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What The Mexico Elections Mean For The U.S.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

Twelve years after it was voted out of office, the PRI, Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party, reclaimed the presidency in yesterday's election. PRI candidate Enrique Pena Nieto won 38 percent of the vote. He promised new style and new substance for a party long accused of corruption, deals with drug lords, and authoritarian rule. In a pre-election op-ed for the Dallas Morning News, Jesus Velasco asked whether the U.S. can trust Mexico's new administration.

So what do you think: Can the U.S. trust the PRI? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Jesus Velasco is a specialist on U.S.-Mexican relations at Tarleton State University and joins us now on the line from Mexico City. Good to have you with us today.

JESUS VELASCO: Very good. Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And 12 years ago, this result would have been difficult to imagine.

VELASCO: Yes indeed, because at the time the Mexican population was trying to get rid of the PRI. And so the Fox administration, that was a more moderate party, the PAN, defeat for the first time in 71 years the PRI. So we never expect that so soon the PRI will go back to power.

CONAN: Some polls show that the PRI candidate, Pena Nieto, would win more than half of the votes. He still has a clear plurality. But does he have a mandate?

VELASCO: No, this is not a landslide of any sort. Pena Nieto won with 38 percent of the popular vote, and the second contender, the PRT, the center-left party, won 31.8 percent. Many of the polls three days before the election were giving between 11 and 14 points ahead to Pena Nieto, but right now, at the end of the election, this was shortened to a difference of basically seven points. We don't know exactly how much. But apparently it's going to be between six and seven points at the most, which really reflects that this is not a mandate.

CONAN: As you mentioned, the second-place finisher, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist candidate, finished second. He has refused to concede thus far. Do you expect him to repeat the demonstrations that paralyzed Mexico City after his second-place finish six years ago?

VELASCO: Well, last election, six years ago, he has an excuse to do that, an excuse of two sorts. First, he didn't have observers in the different ballot boxes but just 50 percent of observers. So another 50 percent of his party didn't show up in the ballot boxes. So he could claim that the PAN stole the election. And the margin was very small between the first place and the second place. He was the second place. So right now the margin is bigger. And second, in this election he has 98.5 percent of observers of his party in the ballot boxes.

Therefore it's very difficult for him to claim a big fraud(ph). However, he is trying to play his game, saying that he will(ph) concede the election until Wednesday, that the official electoral result will be public. So I think that, quite probable is going to be a protest. Quite probable, he will, you know, say that he is not conceding the election. But I don't think that he is going to be able to present the same kind of resolve and actions that he did six years ago.

CONAN: And a lot of people say those demonstrations alienated a lot of people six years ago, that he took them too far.

VELASCO: Yes. He alienated many people, and his attitude after the first election - well, the last election of 2006, really damaged his image in many sectors of the government, because he declared himself the legitimate president of Mexico. He even formed a cabinet and stuff like that. Right now, he's taken a more moderate position, you know, saying, you know, I'm happy to concede the election, but I want to wait until the official results come, you know, come public.

CONAN: And what does this say about the future of the conservatives who ruled for the past 12 years, the PAN?

VELASCO: Well, they were moved to the third, you know, place within the three main political parties, and I think that they're going to be fighting again throughout. Not - right now, they're going to be, again, the opposition that's going to try to supervise that the PRI will follow basically the democratic rules that are in place in Mexico right now. So it's going to be kind of supervising, an organization that will be supervising some of the main measures that the PRI will be taking.

Second, the PAN will be also having an important position within Congress, which is also an important thing. (Technical difficulty) and any of the governorships in different states of Mexico to maintain the state of Guanajuato. So this is a big plus for the PAN, but that doesn't mean that the PAN is gone. It will be a very important political party and movement in Mexican politics for the near future.

CONAN: And let's now go to your op-ed. Will the new PRI be any different from the old PRI?

VELASCO: Well, actually, this is the main - there are - let's put it in very simply terms. There are two tendencies in PRI. What people call the big dinosaurs that belong to (technical difficulty)...

CONAN: And we're having difficulty with the telephone lines at Mexico City. And we're going to recall Jesus Velasco on another line and see if we can get him back up. We're talking about the election that happened in Mexico yesterday, where the candidate of the candidate of the PRI, the revolutionary party of Mexico, the party in power for 71 years, a party that ruled autocratically and - which made deals with drug cartels and prospered - officials prospered through corruption. Well, it returned the power only 12 years after being voted out of office, after 12 years of rule by the PAN, the party that was reduced to third place in yesterday's election.

Andres Obrador - excuse me - (unintelligible) Andres Morales - excuse me - Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist candidate who finished a whisker behind the PAN six years ago, finished substantially further behind the PRI candidate this time around. He has said he will wait until the official results of the vote are reported before he concedes, but is unlikely to stage the kind of demonstrations he staged six years ago when he paralyzed much of Mexico City protesting that indeed his - the election had been stolen. Jesus Velasco is back on the line with us. And to get back to your point, the PRI, is it different from it was 12 years ago?

VELASCO: Well, there are two main tendencies within the party. One is that what people call the old dinosaurs, the people that ruled the country as an authoritarian government. And there are new people that they have the intention, the good intention to move the party into a different direction. These are the people like Luis Videgaray or Emilio Lozano that belong to the party, who are involved in the party and they want to do it.

