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Mexico's President Has Dug Himself Into a Hole — And It's Going to Be Hard to Climb Back Out

He arrived in 2012 with promises of "Saving Mexico," but ever since, Peña Nieto has dropped in the polls and responded poorly to a string of embarrassing scandals.

by David Agren
Dec 1 2015, 8:05pm

Imagen vía Presidencia de México

Over the last year, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has inaugurated an empty soccer stadium, bused friendly partisans in to cheer him during the annual independence celebrations, and canceled an appearance at his alma mater after students complained about onerous security.

Peña Nieto arrives at the halfway point of his six-year presidency on Tuesday an unpopular president, struggling to regain the mojo of his administration's early days after the once-reviled Institutional Revolutionary Party regained the presidency in 2012.

Whereas Time magazine credited him prematurely with "Saving Mexico" in a controversial 2014 cover story after a series of economic structural reforms, Peña Nieto has spent the past year plagued by corruption and conflict-of-interest scandals, as well as dashed expectations that his administration's reforms can pay dividends anytime soon.

The escape of crime boss Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán from a maximum-security prison in July only made matters worse.

"His numbers have been lower than any president in recent time," Jeffrey Weldon, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, said.

"[There's] a tone-deafness," and "slowness in responding to things that you should have known that you have to respond to," Weldon added.

Related: Mexico's Crime Prevention Point Man Is Wanted by the Law

Peña Nieto's standing in polls has been overall low, although surveys released in the week prior to his third anniversary as president mostly showed an uptick. One survey in the Reforma newspaper put his approval rating at 39 percent, a five-point increase from July. But overall, Peña Nieto has suffered under dismal numbers not seen for a Mexican president since the peso crashed in the mid 1990s.

By comparison, his predecessor, former president Felipe Calderón, had an approval rating of 52 percent at the midway point of his often turbulent government, according to Reforma.

Mexicans welcomed the anniversary of Peña Nieto's presidency by ironically reviving the hashtag #SavingMexico on Twitter. While Newsweek En Español published a cover with the headline: "The savior who wasn't."

Peña Nieto, meanwhile, posted a list of accomplishments on his website and sent out a series of tweets, written in a familiar formality.

"Three years ago, I promised to work for a Mexico that is at peace, inclusive, with quality education, prosperity and global responsibility," the president tweeted. "With structural reforms, innovative public policies and infrastructure, we're advancing in that direction. Mexico is now moving."

Peña Nieto speaking at a summit in Brussels in June 2015. (Photo via Presidencia de México)

The much-touted reforms include measures such as submitting teachers in public schools to aptitude tests and imposing more competition on the telecommunications sector, previously dominated by billionaire Carlos Slim Helu, once the world's richest man.

Most controversially — though most impressive for foreign investors — the Peña Nieto administration pushed through a major overhaul of the state-run oil company Pemex that opened the exploration and exploitation of Mexican oil reserves to foreign firms. Such a reform would have been considered close to treason in the past.

Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, narrowly maintained its legislative advantage in the midterm elections this past summer as the opposition split and its Green Party allies ran an effective though controversial campaign. The president interpreted the mid-term results as an endorsement of his reform agenda.

"[His] high point was fulfilling the most ambitious legislative agenda in almost 20 years," said Fernando Dworak, an independent political analyst in Mexico City. The low point: "The Ayotzinapa crisis, created in good part by a disastrous communications strategy."

The fallout from the president's aloof response to the September 2014 disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teacher training college – in which the official investigation was found to be full of holes by international experts – sent his approval rating tumbling.

Before the end of the year, the so-called "white house" scandal broke. First Lady Angelica Rivera, it was shown, was buying a $7 million mansion from a government contractor.

The reporters who broke the story were fired from their jobs – though both the company and the government denied there was any link.

The president later appointed a "friend" of his administration to investigate whether there was any conflict of interest involved in his wife's mansion purchase — along with the purchases of properties by the president and finance minister from the same contractors.

The probe found no wrongdoing, not to many Mexicans' surprise.

Related: Mexican President's Approval Ratings Fall In Wake of Missing Students Case

The notorious head of the Sinaloa cartel, whose capture in February 2014 had been a high point early into the Peña Nieto administration, supposedly tunneled out of a maximum security prison in July.

Peña Nieto was informed of the escape while playing dominoes on the presidential plane, a columnist in Reforma reported. The president reportedly finished the game and carried out a state visit to France.

"Chapo [was] just the latest nail in the coffin," Federico Estévez, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, said at the time of the escape. "But there have been a series of nails. Some of them inflicted from outside, meaning things happened, but with very inadequate responses."

Analysts like Estévez also stress that Peña Nieto is struggling to deliver promises of economic dynamism, with the government slashing its forecasts for growth every year since the administration took office.

Part of this is bad luck, as the price of oil — Mexico's most important export — plummeted. At the same time, the reforms that Peña Nieto promoted as the ticket to 5 percent annual growth are not producing the expected results.

"In 2015, initial expectations were that [the reforms] passed should start having a positive impact," said Jonathan Heath, independent economist in Mexico City. "None [of the reforms] are living up to initial expectations."

Violence has been tough to tame, too, though Peña Nieto's initial policy on the subject was one of mostly silence. Vigilantes grabbed guns in the state of Michoacán, forcing the president to appoint a trusted lieutenant as commissioner for the state, who subsequently pinned badges on "community police" forces. Critics contend comunitarios with unclean hands were among those being deputized.

The state of Tamaulipas in the far northeast is a near no-go zone for many. Guerrero to the south of Mexico City has seen a wave of recent killings to the point that public schools closed in the resort of Acapulco for security reasons, and dozens of clandestine graves have been uncovered since the missing students case became an international symbol of Mexico's failures.

"People who voted for Peña in 2012 thought the PRI would 'solve' security problems because they invented the political system," Dworak said. "And the PRI thought that they could get away with murder with corruption as before. These years are a clear example on how much we have changed: a more assertive civil society, and a party that is unable to see it."

Related: Still a Long Way To Go Before Marijuana Becomes Legal in Mexico

Jaime Rodriguez, aka "El Bronco," is seen as an anti-Peña Nieto ahead of the next presidential election. (AP file photo)

Discontent is appearing in unexpected ways.

A tough-talking politician named Jaime Rodriguez, better known as "El Bronco," won the gubernatorial race in Nuevo Leon state as an independent – a first in modern Mexico. Two-time presidential runner-up Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, whose persistence and populism spooks the political class, leads early surveys for the next presidential election. Both men are now framed as contenders for 2018's anti-PRI protest vote.

The economy has some signs of improvement recently, with consumer demand sharply picking up in the last quarter.

Government officials point to nascent signals the reforms may be paying off. Cellular phone rates, previously sky-high, have fallen with new competition entering the market. The energy reform, meant to increase oil output by one-million barrels per day, started off slowly with an embarrassing lack of interest in the first auction. Subsequent auctions of oil fields have showed strong interest, however.

In addition, inflation has reached record lows.

Whether it's enough to rescue an unpopular president remains to be seen.

"Before [the scandals], he had an image as a not very clever person, but manageable," Dworak said. "He could recover by showing any progress on the structural reforms and giving strong signs on openness, transparency and fighting corruption – that is, regaining public trust. But I'm skeptical."

Follow David Agren on Twitter: @el_reportero

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