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Peña Nieto on the Tightrope

Faced with scandals and oppositional mobilizations, the Peña Nieto administration is in a downward spiral. What hardships has Peña Nieto’s government faced in the past months?

Óscar Fernández

December 22, 2016
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The most recent Mexican elections took place in June, 2016; 12 governorships, 388 local councils and 965 municipalities were being contested The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was the big loser. Hoping to win nine governorships, the PRI only managed to keep five, losing three seats controlled since 1928. They even lost Veracruz, the third largest electoral district and most important harbor in the country: a commercial gateway from Mexico to markets in US, Europe and Northern Africa with one of the highest population concentrations, with more than seven million inhabitants representing 8 percent of the national electorate.

Another significant PRI loss was Ciudad Juárez, the crown jewel and top exporter of the state of Chihuahua, with the largest maquiladora market in Mexico, producing 14.3 percent of all products. Independent candidate and former news anchor Armando Cabada managed to win the municipal presidency. But Cabada is certainly not to be heralded as an alternative to the PRI for the city’s workers. In 2007, he moved to the US during the city’s most violent moments when drug-related murders escalated; he has been linked to drug and human trafficking networks. Cabada has no proposals to improve the quality of life for the majority of workers; he does not seek to end outsourcing or precarious jobs. He is even against vital ecological issues such as forbidding open-pit mining or fracking.

The only notable Juárez candidate who stood for workers and working-class youth was Antonia “Toñita” Hinojos. As an independent mayoral candidate, she strove to represent the interests of maquila workers, but failed to achieve ballot status because she did not gather the number of signatures required by the restrictive electoral regime. Now, Cabada, the “people’s candidate,” will be put to test. Will the independent who dethroned the entrenched PRI city government run the city differently?

After the PRI’s election fiasco, President Peña Nieto was forced to apologize. In a speech given at the presentation of the National Anticorruption System, he said, “If we want to regain public confidence, we must all be self-critical…starting with the president of the Republic, therefore, in all humility, I ask forgiveness.” To the press, it was a reenactment of President José López Portillo’s forgiveness when he failed to “defend the peso like a dog” in the midst of the 1982 economic crisis; but for many Mexicans, Peña Nieto’s declaration sounded like an awkward and desperate plea after the numerous corruption scandals linked to his administration and construction group HIGA, which has been awarded billions of dollars in contracts.

One of the most notorious corruption scandals was known as the “White House” (discovered by Carmen Aristegui’s investigative journalism team in November 2014 in the midst of mobilizations sparked by the disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students), a white mansion in a wealthy part of the city that was allegedly owned by First Lady Angélica Rivera, who presumably lived in the mansion with her children when she was still an actress on Televisa. However, the property was not registered in her or the president’s name, but rather, owned by HIGA. This is clear proof of the unrestrained corruption and decadence of the Mexican political elite, who can afford mansions filled with expensive artwork while the people struggle to make ends meet.

In Search of Lost Popularity

The decline of Peña Nieto and the PRI began much earlier, with the disappearance of 43 students in Iguala in 2014. Mounting public anger due to inflation, “structural reforms” and corruption sandals has led to a decline in popularity of the PRI and Peña Nieto since 2015. However, it took until the 2016 elections to realize the fateful downfall of the PRI. Now, Peña Nieto and the PRI are flanked by two major threats in the upcoming 2018 presidential elections: the continuing rise of Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), with aims of channeling popular discontent to support for MORENA; and the alliance between the far-right National Action Party (PAN) and the decayed, center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD)–an alliance that has already had success in several gubernatorial races.

Polls indicate that the PRI would lose if national elections were held today. According to the Parametría survey, the PAN would place first without major difficulties. This is projected to be the case even if they ran without their ally, the PRD. MORENA currently comes in third. However, if López Obrador manages to attract people from the PRD’s base, MORENA could compete head-to-head with the PAN. Currently, the PAN leads the 2018 presidential polls, as in 2006. The picture becomes more dire for the PRI because they do not have any viable candidates. Of course, the PAN’s rise may be a temporary phenomena and it is also possible that the PRI will use its vast experience to recover lost ground, but threats from the rise of the far right in Mexico looms on the horizon.

Seeking Votes for 2018

Peña Nieto’s goal is to reverse what the polls and the political climate predict. Many analysts say the recent electoral defeat was caused by widespread discontent related to local corruption cases. Peña Nieto’s speech about presidential and party responsibility was likely a response to that. In June, the PAN-PRD alliance capitalized on political climate to score electoral victories and paint the PRI as essentially corrupt. On the other hand, López Obrador spoke out against the “political power mafia” and spoke out against the entire political caste: the PRI, PAN and PRD.
Peña Nieto’s advisors know that some of the votes that went to PAN-PRD do not indicate any interrogation into essence of the PRI’s economic and social policies, which are based on integration or submission to the US economy. Instead, the votes are better understood as an expression of dissatisfaction with the excesses of the PRI’s power and its blatant, everyday corruption.

Francisco Abundis, director of Parametría, stated, “It’s not the president who should be blamed exclusively for the PRI’s wear, but the collapse of the PRI’s local prestige. Corruption cases in the states of Veracruz, Quintana Roo and Chihuahua have done a lot of damage.”

