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Why Mexico's PRI Is Cleaning House

Mexico's ruling party faces a difficult task convincing voters that its anti-corruption efforts are sincere.
EPN Veracruz
Javier Duarte (right) with President Enrique Peña Nieto in Nov. 2015.
Gobierno del Estado de Veracruz (accessed 10/13/2016)

Just four years ago, Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto, then a candidate for office, considered Javier Duarte part of a “new generation of politics” that would help shepherd his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) toward a more transparent future. On October 12, facing charges ranging from embezzlement to document forgery, Duarte stepped down as the governor of Veracruz to fight what he called a “campaign” against his leadership. 

He will have to wage that fight without the support of his party. In September, the PRI stripped Duarte of his membership rights, a prelude to removing him from the party entirely. Duarte is not the only PRI politician whose standing is in jeopardy; over the past three months, the PRI has begun processes to remove at least two other governors accused of corruption from its ranks.

Does all this mean that the PRI, so known for corruption and cronyism as it dominated Mexican politics for the better part of the past century, is ready to clean up its act? Recent moves suggest the party may be coming to terms with the fact that, if they don’t, Mexicans will hold them to account at the voting booth.

In the first years of his six-year term, Peña Nieto was internationally hailed for ushering through a series of reforms to tackle difficult areas such as energy and telecommunications. But an anti-corruption package was not among his priorities. It wasn’t until the early summer of 2016, when a third of the country’s states were preparing for June gubernatorial elections, that Mexico’s Congress took up debate of idling anti-corruption legislation. Under the PRI’s leadership, that legislation was watered down so that government officials could avoid making public declarations of assets, taxes and conflicts of interest.

Meanwhile, Duarte’s Veracruz, where spending irregularities abound and public debt more than doubled during his time in office, became a symbol of the PRI’s transparency problem. Two weeks before the June 5 gubernatorial elections, an investigative report by a Mexican news outlet found that Duarte’s administration had siphoned off some $35 million to shell companies.

It was an inauspicious sign of what was to come for the PRI. By the time the dust cleared, the party had lost six of the nine governorships it held going into the election. Veracruz - Mexico's second most-populous state and the biggest prize up for grabs - was among the constituencies that the PRI had lost for the first time in its history.

The June gubernatorial elections were seen by many as a prologue to the 2018 race for the presidency. Observers painted the outcome as a call for the PRI to get its house in order and as a punishment for corruption and mismanagement. Two weeks after the vote, Fabio Manlio Beltrones stepped down as party president, and in July was replaced by Enrique Ochoa Reza, then the head of Mexico's giant state electrical company (and 20 years Beltrones' junior). Ochoa took over the PRI presidency with a promise to battle corruption head on, saying that the party had to be "the guarantor of its members' honesty."

It’s been under Ochoa’s leadership that the PRI essentially disowned Duarte, as well as other corruption-tainted governors like Quintana Roo’s Roberto Borge and Chihuahua’s César Duarte, both of whom were also once part of Peña Nieto's “new generation.”  (The president, for his part, has reportedly distanced himself from the Veracruz governor.) Within two weeks of assuming his new position, Ochoa began the judicial process of kicking all three out of the PRI.

But Duarte’s case raises as many questions as it answers. Is Ochoa, who is facing scrutiny of his own, an anti-corruption crusader setting the party straight or a fresh face to help people forget the PRI’s past sins? Is the public shaming of Duarte and other outgoing governors a way to appease angered voters or simply a way to ease concerns of those who could pick another PRI president in 2018?

So far, there are signs the public remains unconvinced about the party’s anti-corruption moves. In August, Mexican newspaper Reforma put Peña Nieto’s approval rating at 23 percent - the lowest of any president since the paper started polling in 1995. Corruption is a major reason. In July, Peña Nieto apologized for the 20-month-old “Casa Blanca” scandal involving a $7 million home the first lady bought from a government contractor. But the Reforma poll found that 69 percent of respondents didn’t find his apology credible and that it worsened people’s opinions of him more than improving them. Well over half of the respondents said that corruption had gotten worse in the country over the course of the previous year.

What this means for 2018 isn’t yet clear, given that election day is two long years away and polls conflict at this point. Still, if corruption ire ends up being a deciding factor, the PRI has its work cut out for it; Mexicans distrust it more than any other party. And if nothing happens to change their minds, the June elections might just be a warning of what’s to come.

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Zissis is editor-in-chief of AS/COA Online. She is based in Mexico City.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.