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Mexican presidential candidate Enrique Pena Nieto, of the Revolutionary Institutional Party, PRI, officially launches his campaign as his wife Angelica Rivero, flashes a thumbs up from behind him, in Guadalajara, Mexico, early Friday March 30, 2012. Nieto starts the 90-day campaign, set by electoral law, with more than a 10-point lead in most polls over his closet opponent, Josefina Vazquez Mota of the now-governing National Action Party. Mexico will hold general elections on July 1. (AP Photo/Bruno Gonzalez)
Mexico’s vanquished ruling party stages a comeback
PRI » The Institutional Revolutionary Party, kicked out in 2000, says it has learned from its mistakes.
First Published Mar 30 2012 01:50 pm • Last Updated Mar 30 2012 01:54 pm

MEXICO CITY • Raul Enrique Trujillo was 6 years old when voters kicked Mexico’s long-ruling party out of the presidency after decades of government by corruption and coercion. Now 18, he’ll cast his first vote to bring back them back.

It’s a comeback many thought impossible. But the 2012 presidential campaign, which officially begins Friday, is the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s race to lose.

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PRI candidate Enrique Pena Nieto starts the 90-day campaign, set by electoral law, with more than a 10-point lead in most polls over Josefina Vazquez Mota of the now-governing National Action Party, or PAN. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, known as the PRD, trails in third.

Though the PRI lost the presidency in 2000 after ruling 71 years with an iron fist, it has maintained the political machinery of eight decades, not to mention two-thirds of Mexico’s 31 governors.

The hope for democratic change that swept the PRI’s opponents into the presidency has evaporated. People are weary of President Felipe Calderon’s bloody assault on organized crime after 47,000 deaths and many are nostalgic for a party that, for all its faults, brought Mexico into the modern era without the coups, revolutions and civil wars that plagued the rest of Latin America.

The party has been fast out of the blocks this election season with the charismatic, Kennedy-handsome Pena Nieto, 45, who carries the message of a "new PRI" that has learned from its mistakes. Party leaders say it has a whole new slate of young candidates who are more democratic and didn’t work under the old regime.

"The best thing that could have happened to the PRI, in a certain sense, is to have lost in 2000," said Francisco Guzman, Pena Nieto’s 31-year-old chief of staff. "A loss makes you see what you have to do, how you have to adapt to change."

But the comeback has been helped by the shortcomings of rival parties as much as a yearning for the return of the PRI.

The young Trujillo initially wanted to vote for Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, a moderate member of the PRD whose term has seen the capital become safer and more environmentally conscious. But the party instead went with Lopez Obrador, an old-style politician who narrowly lost the presidency in 2006 to Calderon.

Like many Mexicans, who share enormous cynicism when it comes to their political class, Trujillo says he will support the "menos peor" — the lesser evil among the choices.

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"When the PRI governed Mexico, it worked. They maintained social stability," Trujillo said.

He said it was a mistake for Calderon to go after organized crime. "You can’t attack an organization that large ... it’s attacking the people. Now it’s out of control."

Pena Nieto is the young face of a party long known as the "dinosaurs," surrounding himself with thirtysomethings and running a tightly controlled campaign with a message that he will end drug violence and create jobs. His proposals lack details, as do all candidates’, who say the law hasn’t yet allowed them to campaign with specifics.

As governor of Mexico state, the country’s most populous, Pena Nieto operated with very little ideology and focused on tangible public works like new roads and hospitals — 608 commitments that he promised and then completed.

Critics say they were mostly superficial and some were already in progress before he took office.

The candidate took a media drubbing earlier this year when he struggled to name three books that had influenced his life. He didn’t know the minimum wage in Mexico or the price of a kilogram of tortillas, the mainstay of Mexican diets, saying, "I’m not the woman of the house."

So far it hasn’t hurt him in the polls.

His opponents jokingly call him the "baby dinosaur," noting Pena Nieto enjoys the blessings of an old-time PRI cabal based in his state that formed in the 1940s and still holds sway over the party’s destiny.

Opponents have worked to remind voters of the old PRI, which massacred students demonstrating for democracy in 1968 and allegedly stole the 1988 presidential election with a blackout that shut down the vote-counting system just as the opposition candidate was pulling ahead. When the system was restored, the PRI candidate had the most votes.

Earlier this year, the PRI party president, Humberto Moreira, resigned under the cloud of a $2.6 billion state government debt that accumulated when he was governor of Coahuila, financed at least in part by falsified documents.

Then Mexican authorities revealed that three former PRI governors are under investigation for undisclosed reasons by the agency that prosecutes organized crime. U.S. court documents said one was alleged to have taken payments from drug cartels.

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