Adapted from the broadcast audio segment; use the audio player to listen to the story in its entirety.
Enrique Peña Nieto is the new, telegenic face of Mexico’s oldest political party, the PRI, or the Institutional Revolutionary Party. The PRI has been governing several Mexican states non-stop for 83 consecutive years.
“I am a PRI-ista first because I was born into a PRI-ista family and after that because of my convictions. I think it’s been a party that has assumed a new political role at a new time in our history,” says Pena Nieto.
Peña Nieto was raised in the town of Atalcomulco, home to his family, a political dynasty known as the Atlacomulco Group. For more than 60 years, all of the governors of the State of Mexico and the mayors of Atlacomulco have belonged to this powerful family.
In a famous local restaurant, Rosendo Colin stands at the grill marinating roasted chickens in chili sauce and pineapple juice. Like the vast majority of the 85,000 people living in Atalcomulco, he always votes for the PRI.
“Here we can say there is law and order, compared to neighboring states where drug violence dominates local and state governments. Not here. Criminals here respect the law and those who uphold it,” says Colin.
The PRI oversees pretty much everything in the State of Mexico – from the criminal justice system to vast outdoor markets.
The party decides the prices for all merchandise sold at the outdoor markets, including fresh fruits and vegetables, used shoes and clothing, bicycle parts and pirated CDs and DVDs.
One of the venders is Florencio Cadiz, a frail indigenous man who earns a meager living selling the plums he grows and scraps of firewood.
“My home is made of adobe, has just one room and a small kitchen. Counting my elderly father, seven of us live there. The floor is made of dirt and the walls are made out of laminated cardboard. I have two donkeys and with them I work my small plot of land. One is called Dolly and the other is Canelo,” says Cadiz.
Critics say under the PRI such abject poverty has existed here for decades. Instead of complaining, Florencio Cadiz sings the party’s praises.
“We campesinos love the PRI because they help us. Before the election they gave me four large sacks of fertilizer for my cornfield so that it grows better. It’s the kind of help that they’ve given us,” says Cadiz.
In the 1940s, a local soothsayer famously predicted that the town of Atlacomulco would produce six governors in the State of Mexico, which it has done and one man who would become the President.
That part of the prediction came true this year. As Enrique Peña Nieto prepares to take the oath of office on December 1st, there are widespread allegations that the PRI bought millions of votes, and rigged the July presidential election in its favor.
“I think those kinds of practices [are] very much part of the past [and have] no place in Mexico’s new political culture. I will apply the law to anyone who failed to comply with election laws,” says Pena Nieto.
Still, many Mexicans believe Peña Nieto belongs to an old branch of the PRI, known as the “dinosaurs,” a group that is reasserting its hold on power.
That is what is behind protests taking place across the country in recent weeks. Millions of Mexicans are worried about the health of their nation’s democracy.
“There have been scandals such as giving out grocery cards, giving out pre-paid bank cards in return for voting for the PRI. What people are saying is, ‘We see fraud and we’re not willing to accept it,’” says Laura Carlsen, an independent political analyst, who’s been living in Mexico for 25 years. She and many others believe the PRI is more interested in holding onto power than fortifying democracy here.
“When I first got here, elections themselves were a farce, and everybody knew it. You went to vote and there were all kinds of strategies in order to make sure that the ruling party won. So when people finally established a right to vote, it was a major achievement for Mexico. They are really concerned that they’re going to lose that again,” says Carlsen.
A recent poll shows that 73 percent of Mexicans believe their democracy is failing. At least a third of the population believes the recent election was tainted by fraud.
Observers are keeping their eye on a growing citizens’ movement led by middle-class university students. It aims to closely monitor the incoming PRI government, making certain Mexico does not lose ground on its recently won democratic gains.
It’s not just Mexico’s youth who are vocalizing their disapproval of the PRI. The protestors are people of all ages and walks of life, including 70-year-old Alicia Roman.
“It’s just terrible and getting worse with these corrupt governments. They are selling away the country,” says Roman.
When historians look back on the PRI’s authoritarian past they turn to two powerful examples.
First and foremost, the 1968 government-ordered massacre of student democracy protestors. That event was Mexico’s own version of Tiananmen Square.
It happened on October 2, 1968, with the country just days away from hosting the Summer Olympics. Army troops opened fire on student demonstrators. Hundreds were killed. The bloodshed has remained a stain on the nation’s conscience.
Mexicans recall another example of the PRI’s anti-democratic practices that happened during the 1988 presidential elections. The party’s candidate then was Carlos Salinas de Gotari.
“The PRI wants clean, transparent elections under the law,” said Gotari in 1988.
On Election Day that year, analyst Laura Carlsen says it looked like for the first time ever, the PRI could lose the presidency.
“At that point, they came out and said the computer system responsible for counting the votes had crashed. The next thing we knew, there was an announcement that Salinas had won the election,” says Carlsen.
Mexico has changed dramatically since then. New electoral laws have been created to make elections more transparent. Since 1997, the PRI lost control of the Congress, undermining the once almighty presidency. But weak institutions such as local, state and federal police still prevent many Mexicans from enjoying the protections of their fledgling democracy.
Margarita Lopez walks alone in the streets of the Mexican capitol. She is the mother of 19-year-old Yahirah Lopez, one of tens of thousands of Mexicans who have gone missing during President Felipe Calderon’s war on drugs.
“My daughter was taken from her home by a group of armed men. I know exactly how many days she has been missing. I have been searching for her everywhere,” says Ms. Lopez. To this day the case remains unsolved.
Mexico’s next leader, Enrique Peña Nieto, promises to find solutions to such grave problems of injustice.
“Mexico has changed and has had a democratic change that without a doubt has fortified democratic values. Now we have new generations who have been raised in a new democratic culture, prepared for political competition,” says Pena Nieto.
Margarita Lopez says seeing others deal with their pain only intensifies her desire for justice in the case of her own missing daughter.
“I do not believe what I’ve been told – that my daughter’s head was cut off, that my daughter was tortured and raped before being assassinated. I still have the hope of finding her alive,” says Ms. Lopez.
She vows that no matter what political direction Mexico takes under its next president, her lone search for her missing daughter will continue.
– Reported by Franc Contreras for America Abroad