Pena Nieto Assumes Office:
New Mexican President Promises to Curb Drug Cartel Violence

Mexico's Enrique Pena Nieto assumed the presidency hoping to build the economy and reduce the drug cartel violence. The opposition agrees.

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Amiel Ungar,

Enrique Pena Nieto
Enrique Pena Nieto

In Mexican terms, the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to power Saturday night is the equivalent of the return to power of the Communist Party in Russia. The PRI had ruled for 7 successive decades in Mexico until it was finally ousted from power in 2000.

The resemblance, however, is a bit superficial. Even during the years that it had lost presidential power, the PRI remained a dominant force in the legislative branch and in local government.

Secondly, the successful candidate was the telegenic 46-year-old Enrique Pena Nieto and a former state governor, not some aging apparatchik. Pena Nieto proclaims that there will be no return to the bad old days because the party has changed for the better.

In addition to holding a legislative majority, Pena Nieto will be working with a semi-loyal opposition. While the leftist supporters of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador have, as in 2006, refused to accept the electoral verdict, charging electoral fraud and have greeted the new president with violent demonstrations, the National Action Party (PAN), that held the presidency since 2000, is a different story. It recently collaborated with PRI in liberalizing the labor market, allowing for hourly wages and part-time labor contracts, measures that will ease the path for young workers.

PRI is also inheriting an economy that is growing by nearly 4%.

PRi, in a departure from former policy, is willing to introduce a degree of privatization in the energy sector, particularly in those sectors of the industry that require expensive investments. Here as well, PAN will back the new government, as these are essentially proposals that it had sought to initiate.

The new president will be meeting in Washington with Barack Obama on Tuesday. PRI, for historic and domestic political reasons, had traditionally tried to maintain a distance from the United States and during some periods had even portrayed itself as a member of the nonaligned world. Mexico demonstratively maintained full relations with Castro's Cuba to show that it was not under Washington's thumb.

The main issues, however, have been immigration and the fight against drugs. Given the Obama administration is determined to move ahead on immigration reform, together with an increasing Republican propensity for compromise, tensions over that issue should subside.

One of the reasons for the PRI victory was fatigue over the country's bloody war with the drug cartels that has claimed 60,000 lives. The new government has pledged to bring down the violence, while maintaining border security and the Obama administration will undoubtedly be interested in learning how it plans to square this circle.