place with only 25 percent of the vote. This should come as no surprise after five years of non-stop violence, with more than 50,000 violent deaths due to the failed "drug war" during the Calderón administration alone.
The economy has also performed badly. Average annual per capita growth under the two PAN administrations since 2000 -- those of Vicente Fox (2000-2006) and Calderón (2006-2012) -- has been about the same (0.9 percent) as it was during the last two decades of the previous PRI administrations (0.8 percent). Meanwhile, poverty and underemployment have significantly increased in recent years.
The surprise is not that Mexicans vote retrospectively, but that they somehow feel that the PRI can move them forward instead of backward. At 45, the PRI's Enrique Peña Nieto may have been the youngest candidate in the race, but there is no evidence that he actually represents something new. To the contrary, everything we know about him suggests that he will bring back the worst traditions of opacity, corruption, and intolerance. U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) may be right, for instance, in pointing out that a Peña Nieto victory could spell a "reversion to the PRI policies of old" based on "turning a blind eye to the [drug] cartels." Peña Nieto's public statements to the contrary in recent days are hardly believable.