The main question is the new PRI might be willing to modernize or not. And my impression is that I have serious doubts that the old PRI will allow the new political militants to change the organization. So it's going to be a kind of fight between the old T. Rex and the new Barneys, if you want to put it in these terms, which is, you know, I think that Pena Nieto is the guy that was fundamentally supported by the old guard.

The question here is if the Mexican civil society and Mexican institutions are so powerful to stop any movement in the wrong direction from the PRI. And I think that we have advanced, during the last two years, in the right direction. We have right now many important Mexican institutions like the Federal Election Commission or the Mexican Commission on Human Rights just to pinpoint two. Or we have civil organizations like one direct or - by Javier Sicilia, a Mexican poet and writer, or by a businessman, Mexico SOS by Alejandro Marti, which are important organizations that quite often mobilize the people in defense of Mexican human rights or political positions.

So in the recent history of Mexico, let's say, during the last 50 or 60 years, Mexico is better right now than ever. What we do not know, and this is the big interrogation mark, is if these institutions are going to be powerful enough to oppose any, or stop any wrong movement from the PRI.

CONAN: We're, again, talking with Jesus Velasco, specialist in U.S.-Mexican relations at Tarleton State University. He wrote an op-ed, "Would the U.S. Ever Trust a PRI President?" That appeared in the Dallas Morning News before the election. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News. And let's go to Paul, Paul on the line with us from Columbia, South Carolina.

PAUL: Hi. What I wanted to say is that Pena Nieto, you know, he has been you could say the politician, and I think, since 2000 or so. So he has done - I know he's done a lot of things. I believe, he was the governor of a - the state of Mexico for - I'm not sure for how long. I think 2005 or so. So I personally think that even though people might be wary of PRI because of its past history, I think, that he himself, from the actions he has shown as a governor and as a leader, I think, he actually truly started - want to - wants to make things better for Mexico. You know, that's my opinion on it because of what he has done when he was a governor and before that, his actions.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call. Here's an opposite opinion from an emailer, Alex, in Mukwonago, Wisconsin: The United States can trust the Mexican president to be just as deaf and dumb as the last president. They keep the cheap labor coming to this country by making no real reforms and not reducing crime or increasing employment. Mexico is still in the Dark Ages. And until that population sees a need for a more liberal change, they will be the United States' puppet. I'm Mexican-American, and this is appalling.

You raised the question in your op-ed, Jesus Velasco, about the, well, very sensitive information the United States shares or might like to share sometimes with Mexican authorities about the drug cartels. And the fact is there have been, as you mentioned, a lot of PRI governors in the state of - in the country of Mexico, in the various states, and some of them have, well, kept up the old relationships with the cartels.

VELASCO: Yes, indeed, and that's the big interrogation mark. Also in op-ed, I'd said that it's going to be very complicated for the PRI to go to the old practice of trying to just let go of the drugs and have a peaceful Mexico environment. That's going to be very complicated. What the PRI wants to do is something, in my view, very intelligent, that is to diminish the presence in the media of the fight against drug cartels and to try to concentrate in the fight against other kinds crimes like kidnapping and robbery and all those kinds of - hijacking of cars, that are very important for every single Mexican people because this is what they live on a more personal basis.

So the PRI wants to shift the concentration of the president's attention to these kinds of crimes instead of the older ones. However, I truly believe that the American government are not going to allow to do that because for the United States, it's very important to continue the fight against drugs. So it's going to be an interesting negotiation to see what's going to be the way in which the new Mexican administration and the new American administration that's going to emerge after the November election will be dealing with this particular issue of drug trafficking.

CONAN: There is also - the economic numbers in Mexico are not all that bad. They - it would be a surprise if you just looked at the economy to understand why the PAN had been thrown back into third place. But the failure, as it was seen of the drug war with tens of thousands of people being killed, is that the reason why they were voted out of office, do you think?

VELASCO: Well, I think that there are several issues that are involved in the defeat of the PAN in this - just in yesterday's election. One, is that people are basically sick and tired of the killing of many, many people because of the fight against drugs. The second is kind of a natural cycle. The PAN has been in power for 12 years, and they have not brought the result that many Mexican people were expecting. So it's kind of a new change. The third was a very clear campaign directed to have a kind of a new presence of the PRI, and this campaign has been conducted since Pena Nieto was governor of the Mexican state for six years.

So he has a very important presence in the media. He was presented like a new candidate of the new PRI. He is married with a soap opera star. So he was able to be not only in the newspapers, in the traditional newspapers, but also on the tabloids. So it was a very well-designed and executed strategy to promote his campaign. And also the other parties, at least the PAN didn't conduct a vey strong campaign. So there where several factors that were involved, but you are quite right. The Mexican economy is doing better and better during the last two or three years.

CONAN: Jesus Velasco, thank you very much for your time.

VELASCO: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Jesus Velasco is a specialist on U.S.-Mexican relations at Tarleton State University. His op-ed, "Would U.S. Ever Trust a PRI President?" ran in the Dallas Morning News. Tomorrow, Daniel Smith joins guest host, John Donvan, to talk about anxiety in his new book, "Monkey Mind." Join them for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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