published Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

Political change in Mexico

Enrique Pena Nieto, who won Mexico's presidential election Sunday, campaigned on a pledge to restore peace and prosperity to a nation increasingly weary of drug violence and slow economic growth. His slender margin of victory and lingering worries about the turbulent role his party has played in Mexico's history, however, suggest that many of his countrymen worry about Pena Nieto's ability to honor that pledge. That is a concern, too, for the United States.

The two nations are inextricably entwined. What occurs south of the nations' shared border almost always has an impact north of it. Mexico is the United States' third largest trading partner and, for better or worse, it also is directly involved in the immigration, drug and gun issues that play a major role in U.S. politics and policies -- at both the state and federal level.

Pena Nieto faces several challenges. He must consolidate his domestic base. He won office by a smaller than expected margin. That will force him to work some of his political opponents to govern effectively -- a sometimes difficult task. Pena Nieto also will have to prove that his Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, is no longer the corrupt institution it was for much of his existence.

The PRI ruled Mexico for nearly three-quarters of a century -- its control ended with the 2000 elections -- with a mixed record. It successfully built national institutions, infrastructure and social services. It also limited the role of organized crime -- including drug dealers -- in national life. But it also was well known for heavy-handed coercion and political corruption, including, many say, stealing elections. Pena Nieto says those days are long past and that he is a representative of a new PRI, an organization with national interests, rather than self-serving aggrandizement at its core.

Whether the newly elected president's claim is correct will determine how he is accepted at home and the international role he ultimately will play. If he helps create a better, safer and less corrupt society, he'll unite his people, burnish his party's tarnished reputation and play a major role in cross-border and global affairs.

If he does not, Mexico's festering economic problems that prompt waves of people to cross into the United States illegally will continue. The power and influence of organized crime and its ability to traffic drugs likely would grow as well. That would exacerbate the already difficult U.S.-Mexican relationship.

Americans have a vested interest in Pena Nieto's presidency, but they can do little to influence its success or failure. When all is said and done, the United States must wait to see if he can honor his pledges.

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