Some scholars argue that the return of the PRI will not put Mexico's democracy at risk because the judicial and legislative branches have much greater independence from the executive branch today than they did 20 years ago. While it is true that these branches of government may be able to effectively hold back some authoritarian excesses on the part of the new president, Mexico needs more than just checks and balances. It urgently needs the executive branch to stop treading water and start taking firm steps toward the establishment of accountability and the rule of law. Unfortunately, no evidence suggests that Peña Nieto has the background, the personal convictions, or the political independence necessary to carry out such a challenging and important task.
Meanwhile, the leftist opposition in Mexico will continue to be strong. The PRD candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has defied almost all of the pre-election polls by coming within striking distance of Peña Nieto. López Obrador will most likely finish only five or six percentage points behind the apparent president-elect, with approximately 33 percent of the popular vote compared with approximately 38 percent for Peña Nieto. This would mean that López Obrador's vote total would surpass the 15 million mark, earning him even more support than he received in 2006, when he came within 0.58 percent of winning the presidency.
The #YoSoy132 student movement, which burst onto the scene two months ago to protest against Peña Nieto's authoritarian inclinations and dealings with media companies, will also remain strong. Indeed, the arrival of Peña Nieto may well galvanize the youth to assume an even more important role in national politics. Yesterday's enormous support for López Obrador suggests that millions of people may be willing to take to the streets to accompany the youth in their demand to democratize and assure greater plurality in the media.
If Peña Nieto is finally declared president-elect by Mexico's electoral tribunal, he will have won with the support of less than 40 percent of the voters and will almost certainly face a Congress controlled by the opposition. Mexico is therefore headed toward an historic standoff between the new dinosaurs in charge of the executive and the new institutions and movements that have accompanied the glacial progress of democracy south of the border.
It's difficult to put much faith in Peña Nieto's pledge on Sunday night to embrace a "new form of governing that responds to the demands of Mexico in the 21st century" rather than return "to the past." The good news, though, is that Mexico's emboldened political opposition just might keep this dinosaur true to his word.