Mexicans head to the polls to elect a new president on Sunday. The election is widely seen as a referendum on current president Felipe Calderón’s drug policy. 50,000 people have died in drug violence since he took office. His party’s candidate is expected to lose.The polls say Enrique Peña Nieto will be the next president. Despite his slogan—“Tú me conoces” (“You know me”)—most Mexicans have no idea who he is. His time in the national spotlight has been short. But if the man is a mystery, his party is not. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ruled Mexico for 71 years until Calderón’s predecessor, Vincente Fox, came to office in 2000. “Throwing out the corrupt, authoritarian PRI, in 2000, was a great moment for democracy in Latin America. Now it seems that Mexican voters are poised to bring the Party back,” writes William Finnegan in the New Yorker.Mexico has a huge problem with the drug cartels that has not eased under Calderón. Calderón brought in the Army to fight the cartels when he took office, a policy that has done nothing to reduce the power and brutality of the cartels or corruption in the government and police. Instead Mexico’s organized crime empire has split into ultraviolent, warring factions that prey on innocents as well as rivals, dumping the bodies of migrants in mass graves, beheading civilians, torturing enemies.Despite this, Mexican democracy has been looking perky in the lead-up to this weekend’s election. Unhappy with the current leadership, Mexicans are poised to bring in a new administration.Not that the vote will be by acclamation. Nieto has a two-digit lead in the polls, but he is not universally loved. In March, tens of thousands of students marched through Mexico City to protest the seemingly inevitable return of the PRI to power. But the youth protests, known as #YoSoy132, and other movements have failed to have significant effect. As the Economist puts it, “If the PRI has managed to win its way back into Mexican hearts, that is partly a verdict on its opponents.” Calderón’s vaunted plan to use the Army against the cartels didn’t change much and possibly created more violence, and largely because of this, his party is being chucked out of office. Meanwhile, the Mexican economy is trucking along at an uninspiring but steady pace of about 3 percent each year, and the middle class is growing.The international media’s coverage of Mexico tends to focus on drug violence. Much less attention is given to what doesn’t happen, but could: a military coup; the ultraviolent, ex-military Zetas cartel taking over the government by force; a complete devolution of the country into a narco-state. Violence has not engulfed the entire country. And some people point out rather dismally that the cartels have enough power to own politicians and influence policy and media coverage, or that Mexico already is a narco-state — the 21st century equivalent of Nucky Thompson’s Boardwalk Empire.There’s no doubt that our neighbors to the south have serious problems, some of which can be partially blamed on America’s terrible drug habits. But the support for democracy in Mexico even under difficult and frustrating circumstances is a good sign for the future, That, and the rise of a Mexican middle class, suggest that Mexico is one of the places where life just might get substantially better in the decades to come.
Mexico: 50,000 Dead, but Democracy Survives