A group of students just pelted the convoy of Mexico's leading presidential candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, with sticks and stones as he arrived in the town of Tepeaca in Puebla state, south of Mexico City. Bad campaign optics aside, this sort of violent welcome might seem an ill omen for Peña as the July 1 election nears. Young voters helped throw his party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), out of power nearly 12 years ago, ending its autocratic, decades-long rule of Mexico. The hostile kids outside Tepeaca are the latest of a growing number of teen and 20-something Mexicans on a social-media-fueled blitz opposing Peña and the PRI's bid to regain the presidency.
But Peña, himself a boyish-looking 45 years old, seems confident that for every young anti-PRI militant, there are plenty of other youthful Mexicans backing him. Recent college graduate María Ruiz, 24, went to the Tepeaca rally to make that point. When she voted in her first presidential election in 2006, Ruiz dismissed the PRI as a "dinosaur." Now, with the past decade shadowed by a violent drug war that has killed 55,000 people and a limp economy that has stunted opportunity for millions more, she's ready to give the PRI a chance. "I think Peña relates to Mexicans of my age better than the other candidates do," says Ruiz. Her generation is the first to get a shout-out from Peña as he hits the stage: "Saludos to the youth of Puebla!" he shouts, the earlier sticks and stones forgotten. When Peña's finished, he dives into the crowd like a rockero, or rock star.
Mexico looks set to have a PRI-vival on July 1 and the party's comeback marks an anxious turning point for the giant but fledgling democracy south of America's border. Mexicans have clean elections today, but that doesn't make up for the security dystopia and the financial frustration they've endured since 2000. So they're taking a gamble. Mexicans know how responsible the PRI was in the 20th century for so many of the problems they still live with in the 21st, from the terrifying power of the nation's vicious drug cartels originally nurtured by the epic corruption of past PRI governments to the business monopolies and rampant inequality that keep almost half of Mexico's 112 million people in poverty and looking for work in the U.S. But voters are betting that the party has spent the past dozen years out of power righting itself enough to help right the country.
Peña earnestly pitches the idea that he and his generation of party leadership are proof the PRI is no longer the despotic vote-buying machine that controlled Mexico from 1929 to 2000. And he's sold that vision in large part because as governor of powerful Mexico state (adjoining Mexico City) from 2005 to '11, he compiled a more progressive record of less patronage-obsessed administration than Mexicans were used to seeing from a PRI-ista. "The PRI has eminently changed because Mexico has," Peña insists in an interview with TIME in Tepeaca. "This is another Mexico today, a democratic culture, and we're competing strongly again precisely because our proposals promise even more change."
Critics contend that Peña is just a good-looking front man manipulated by the old guard of the PRI. "The old mafia of power is imposing itself again," Peña's closest rival, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, recently warned. U.S. opinions are mixed: officials are heartened by Peña's plans to open Mexico's large but inefficient state-run oil industry to private and perhaps even foreign investment, but they worry that if the PRI recaptures Los Pinos, the Mexico City presidential residence, the party might go soft on drug traffickers again.
Peña calls all those insinuations part of an "antidemocratic conspiracy" against his party and he has a commanding lead over López in voter polls, with the candidate of current President Felipe Calderón's conservative National Action Party (PAN) in third. That suggests enough Mexicans don't believe the criticism against Peña or don't care. What they do apparently believe and care about is that the more centrist PRI, as Peña argues, "is the only political force that can get things done" at this fragile moment in the country's history.
The Perfect Dictatorship
The history of Mexico since its volcanic social revolution in 1910 is largely the history of the PRI. Or, as the late Mexican literary giant Carlos Fuentes saw it, it's the history of the PRI's betrayal of the Mexican Revolution's democratic values how it degenerated from the standard bearer of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa into a calcified gang that stood for little more than the cynical accumulation of power and spoils, with each generation of "new masters equally ambitious and rapacious," as Fuentes wrote in his epic novel The Death of Artemio Cruz. Some groups, like campesinos (peasant farmers), initially benefited from PRI rule. But their aspirations were smothered by a system so crooked that by the 1990s, Mexico had one of the world's highest number of billionaires even as its workers earned some of the world's lowest wages on average.