Indeed, Sensenbrenner may actually be underestimating the danger; things could quickly get even worse than they were before the PRI was ousted from power in 2000. During the 1990s, the PRI split between what Mexicans called "technocrats" and "dinosaurs," with the former supposedly representing the modern wing of the ruling party and the latter the old guard. The last two presidents who hailed from the old ruling party, Carlos Salinas (1988-1994) and Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), held doctorates from elite U.S. universities and made an effort to present themselves as technocrats interested in economic growth and democratic procedure. In reality, malfeasance and authoritarian politics flourished during their administrations, but both men were at least endowed with a basic level of intelligence and worldly sophistication.
Peña Nieto, by contrast, is a "dinosaur" by any definition of the term. He is best known for his carefully combed hair and his soap opera actress wife. He has made it clear that he does not read books and his English is broken at best. His only training for the presidency is his six-year stint as provincial governor of the state of Mexico, a sprawling urban jungle on the outskirts of Mexico City best known for its abusive police, unfinished roads, and machine politics. Under Peña Nieto's watch, corruption, poverty, and violence all increased, according to independent civil society studies.
Peña Nieto was born and raised in a family of politicians in the city of Atlacomulco, home to one of the most powerful "camarillas," or political cliques, in the country. He is extremely close to former governor Arturo Montiel, who has been embroiled in corruption scandals. One of the most important founders of the Atlacomulco Group, Carlos Hank González, is infamous for having quickly climbed the rungs of power -- starting off as principal of an elementary school and soon becoming governor of the state of Mexico, mayor of Mexico City, and finally secretary of tourism and secretary of agriculture. He is best known for coining the aphorism "a politician who is poor is a poor politician," which Mexicans interpret as a cynical public justification for dirty politics.
In many ways, Peña Nieto has more in common with Vicente Fox than with Salinas or Zedillo. Like Peña Nieto, Fox became president after finishing up a term as governor and was not an especially deep thinker. Fox's most important attraction was his populist charisma and his macho, cowboy approach to politics. In June, the former Mexican leader publicly endorsed Peña Nieto's campaign.
Fox was unsuccessful in jumpstarting Mexico's democratic transition. He squandered his opportunity as the first opposition president after more than 70 years of PRI rule. Instead of rolling up his sleeves to transform public institutions, he took the easy route of leaving in place the vested interests of the past.
Peña Nieto could be even more of a disappointment than Fox, since he will have his hands tied from the very beginning of his term. For example, the country's roughly 20 state governors from the PRI (there are 32 states in Mexico) will enjoy unprecedented influence over the Peña Nieto administration. Twelve years without a president from the PRI to control them from above has empowered these local leaders and turned them into the de facto leaders of the party. They now rule like feudal lords without a glimmer of oversight or public responsibility, especially in those states -- including Coahuila, Mexico, Tamaulipas, and Veracruz -- where the PRI has never lost power. As former governor of the state of Mexico, Peña Nieto is a member of this group and will have to co-govern with it from the start.
Peña Nieto also owes his apparent victory to the television duopoly of TV Azteca and Televisa, which controls 95 percent of Mexico's stations and has literally fabricated his popularity out of thin air. The Guardian's recent reports of secret contracts between Peña Nieto and Mexican television companies for the purpose of promoting his image are only the tip of the iceberg. Upon arriving in office, the new president may seek to pay back this invaluable support through new laws and regulatory measures. Such a deal would also inevitably involve protection for the Peña Nieto administration from uncomfortable media oversight and accountability.