The Return of the Mexican Dinosaur

Mexico's pretty-boy president is more dangerous than he looks.

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.

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.

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.



Reach Out to Morsy

Egypt's new president may be no moderate, but he deserves a chance to prove he's no enemy.

Egypt's new president, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsy, is not a man after my own heart. He represents a movement that seeks to apply religious norms to a secular state -- even as he vows to represent all people, including Coptic Christians and liberals. Clearly, at some point in the near future, he will face the necessary conflicts between liberty and human rights on the one hand and his religious precepts on the other, and we cannot know how he will resolve them. His values are extremely remote from Western-liberal values: Americans will take no comfort in the fact that he devoted part of a major address in Tahrir Square to seeking the release of the fundamentalist sheikh who planned the 1993 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers.

His statements regarding Israel are very harsh. His first active role in the Brotherhood was in an anti-Zionist movement within its ranks, he objected to the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, and he insinuates that he will not continue the "cold peace" that existed under his predecessor, President Hosni Mubarak. He talks about Israel's alleged failure to comply with its part of the agreement, and maintains that Egypt will only comply with its obligations if Israel does the same. Even if he does not move forward with the foolish idea of submitting the 1979 peace agreement to a referendum, it appears that he will make great efforts to justify its deterioration.

And yet, since June 30, Morsy has held the most important position in the Middle East. Even if Egypt's generals have limited his powers, he is still the leader of the largest Arab state in the world. He has a powerful bully pulpit, and his decisions will influence the future of the Middle East -- and the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even if the generals in Cairo would prefer they didn't. Any attempts to punish Morsy -- to isolate him or attempt to push Egypt to the point where voters are convinced that his election was a colossal failure -- would be a serious mistake.

The world should honor its promises -- both financial and political -- to Morsy's Egypt. Withholding U.S. aid from Morsy is tantamount to withholding aid from Egypt and there is no reason to harm the Egyptian people, who suffer from no small degree of poverty and social disparities. The withholding of aid will only exacerbate Egyptian hostility to the West and strengthen anyone who argues that Morsy failed in his position as a result of the cessation of aid.

Setting Morsy up for failure will not set up the United States or Israel for success in the Middle East. A failure in running the country -- even if it is fairly predictable, in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood -- does not mean that the next time, the Egyptian masses will shift their vote to a more accommodating candidate. Take the Israeli boycott of Hamas in the Gaza Strip: Even though the Islamist movement has unambiguously failed to make life better for the average Gazan, the people have been persuaded that it was the Israelis who are the culprit for these failures, not Hamas.

Morsy came into office as a total surprise to the world. We do not know exactly what he will do as the leader of this large, destitute, and afflicted country, and I believe even Morsy himself does not know the answers to these questions. The dilemmas he faces are daunting: He has committed himself to saving the country's collapsing economy, rolling back the influence of the powerful military establishment, and reconciling the Muslim Brotherhood's lofty religious slogans with the practicalities of running the country.

In addition, he has nobody to learn from. Anyone who believes that the Muslim Brotherhood is keeping the Turkish model in mind as it embarks on this experiment in governance does not understand the depths of hostility it bears the legacy of the Turkish Republic's founder, Ataturk. Recall the episode when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan explained in Cairo that Egyptians should not fear secularism -- the Muslim Brotherhood reacted indignantly, criticizing the premier for interference in Egyptian affairs.

As far as Israel is concerned, Morsy's election presents an extremely complex situation. The Muslim Brotherhood's hostility toward us is deep and harsh. I would not suggest that we offer the Egyptians a great big bear hug, because it would be rejected immediately. But there is one way the Israeli government could pave the road to better relations with Cairo: In his speeches, Morsy makes a connection between the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and the poor relations between Israel and Egypt. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may not be prepared to pay the price to conclude a permanent status agreement, but he could conduct a dialogue with the Palestinians on agreements that would lead to that result.

The Israeli government could also suggest to Egypt's new president that he host talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. This would give the Egyptians the possibility of being involved in the resolution of the conflict, and it would develop an important channel between Israel and Morsy's government. The very act of making the offer would be a positive step: Instead of the Israelis making do with listening to Morsy's speeches -- with a great deal of discomfort -- it would be possible to set him a challenge and judge his intentions. And if Morsy accepts the challenge, then good would come out of it for everyone.

This is the moment to reach out a hand to Morsy and to offer him whatever help is possible. If he disappoints, the outstretched hand can be taken back. However, if there is no outstretched hand in the first place, Egypt's resentment against the United States, Israel, and the West as a whole will be further deepened. Egypt is very important to the Western world, and now, more than ever, the West can prove how vital it is to the new leaders of the land of the Nile.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images