Mexico's Enrique Pena Nieto confirms election ambitions

Enrique Pena Nieto, outgoing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) governor in the State of Mexico, is silhouetted against the national flag before delivering his sixth and final state report in Toluca 5 September 2011 Enrique Pena Nieto is eyeing the chance to govern the whole of Mexico

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There are still 10 months to go before Mexico's presidential election but if the opinion polls are correct, the man to beat is Enrique Pena Nieto.

Mr Pena Nieto, until last week the governor of the State of Mexico, put an end to months of speculation on Monday by announcing on Mexico's main television network, Televisa, that he wanted to be his party's candidate.

If he succeeds, it would mark a return to power after a gap of 12 years for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had governed Mexico for more than 70 years and became a byword for corruption and cronyism.

Start Quote

Behind (Pena Nieto) are the old groups, the old factions within the PRI that are poised to govern the country as they always did”

End Quote Denise Dresser Political analyst

Often described as Mexico's most handsome politician, the sleek and energetic Mr Pena Nieto, 45, has a wide lead in the opinion polls.

But his backstory is as much for the society pages as the political columns.

In January 2007 his wife suddenly died, leaving the governor a widowed father of three.

In November 2010, he married popular soap opera actress Angelica Rivera in what was described, perhaps inevitably, as a "fairytale wedding".

The fairtytale ending for Mr Pena Nieto's political career would be to clinch the PRI's nomination and win next July's election.

'No dinosaur'

Speaking to the BBC earlier this month at the governor's mansion in Toluca, the capital of the State of Mexico, Mr Pena Nieto insisted his party had changed.

"The PRI has gone from being a party with a bad reputation... to one that has a creditable reputation today," Mr Pena Nieto said.

Enrique Pena Nieto walks with his wife, actress Angelica Rivera, after getting married at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Toluca near Mexico City 27 November  2010 The couple's wedding got wide media coverage

He said the PRI had recovered because it had learned to compete against other political actors, unlike the long years of its rule when the next president would be hand-picked by the incumbent - a practice known as the "dedazo" or "pointing of the finger".

But Mr Pena Nieto's critics say the the PRI he represents is just more of the same old party that stalled democracy in Mexico during the 20th Century.

"The PRI has in Pena Nieto a handsome candidate, fresh-faced, who doesn't look like the vintage dinosaur of the PRI's past," says political analyst Denise Dresser.

But in many ways Mr Pena Nieto is just a front, she says.

"Behind him are the old groups, the old factions within the PRI that are poised to govern the country as they always did."

Mr Pena Nieto says his main credential for being elected is his successful governorship of Mexico State, the country's most populous state with 15 million people.

Personal and political criticism of him, Mr Pena Nieto says, comes from envious political opponents.

"They are terrified of the position the PRI has in the polls."

Other main hopefuls

  • Manlio Fabio Beltrones (PRI): Lifelong party member and current Senate leader
  • Josefina Vazquez Mota (PAN): Served as education minister 2006-2009; was party leader in lower house
  • Ernesto Cordero (PAN): Finance minister 2009- 2010; close to President Calderon
  • Santiago Creel (PAN): Interior minister under President Vicente Fox; failed to secure PAN nomination in 2005
  • Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (PRD): Lost tight 2006 election to Mr Calderon; still calls himself Mexico's legitimate president
  • Marcelo Ebrard (PRD): Mexico City Mayor since 2006; oversaw legalisation of abortions and gay marriage in the capital

He was under scrutiny, he said, "because I'm the front-runner. No one cares who comes last".

The presidential election will take place as Mexico continues to confront the drug-related gang violence that has left some 40,000 dead since late 2006.

Increasing popular frustration and anger over the rising levels of violence have dented the popularity of current President Felipe Calderon and his National Action Party (PAN).

And that could be in the PRI's favour, says Ms Dresser.

"People seem to have a certain nostalgia for the past, to believe that a firm hand is needed to re-establish order in a country best by violence, crime and chaos."

Mr Pena Nieto recognises some achievements by the current government following its decision to tackle the drug cartels head-on but he says that, overall, the security strategy has not worked.

President Calderon's decision to deploy the army was "rushed and poorly planned", he said.

But he did not specify whether a President Pena Nieto would avoid using the army.

He said the PRI would have an "articulated strategy" that would focus on "the use of intelligence and not just force".

History lesson

Mr Pena's own state, while not the worst affected by violence, has seen a rise in killings and many of the drug barons arrested by the federal government have been captured in the territory.

A cadet of the Civil Force holds a weapon as he takes part in a demonstration after attending several weeks of training at the Macroplaza in Monterrey on 13 September 2011 The fight against the drug gangs has seen extra security forces being trained

The debate over security is likely to dominate the presidential campaign.

If - and it is still an if - Mr Pena Nieto is the PRI's choice, he will face a candidate from the PAN, possibly Josefina Vazquez Mota, who is bidding to be Mexico's first woman president, or Ernesto Cordero, until recently the finance minister.

For the left are two possible contenders: Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard and former presidential contender Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Mr Lopez Obrador has been scathing about Mr Pena Nieto.

"He's a meringue made by the Televisa chefs, he's got no substance," said Mr Lopez Obrador, referring to the media giant's widely perceived backing for Mr Pena Nieto.

But Mr Lopez Obrador perhaps offers a salutary lesson for the front-runner.

For months in the 2006 campaign Mr Lopez Obrador rode high in the polls but, after an aggressive campaign by his opponents, he narrowly lost to Mr Calderon.

And that is why many in Mexico believe the fairytale ending for Mr Pena Nieto cannot be taken for granted.

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