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Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto tallies early victories, brings optimism

  • McClatchy Newspapers
  • Published Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013, at 1:40 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, at 4:57 p.m.

— In power for less than two months, Enrique Pena Nieto has moved vigorously on a reformist agenda, deflected attention from security woes and brought a measure of joy and pomp to Mexico’s presidency.

The 46-year-old former governor presides over Cabinet sessions in the ornate downtown national palace rather than the woodsy isolated presidential residence his predecessor favored.

Showing a deft political touch, Pena Nieto has woven together a coalition of his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI in its Spanish initials, with the major opposition parties on the left and right for a broad agenda labeled “Pact for Mexico.”

“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Jorge Buendia, the head of Buendia & Laredo, an independent polling firm. “It is without precedent to pull together the principal political forces on major structural reforms.”

The coalition helped Pena Nieto’s government push through a constitutional reform last month on education that defangs the powerful national teachers’ union and its lifelong leader, Elba Esther Gordillo, one of Mexico’s most despised figures. The reform, which regains for the government the right to hire and fire teachers and ends the selling of teaching jobs, already has sailed through 18 state legislatures. It awaits Pena Nieto’s signature to become enshrined in the constitution.

The action did more than change the way the nation’s 233,000 primary and secondary schools will be run. It also put Mexico’s most privileged sectors on alert.

“This was a very important message to the Mexican establishment in the sense that this pact of political forces literally has the strength to take on any real established power, whether it be Elba Esther Gordillo or Carlos Slim or Emilio Azcarraga,” Buendia said, speaking of the Mexican billionaire telecom tycoon and the television magnate, respectively.

Massacres by organized crime no longer dominate headlines, and the new government doesn’t trumpet its stand on public security issues.

“They’ve certainly made an effort to speak less about the problem,” said Carlos Elizondo Mayer-Serra, a political scientist at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, in Mexico City.

Pena Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderon, who left office Dec. 1, made the drug war the focus of his government. During his six years in office, he unleashed the armed forces on crime gangs, sparking violence that left far more than 60,000 people dead.

Elizondo said organized crime still remained a festering problem.

“If you look at the (homicide) numbers, December and January were worse than November,” he said.

Pena Nieto centralized control of Federal Police under the Interior Secretariat, pledged a unified federal command for 31 separate state police forces and announced the creation of a national gendarmerie, or paramilitary force, to combat organized crime. The changes are unlikely to reduce crime anytime soon.

The spotlight, meanwhile, is on the way in which Pena Nieto and the PRI have brought the center-right National Action Party and the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution into alignment on a series of proposed reforms.

The PRI, which governed Mexico for 71 consecutive years in the last century, doesn’t hold a majority in either chamber of Congress, requiring it to seek coalitions.

“There’s a tide, a wave of optimism that this government can get issues through Congress,” Duncan Wood, the director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said at a forum Jan. 9.

Wood cited not only the education reform but also a pro-business labor reform that passed Congress last November, before Pena Nieto took office but with support from his transition team and the PRI.

Still pending, though, are crucial promised reforms that include pledges to broaden the tax-collection system and modernize the state oil company by opening it to some form of foreign investment. Both those reforms are anathema to factions within the political left, and they may fracture the Pact for Mexico.

“The question is if the pact will be kept alive but at a cost of having only superficial reforms,” said Buendia.

As personable as Calderon was dour, Pena Nieto as president has shown only minimal flashes of the occasional flat-footedness he displayed on the campaign trail.

At a public appearance a few days ago, he mangled the admittedly unwieldy name of the Federal Institute for Access to Information and Data Protection, giving a field day to critics, who posted video of his mental lapse on social media.

Far more common are images of Pena Nieto relishing his new post.

“He displays the disposition of someone very comfortable in his job and who enjoys power,” Buendia said. “There are numerous images of him smiling or cracking jokes.”

Unlike Calderon, who seemed more at ease with aides who demonstrated loyalty rather than ability, Pena Nieto has packed his Cabinet with heavyweight politicos, brainy technocrats and members of other parties.

“He’s clearly a very capable politician,” said Elizondo. “He has a strong sense of power. . . . People within his team respect him.”

Certainly some of the perception can be chalked up to a feel-good public honeymoon. Yet to be seen is whether Pena Nieto can fulfill hundreds of campaign pledges, which range from specific road and health clinic promises to a harder-to-accomplish vow to boost economic growth to an all-out 6 percent a year.

Email: tjohnson@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @timjohnson4

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