Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, center, with Defense Secretary… (Alfredo Estrella / AFP/Getty…)
MEXICO CITY — They elected a youthful president, a self-styled defender of democratic principles who promised to bring the country up to 21st century standards.
But many Mexicans suspected that an old-fashioned dinosaur heart was beating beneath Enrique Peña Nieto's smartly tailored suits, an inheritance from his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, whose top-down, quasi-authoritarian rule defined much of Mexico's 20th century history.
On Sunday, after 100 days of living under Peña Nieto's rule, the Mexican people have a better idea of the ways in which their 46-year-old president, and his vintage political party, plan to manage the future of the United States' southern neighbor, a country rife with promise and peril. They are also discovering that Peña Nieto may be a kind of hybrid political creature, intent on effecting change while hewing to some of his party's older ways.
Most significantly, Peña Nieto has begun aggressively pursuing a reform agenda with the aim of transforming Mexico's woefully underperforming education and tax-collection systems, opening the highly concentrated telecommunications industry to greater competition and allowing the lumbering national oil company to make use of foreign investment and expertise.
The idea is to supercharge the Mexican economy, which has performed competently, if not spectacularly, through six bloody years of war against the country's organized crime groups. On paper, at least, the proposed reforms would also clear out some of the nation's institutional rot — statist, monopolistic, and often corrupt — that is a legacy of the PRI's heyday, which ended in 2000 with its first presidential defeat in 71 years. Peña Nieto is the first PRI president since then.
But as he promises to modernize, Peña Nieto's moves to centralize power and co-opt opposition forces are causing jitters among those who remember when the PRI ran Mexico as an essentially one-party system. His strategy of de-emphasizing the plague of violence in the national conversation — to make room for a discussion of economic issues — has also stirred fear that the PRI, traditionally well versed in the arts of propaganda and coverup, might be trying to hide the country's crime problem instead of solving it.
Some worry that Peña Nieto's team may not be able to formulate a broader security strategy that truly works. The newspaper Milenio counted 2,882 deaths linked to organized crime in Peña Nieto's first three months in office.
"They are playing media games by not talking about the topic, but the topic hasn't changed; we keep having this serious problem with violence," Maria Elena Morera, president of the Mexican civic organization Common Cause, said last week.
Mexicans are by now used to a kind of throwback quality in Peña Nieto the man: He is reserved and formal in his public manner, with a trademark pompadour that would not be out of place in a 1940s movie magazine. As a candidate, he ran as a pragmatist; as a leader, he tends to speak clearly and forcefully, eschewing flowery phrases for simple descriptions of his plans.
Those plans are ambitious: Peña Nieto's team has already orchestrated passage of a nationwide education reform law, which required a change in the federal constitution. When the powerful leader of the national teacher's union, Elba Esther Gordillo, opposed the reform, she was arrested on suspicion of embezzling tens of millions of dollars from union coffers.
The day after the arrest, Peña Nieto went on television and spoke as if heralding a new day for his notoriously corrupt country, announcing that "no one is above the law." But the arrest was widely interpreted here as a classic PRI power play, one that removed a rival who was an impediment to the party's broader goals.
The education reform and the general outlines of the other key changes were contained in a blueprint for the country's immediate political future called the "Pact for Mexico." It was signed by the leaders of the PRI and the two major opposition parties — both of which had emerged from the presidential campaign weakened and in disarray — in a declaration of unity unprecedented in recent Mexican politics.
Peña Nieto appears to have solved another set of problems within his own party last weekend, when, at the PRI's national convention, members agreed to change the party's bylaws to allow for foreign investment in Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, the state oil company. (The oil industry was nationalized by a PRI president in 1938, and remains a point of national pride.)