The Real Winner in Mexico

WSJ Editorial

The big winner Sunday was the nation’s young and vibrant democracy.

Forty-five-year-old Enrique Peña Nieto, a former governor of the central state of Mexico, took Sunday’s presidential elections as predicted by every poll for the last three months. The bigger story is how it happened.

President Felipe Calderón’s National Action Party (PAN) candidate lost, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) challenger won, and the transfer of power came through the ballot box. That’s not something to take for granted in this or any young democracy just now.

Do not forget that Mexico was a one-party state under PRI rule from 1929-2000. That’s seven decades of political repression shaping the way citizens thought about their rights and the way civil institutions operate. When in the 1990s the PRI’s lock on power began to unravel, violence erupted. Back then it was not so obvious that Mexico’s transition to a stable democracy was inevitable.

Yet in just 12 years, since PRI President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) led a political reform, Mexico has adopted true universal suffrage and real political competition has emerged. This allowed the PAN to win two back-to-back presidential elections—first Vicente Fox and then Mr. Calderón—but also forced the party in power to be accountable.

On Sunday the electorate opted to try something else. Mr. Peña Nieto came away with some 38% of the vote against his closest rival, the hard-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who won just under 32%. PAN candidate Josefina Vásquez Mota took 25.5%. Mr. López Obrador, true to threats made during the campaign, said Monday evening he’dcontest the results, alleging misconduct. But word is that significant leadership in his own party may not be inclined to back him.

Some in Mexico are worried about the PRI’s return to the presidential residence of Los Pinos because of its authoritarian past. But Mexico’s political and civic environment has changed, and so has the PRI, which has reformers who want to deepen economic liberalization, but also “dinosaurs” who yearn for the past. Mr. Peña Nieto has his workcut out for him. Even if the PRI won an outright majority in the lower house on Sunday—those tallies are not in yet—negotiation will be crucial for him to govern, and he may have to reach across the aisle. If he doesn’t deliver, Mexicans will let his party know at the next election.

More than 143,000 polling stations around the country were manned by ordinary citizens who went through training with the federal electoral institute, got up early on election day and stayed late ensure a free and fair election. The big winner Sunday was Mexican civil society.

A version of this article appeared July 3, 2012, on page A14 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Real Winner in Mexico.

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