Presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional… (Eduardo Verdugo, Associated…)
MEXICO CITY — When Mexico's long-ruling party was ousted by voters 12 years ago, giddy celebrants hailed the event as something like the fall of the Berlin Wall.
For seven decades, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, had governed virtually unchallenged, aided by election trickery, a well-honed ability to buy off potential troublemakers and, when that didn't work, an iron fist. Its historic loss in 2000, and its tumble to third place six years later, led some to even imagine a Mexico without the PRI.
Now the PRI is on the verge of an epic comeback. Polls show the party's presidential candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, holding a double-digit lead over three rivals ahead of the July 1 vote. The party could also end up with majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time in 15 years.
The PRI's march back from humiliation owes as much to widespread anger over skyrocketing drug violence and an anemic job market as to any lessons learned.
But the possibility of a PRI triumph raises a question now at the heart of the race: What kind of PRI would govern — a cleaned-up, "new PRI" retooled for a modernizing Mexico, or the opaque monolith of yore, with its dark intrigues, rampant graft and authoritarian streak?
Mindful that many Mexicans have bad memories of the party's reign, Peña Nieto has sought to assure voters that he has no plans to "reinstate the past."
"Mexico has changed politically, and without doubt today we have a democratic regime that is much more solid and strengthened," Peña Nieto told a group of foreign correspondents during a rare news conference recently. "It is exactly my party that may be the best prepared for democratic competition."
Opponent Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling conservative National Action Party, or PAN, directed comments during a televised debate to Mexican voters too young to remember the PRI era.
"Ask your parents," she said.
Many critics view handing the country back to the PRI as akin to letting an abusive spouse return, saying it could endanger the steps Mexico has taken toward democracy. They cite scandals surrounding several former and current PRI governors, including the discovery of suitcases of money and allegations of ties to drug cartels, as evidence that the bad old days aren't so old after all.
"The corruption is going to come back. The abuses are going to come back," said Alfredo Sanchez, a 42-year-old commercial manager who said he still hadn't decided which other candidate to support. "It's changed some things, but its essence hasn't changed."
Sanchez was among several thousand people taking part in a recent demonstration against Peña Nieto in downtown Mexico City. The PRI was equally a target. Amid chants and fireworks, marchers carried posters bearing the face of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, of the PRI, grafted to a rat's body.
Salinas, whose six-year term ended in 1994, remains for many Mexicans an emblem of shadowy dealings and mismanagement under the PRI.
The party, born in 1929 after a decade of post-revolutionary turmoil, maintained stability for decades through a vast political machine that pervaded Mexican life, using patronage and sweetheart deals to tame unions, bureaucrats, peasant groups and intellectuals, while keeping the media and dissidents largely muzzled through coercion or force.
It was often difficult to tell where the party stopped and government began. Around election time, operatives would show up in impoverished communities toting bags of cement or installing power lines in a familiar ritual of vote-buying. In case that wasn't enough, PRI hacks paid residents for their votes or simply stuffed ballot boxes.
Mexican writer and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz dubbed the PRI a "philanthropic ogre." Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa called it "the perfect dictatorship."
"It was a very ingenious — some might even have called it genial — system," said historian and commentator Enrique Krauze, who was part of a student movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s that was violently put down by Mexican security forces. "But for me, the main thing is that it was not democratic."
All the talk of a return of the PRI obscures a basic truth: It has never really left. Though booted from the president's mansion, it still governs more than half of Mexico's 2,440 cities and towns, and 20 of 31 states, owing to steady gains at the polls since 2009.
"It lost the presidency … but it didn't lose everything," said Rosa Maria Miron, a political science professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "It's important to remember that the PRI was not totally defeated."
The PRI's long-standing nationwide reach gives it a presence in even the tiniest Mexican village, much like Coca-Cola and a brand of Mexican bread known as Bimbo, providing the foundation for its 12-year rebuilding project.