By Michael WerzYesterday’s Mexican presidential elections mark the culmination of a tremendous comeback-story. Ousted after over seven decades in power in 2000, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, is back in control of “Los Pinos” and the Mexican government, determined to restore its image and broaden Mexico’s relationship with the United States.
The PRI had been a symbol of corporatism and entrenchment for decades, famously called the “perfect dictatorship,” for its grip of the Mexican economy and political stage. But the party has reinvented itself in recent years, eschewing its autocratic past and renouncing the party “dinosaurs” despised by many Mexicans. The PRI recorded a narrow victory with 38 percent of the vote on Sunday through a young candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, who had few ties to the old regime. The closer-than-expected result at the polls failed to give the PRI the strong electoral mandate and Congressional majority for which it had hoped, meaning Peña Nieto’s first term will be a time for cooperation, conciliation, and pragmatic politics. President-elect Peña Nieto promised as much in his unthreatening campaign, and his legacy will be measured against this pledge and his ability to check the older factions within the PRI.
The election offers reason for cautious optimism; it was free, fair, and enjoyed over 62 percent voter participation. The result showcases Mexico’s tremendous progress implementing democratic procedures, which have made it one of the most transparent electoral processes in the Hemisphere despite the ongoing violence surrounding the war on drugs.
The election also provides an opportunity for the next American administration. The central problem facing U.S.-Mexican relations is the large gap that remains in U.S. public perceptions of Mexico, which are too often a breathtakingly simplistic focus on drugs, migration, and an outdated belief in building walls. This narrow perspective ignores the two countries’ interdependence and important changes in Mexican society.
Mexico’s recent development reflects a broader shift that Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, has aptly described as “The Latin American Spring,” encompassing a decade of democratization and economic growth across the Southern Hemisphere. Farnsworth has argued that time is running out for the United States to reap the benefits of this transformation, given that, “Latin America is on the move, pursuing partners in Asia, Europe and Africa.”
The emergence of Mexico’s middle class due to its economic expansion is the central transformation along the U.S.’s southern border. This middle class growth has converted the country into a sophisticated hub for high-value commodities, research, and advanced manufacturing. The economic boom combined with the country’s educational progress, emancipation of women, and widespread adoption of modern urban cultural norms has shaped the way Mexican families plan and conduct their lives — visible, for example, in the rapidly shrinking size of families.
This demographic transition has profound economic implications for the United States, which will find its economy seeking other sources for labor for its domestic economy — a transformation already visible this year as Asian immigration outpaced Latino immigration for the first time.
The PRI stated that “the elections on July 1st will be a crucial moment that will set the tone for our future and define the U.S.-Mexico relationship for generations to come.” This is a tall order which may be complicated by election results in the U.S. and by setting such high expectations the PRI takes on the risk that failure to overcome entrenched interests — within the party and in the country at large — could lead to disappointment in the electorate.
Mexican policymakers seem to understand the shared challenges facing the countries amid shifting economic and demographic conditions. But in the United States, what passes as a full agenda for bilateral cooperation with Mexico usually focuses narrowly on trade, drugs and migration. This focus must be broadened to include the hidden part of the Mexican story. Ignoring critical aspects of this complex relationship makes no sense. Like it or not, Mexico is a large part of the future of the United States — and vice versa.