The Church Questions Peña Nieto

In Mexico, large sections of the population and LGBT people in particular are demanding the right to same-sex marriage. In May 2016, Peña Nieto proposed to amend Article 4 of the Constitution to nationally legalize same-sex marriage. This was clearly an attempt by the PRI government to appear more democratic in the context of increasing disrepute caused by its authoritarian and repressive policies. However, attempts to legalize same-sex marriage and the partial legalization of marijuana–both measures supported by the PRI–were not enough to stymie the government’s loss of popularity. In Mexico City, a primary epicenter in the struggle for women’s and LGBT rights, the PRI suffered one of its worst setbacks.

Capitalizing on the PRI’s fallen status, the Church’s upper ranks have led an active campaign to promote “anti-PRI” votes, calling on different states where they hold a loyal base to vote PAN. This rocked the political landscape, but the leadership of the PRI refused to acknowledge that the Church’s campaign was a decisive factor in their defeat.

Some thought that the friction between the Church and the government would remain quiet, but a media escalation brought the rumored conflict to public attention: “There has never been such a strong clash between the government and the Church since the anticlerical laws of Plutarco Elías Calles were enacted in the mid 1920s, [causing the so-called “Cristero War” between the newly-formed government of the Mexican Revolution and catholic priests and peasants] and since General Lázaro Cárdenas introduced ‘socialist education,’” said Hugo Valdemar, communications director of the Archdiocese of Mexico. Valdemar went on to state that he rejects “the introduction of gender ideology in textbooks; telling children that sex can be changed without permission of their parents is something totally abhorrent. It is an imposition of a totalitarian ideology that aims to take away parental authority to parents.”

Beyond the obvious histrionics of the Church’s high command, it is evident that it wants to take advantage of the president’s weakening image to impose its own agenda, or at least discourage specific aspects of Peña’s agenda. We must not forget the decline in membership of the Catholic Church. The church lobby also seeks to strengthen its own image before its faithful followers by displaying a reactionary offensive against democratic freedoms. In particular, against the right of same sex marriage; it is no coincidence that the right-wing Social Encounter Party (PES) organized the Forum for Life and Family, with representatives of Christian churches in the Chamber of Deputies, during which the initiative to legalize same-sex marriage was questioned. Although the PES is a small force, these churches have grown in influence in recent years.

Peña Nieto’s prospects appear rather bleak. Discontent flows through broad swaths of workers and popular sectors. There is possibility for the emergence of opposition alliances in 2018 among the other capitalist parties (the PAN and PRD) and even between the the PRD and the new MORENA. The PRI’s friction with the Catholic Church, a reactionary institution with great political and social influence in the country, must also be considered in the equation.

Plagiarism and Trump Damage the President’s Image

In the last weeks of August, journalist Carmen Aristegui revealed that 29 percent of the president’s thesis was uncited work by other authors. The loss of popularity trailing the president amplified the scandal, and the scandal further propelled the drop in popularity. The president’s argument was that it was not plagiarism, but mere “style errors.” Shortly afterwards, Aristegui published a special presentation on her website that allows readers to compare and contrast Peña Nieto’s thesis with original sources and even download the thesis itself. The fact that the President’s thesis was plagiarized is undeniable.

Although the outrage over the plagiarized thesis caused many to march against the president and a petition was created demanding the Panamerican University (private university linked to the Opus Dei) to revoke his degree, the University declared it was a “fait accompli” and that they could not do anything about it. To many Mexicans, this was proof that Peña Nieto was corrupt even before he took office, adding fuel to anger towards him. It was proof of his intellectual inadequacy to hold the highest post in the country as well; although he attended a prestigious university, he cheated his way through it.

Meanwhile, Peña’s administration has been characterized by negotiating terms to privatize what little remains of parastatal companies, starting with PEMEX oil and the health system. While still immersed in the scandal over his thesis, Peña Nieto extended an invitation to Trump to meet him on August 31 with the intention of wooing US companies–one day before the yearly presidential report to Congress. Traditional media and right wing newspapers tried to deny that the meeting between the racist US presidential contender and the Mexican president would take place (seeing it as an unlikely probability), but a tweet from the Mexican presidency confirmed that Donald Trump would indeed step onto Aztec soil. Trump not only made a xenophobic, anti-immigrant and “anti-Mexican” campaign, but after meeting with the president and arriving in Arizona, he said with pride that Mexico will pay for the wall.

For tens of millions on both sides of the border, these statements were a real mockery, coming from a tycoon who is now set to govern the imperialist power that plunders the Latin American masses. For this reason, Trump has further radicalized the traditional Republican conservative discourse against the millions of migrants inside US that are exploited by multinationals.

Trump’s journey to Mexico, an operation driven by then-Finance Minister Luis Videgaray, is a clear expression of extreme subservience to US imperialism. “No matter who governs,” Peña Nieto stated, the US president will continue to be “a partner and privileged friend.” These gestures, imposed by the submissive tradition of the PRI and PAN to the US government, demonstrates how Peña Nieto’s policies aim to make Mexico yet another star on the American flag.

In the following article, we will discuss just how much Trump’s visit affected Peña Nieto and how the Mexican regime is attempting to remain afloat in a turbulent political period.

Translated by Óscar Fernández

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Óscar Fernández

Óscar is a member of the Socialist Workers' Movement (MTS) in Mexico and a graduate of political science at the Universidad Iberoamericana. He is a Left Voice correspondant in Mexico City and a member of the editorial staff of our sister site La Izquierda Diario México as well as the magazine Ideas de Izquierda México.

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