The return of the PRI is likely to continue the corruption and cronyism of past eras. But it may also reflect how Mexicans are fed up with drug cartel violence, and seek a return to normalcy.
And they're back: The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has come out on top in Mexico's presidential election on Sunday. For the last 12 years, the party had to take a back seat to the conservative National Action Party (PAN). But for more than 70 years prior, the PRI was Mexico's dominant political force.
Opposition parties long played almost no role, so the often-renamed PRI was able to build up its power in peace, starting in 1929. Corruption, cronyism and suppression were part of the game for the pervasive political group. In the 1960s, for example, state security forces shot student protestors dead, but their deeds went completely unpunished.
The slow decline of the party began alongside the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s, when Mexico as well lived beyond its economic means. The consequence was a major financial crisis.
Economist Christof Parnreiter of the University of Hamburg believes that the PRI bears part of the responsibility for the economic disaster: "There's always talk of it being an emerging market country, but it never quite emerges," Parnreiter said. He believes this is because the party never came up with a solid economic concept that also promotes social stability.
In 1988, the PRI apparently won only by way of massive election fraud. After a key computer used in vote-counting went down on the day after the election, PRI candidate Carlos Salinas was presented as the winning candidate.
Waiting for others' mistakes
The opposition was able to assert itself in 2000, with the conservative PAN party promising improvements over the PRI, which deems itself a social democratic party. But Mexicans have grown disillusioned with the PAN, especially with regard to it's war against Mexico's powerful drug cartels.
Outgoing president Felipe Calderon deployed 10,000 soldiers in the war against the cartels in 2006. Their tactics of direct confrontation resulted in the deaths of more than 55,000 people in recent years, including many civilians.
Many Mexican voters are just looking for peace and quiet, said Bert Hoffmann, head of the GIGA Institute for Latin American Studies in Hamburg. Hoffmann noted a widespread sense of resignation in the country, where he summed up with attitude: "We can't get rid of the drug cartels, but we at least want to be able to walk along the street safely. How you all work that out from on high doesn't really matter to us."
Return to power
It was the right time for the old state party to move in with their strategy of striking compromises with the cartels. Hoffmann characterized the party's message as: "People can go about their illegal business so long as they don't get in the way of politics."
It bears mention that the PRI never really disappeared from the political stage. Many of its power structures remained intact.
"They didn't have the office of the president, but they were very strongly represented at the state level and had installed a number of governors. It's not a comeback from nowhere," Hoffmann told DW.
Nevertheless, Mexico has changed in recent years. There will be many people looking to keep President Enrique Pena Nieto in line as he begins his six-year term. Economist Christof Parnreiter stresses that the country has developed an increasingly international network.
"By way of its integration into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), there are just too many eyes on Mexico," Parnreiter said, noting also that as an OECD country, Mexico also has to play by certain other rules now.
Ongoing corruption and cronyism
Many experts agree that Mexico will hardly see an end to corruption, a lack of transparency and cronyism.
"The entire PRI system is based on corruption and favouritism," Parnreiter told DW.
Hoffmann agreed, saying those are the values for which PRI stands.
Opponents of incoming president Pena Nieto also see him in this light, calling the 45-year-old a telegenic marionette whose strings are pulled by the same old clans. Pena Nieto has promised to give the PRI a new direction.
But Mexico expert Parnreiter sees little hope: "Until now, he has been unable to develop his own agenda. I don't think we're going to see that happen."
Author: Klaus Jansen / gsw
Editor: Sonya Diehn