For seven decades, the Institutional Revolutionary Party ruled Mexico by hook or by crook, stuffing ballot boxes, massacring democracy protesters and bribing journalists into providing sycophantic coverage. When it finally lost a presidential election for the first time, in 2000, the atmosphere was reminiscent of the fall of the Berlin wall. But now the party, universally known in Mexico as PRI, its Spanish initials, is on the brink of a triumphant comeback, with its youthful candidate for July’s presidential polls, Enrique Peña Nieto, enjoying a consistent lead of around 20 points over his nearest challenger. In the race for congress, the PRI, buoyed by its alliance with Mexico’s controversial, death penalty-supporting Green party, is close to winning 50 per cent of the lower house. That would be the chamber’s first outright majority in some 15 years, giving Mr Peña Nieto, a 45-year-old former governor of the massive state of Mexico, which includes much of Mexico City, more power than any president has had since the early 1990s.
That prospect has triggered a wave of protests across the country as many Mexicans recoil at the return of a political machine that ransacked the public purse and ruthlessly sidelined challengers to its power during 71 uninterrupted years in power. Occasionally that involved killing opponents, such as in the notorious Tlatelolco massacre of democracy protesters threatening to disrupt the 1968 Olympics. But more often than not, it saw the PRI cleverly co-opt its most trenchant critics, even offering juicy ambassadorial posts around the world.
Anti-PRI protests reached a peak last month when Mr Peña Nieto visited Mexico City’s private Iberoamericana university. Angry students waved banners blaming the PRI for a long list of Mexico’s ills. Perhaps the most cutting message, referring to the party’s time in power, simply read: “We remember.” Mr Peña Nieto, who has an MBA but has spent his entire career as a PRI activist, has repeatedly insisted that the party has changed, and that his election will not signal a return to the dark ways of the past. “In the Mexico that we desire, there will be no room for corruption or cover-ups and much less impunity,” he said recently. “It’s time to break with the past.”