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June 23, 2012


Mexico’s election: What’s in it for U.S.?

On July 1, Mexico will elect a new president. For most of the 20th century, the election was essentially a coronation of the new ruler chosen by the leaders of the Institutional Revolutionary Party – the PRI – essentially the only political game in town. The well-established selection process gave Mexico a high level of political stability. The process also encouraged stultifying inaction, corruption and social inequality.

In broad terms, the old system worked – for Mexico and for the United States. We were able to go about our business as a country without having to worry too much about what was happening to our south. Coupled with the pervasive placidity of Canada, we had it pretty good.

The United State still has it pretty good as far as our neighbors are concerned. Both are cooperative and nonthreatening and add significantly to our own wealth and security. But Mexico has changed in recent years and, unlike Las Vegas, what happens there does not stay there anymore. Mexico’s success is our success. And Mexico’s failures impact us.

Mexico’s presidential elections have gone from predictable rote affairs to vibrant contests with potential importance not only to the Mexicans but to us. The last two elections brought significant change. In 2000, Vicente Fox, representing the PAN, ended 70-plus years of PRI dominance. Fox’s election ended speculation as to whether the political establishment would accept change and permitted Mexico to be internationally accepted as a modern democratic state. Regrettably, as we know from our own experience, modern democratic states are not necessarily efficient, and Fox’s term passed without significant progress in attacking the problems that had built up over the decades.

But Mexico’s economy continued to grow and its saliency as our trading partner, ranked in the top three with China and Canada, gives it an important role in our economy.

In 2006, another PAN candidate, Felipe Calderón, replaced Fox. Calderón understood that Mexico could no longer ignore the real danger posed to its own sovereignty by organized crime. Cooperation with U.S. law enforcement was ramped up. But the lion’s share of the task fell to Calderón and to his police and military.

What ensued was an unprecedented level of violence as the government disrupted established cartels and dozens of mini-wars broke out among the criminals. The net result has been almost 50,000 deaths – almost all from within the ranks of the drug dealers. Calderon’s get-tough policy still has the support of the majority of Mexicans, but the population is tired of daily reports of violence and, in many places, scared. Calderón’s tenacity is admirable, but it remains unclear whether his aggressive approach has actually lowered the flow of drugs to the north.

Whatever the actual achievements of Fox and Calderón, their elections changed Mexico and the impact on the U.S., in the form of greater economic interdependence and cooperation in a host of areas has been significant.

Now, Mexico approaches what will be the third election in this new chapter of its history. Polls indicate that Enrique Peña Nieto, the PRI candidate and governor of Mexico’s most economically powerful state, will likely triumph over Josefina Vázquez Mota of Calderón’s party and the leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

The winner will confront massive challenges that Mexico has not adequately addressed. And it is probable that the new president will, like his immediate predecessors, not be able to count on a legislative majority to help push through necessary reforms to make Mexico a modern competitive society.

The list of challenges is a long one. The public educational system is antiquated. The state-run petroleum company is going downhill, production is dropping and only an influx of private capital, prohibited by the Constitution, will be able to save Mexico from becoming a net importer of energy. The judicial and police systems are weak and riddled with corruption. The tax system is too heavily dependent on declining oil revenues and is poorly administered. And while Mexico’s middle class has grown significantly in recent years, still far too many live in poverty.

Mexico has changed in recent years, particularly since the advent of a competitive democracy marked by Fox’s election. But as yet, the fruits of those changes have been insufficient. The United States prospers when Mexico advances. A wealthier, more efficient Mexico with a more competent government is very much in our own interests. And that’s why the July 1 election merits our attention.

Davidow, ambassador to Mexico from 1998 to 2002 and former president of the Institute of the Americas at UCSD, is senior counselor, the Cohen Group.


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