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Mexico's Election: Why It Matters to the U.S.

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Enrique Peña Nieto
Enrique Peña Nieto during his final campaign rally in Monterrey City, Mexico.
Daniel Aguilar/Getty Images

On Sunday, Mexico's 80 million voters head to the polls, where, barring a major upset, they’ll elect as president Enrique Peña Nieto, a telegenic former governor from the once-dominant (and notoriously corrupt) Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, who promises to unleash the economy and scale back the country’s horror-show drug war.

Most Americans won’t take much notice, but maybe they should; what happens in Mexico doesn’t stay in Mexico – it has a big impact, for better or worse, on the United States, and not only because millions of Mexicans live here, legally and otherwise. Mexico is the U.S.’s third-largest trading partner and second-largest export market, and the go-to supplier for its multi-billion-dollar drug habit. It’s hard to think of a country that affects the United States as much, day to day.

"The election in Mexico is extremely important to the United States because Mexico is an extremely important country for the United States," is how Robert Pastor, a Latin America expert at American University, sums it up.

Given all that, it’s worth asking – who is Enrique Peña Nieto, and what’s he going to do?

First, the drug war. In early 2007, President Felipe Calderón sent the Mexican army in to wipe out the drug cartels. Five years later, the cartels are as strong as ever; in fact, they're arguably even more violent, since the crackdown has shattered them into numerous warring factions. Meanwhile, wide swathes of Mexico have been turned into bloody hellscapes, complete with headless bodies and corpses swinging from bridges; 50,000 people (and counting) have been slaughtered, many of them innocents with no connection to the narcotics trade.

Peña Nieto has said he’ll focus on reducing violence, by pulling back the army and directing a strengthened police force to fight crimes that specifically affect civilians, like kidnappings, extortion and shootings. Does that mean Peña Nieto might be willing to cut deals with the narco-traffickers, agreeing to back off as the price of peace – just like his party, the PRI, did in the past? Possibly. But to plenty of traumatized Mexicans, that doesn’t sound like a bad bargain. 

"With the PRI, you have lots of dishonesty, lots of stealing," a rancher in Tampico in eastern Mexico recently told a Washington Post reporter. "But when I was driving to my ranch under the PRI, I didn’t see bodies without heads. Now I do. How many restaurants have closed? Stores, warehouses, businesses gone?"

But Peña Nieto might not be able to scale back the drug war even if he wants to. One reason is that the Mexican police are in many places in cahoots with the drug traffickers, making them unreliable as keepers of the peace. Moreover, the splintering of the narco-gangs will make it harder to negotiate, and certainly to get any deal to stick. "I don’t foresee too many changes," says Carlos Elizondo, a top Mexican economist and former ambassador to the OECD.

That would suit Washington just fine. The United States backed Calderón’s guns-blazing strategy from the start, and kicked in $1.6 billion to help out. Never mind that the militarized approach has so obviously failed; political players from President Obama on down want to keep at it. "Mr. Nieto does not emphasize stopping drug shipments or capturing kingpins" said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security at a recent congressional hearing. "He recently [said] that, while Mexico would continue to work with the United States, it should not 'subordinate to the strategies of other countries.' This sounds like a reversion to the PRI policies of old."

Another strike against the PRI, from Washington's perspective, is that the party has historically been less friendly to the U.S. than has the National Action Party, which has ruled Mexico for the past 12 years. As Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs and a respected academic, said at a recent event at the Council on Foreign Relations, there are many people in the PRI and in Peña Nieto's team who "think that the best foreign policy for Mexico in relation to the United States is for practical purposes, no foreign policy."

But is a vote for Peña Nieto  a vote to take Mexico backwards? It's a question Mexicans are grappling with – whether Peña Nieto embodies a "new," cleaned-up PRI? Or is he just a fresh face on the same corrupt, authoritarian party that ran Mexico from 1929 to 2000, when the country had its first genuinely democratic election? Nobody seems to know for sure, but fear of a return to the "old PRI" is strong enough that it recently brought thousands of student protesters onto the streets in Mexico City and other parts of the country.

Though reasonably successful as governor of the state of Mexico, Peña Nieto, with his pretty-boy looks and soap-opera star wife, has been dismissed as a "lightweight" – an image he did nothing to dispel when, at a book fair last year, he was asked to name three books that had influenced him and couldn't name a single one, eventually blurting out that he'd read "parts" of the Bible. Many Mexicans see him as a marionette whose strings are pulled not only by the bad old PRI but by Televisa, Mexico's largest TV network. Still, he has run a strong enough campaign to keep his opponents, the leftist Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador and Josefina Vázquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party, at bay by at least 10 points.

The centerpiece of Peña Nieto’s economic policy is a plan to open the state-owned oil monopoly, Pemex, to foreign investment and cooperation. Pemex is an clumsy giant that needs access to the expertise and technology of non-Mexican companies to reach the estimated 30 billion barrels of hard-to-get crude oil resting under the Gulf of Mexico. (The Mexican constitution bars foreigners from participating in the oil business.) The Mexican economy has been expanding slowly but steadily, at a rate of about 3 percent, over the past few years, creating a prosperous and growing middle class. Not bad, especially during a global downturn, but far below its potential. If Peña Nieto can pass the necessary reforms to open up Pemex to private investment, "there could be an injection of several billion dollars to Mexico in investment and greater growth in GDP," Elizondo predicts. Given the close commercial ties between the U.S. and Mexico, that could translate to economic gains north of the border, too.

As for immigration? According to Elizondo, "A Mexican economy that enters a spiral of growth will create a greater capacity to bring back Mexicans living here [in the U.S. to Mexico] and to stop Mexicans living in Mexico from leaving – and that would take pressure off of one of the most conflictive topics in the Mexico-U.S. relationship." A strong Mexican economy may have already helped push net illegal migration of Mexicans to the U.S. to zero, though a weak U.S. economy played its part, too.

That all sounds great. But it’s not at all clear that Peña Nieto can actually get any of it done. As in the U.S., the Mexican president has to work with congress to pass legislation. It’s possible, though not likely, that the PRI will win a majority in both houses on Sunday. Shannon O’Neil, of the Council on Foreign Relations, says this would give him some space to push through changes and reforms Mexico needs to become more competitive globally, and to improve the well-being of its citizens, which in turn could boost the United States. "A thriving Mexico could boost trade," which already supports some 6 million U.S. jobs.

Then again, Mexicans – and Americans – ought to be careful what they wish for. "Peña’s victory per se doesn’t worry me," says Elizondo. "Peña’s victory with a majority in both houses does." He worries about a "worst-case scenario" where the PRI begins to dismantle the checks and balances that were built in the last few years. "They will have the possibility to remove everything they don’t like," he says.

Castañeda, the former diplomat, takes a different view. Mexico is much more democratic than it was in the bad old days, and its insititutions much more robust, he said at the CFR event. "They can't do what they used to do, even if they wanted to do it – because of the opposition, because of the media, because of the United States, because of civil society. I think there are enough limits for there not to be a restoration."

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