Center-left Nieto wins Mexican presidency

When the results were finalized from Mexico???s internationally-watched presidential election Sunday there was no surprise. Enrique Pena Nieto, the fresh-faced former governor of the State of Mexico, won by a comfortable margin over far-left candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. One could sense the relief coming from official Washington, which definitely did not want the man known as ???AMLO?????? an admirer of Venezuela???s Marxist strongman Hugo Chavez. Also, ???AMLO??? when narrowly counted out in the last presidential election, suggested violence from his supporters and likened himself to Jesus Christ. Placing third in the field was conservative Josefina Vasquez, former secretary of education in the outgoing government and the first woman to run for president of Mexico.

At 45, with a beautiful wife and a record of appealing to all factions of his center-left Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Pena Nieto has often been dubbed the ???Mexican Obama.??? During a pre-election rally, he closed his remarks by admonishing supporters: ???Yes, we can.???

There???s little argument that, upon donning the presidential sash and moving into Los Pinos (the official residence) December 1, Pena Nieto will be closely watched by his American counterpart. Given that their countries border one another and there are common issues that affect both the U.S. and Mexico, how Pena Nieto performs in office will have an impact on Washington DC and its relations with its neighbor to the south.

Immigration, violence, and privatization

Few expect the new man in Mexico City to change much from outgoing President Felipe Calderon when it comes to the issue that most affects U.S.-Mexico relations: illegal immigration. Like Calderon and his predecessor Vincente Fox??? both from the conservative National Action Party (PAN) ??? Pena Nieto seems certain to criticize tough security measures by the U.S. as well as actions taken by individual American states to deal with the flow of illegal aliens (with Obama at his side, during a visit to Washington last year, Calderon denounced Arizona???s A.B. 1070 to empower police to ask for proof of citizenship from suspects they pull over).

But in terms of dealing with the root causes of Mexicans fleeing to the U.S. ??? namely, violence and a lack of economic opportunity ??? Pena Nieto may offer some surprises. When it came to the ???Wild West???-style gang wars that have long plagued Mexico, the PRI hopeful actually ran as more of a ???law and order man??? than Calderon, who once donned a military uniform to declare unconditional military action against gang leaders and druglords. Pena Nieto vows to create an elite unit from the army to strike at the gangs and to triple the budget for dealing with law enforcement. Even before his election, he announced he was hiring as an adviser retired Colombian Police Chief Oscar Naranjo, a key player in that country???s successful assault on guerrillas.

To those who say Mexicans flee to the U.S. primarily because of the largely statist nature of their country???s economy that limits job opportunities in the private sector, Pena Nieto offers an agenda not heard since the presidency of Carlos Salinas (who oversaw more privatization of state-run industry than any world leader during his years in office from 1988-94). The new president and his party, according to The Economist, plan ???to open Pemex, the public oil and gas monopoly, to competition … [B]y the end of the presidency, a tenth of production could be in private hands. Private investment would be allowed in shale, gas and oil, refining and petrochemicals. The reform might also allow Pemex to offer risk contracts for off-shore oil.???

Sure to be addressed in 2013 is the call by Calderon and the presidents of Colombia and Guatemala for the U.S. to end its decades-long ???war on drugs??? in the southern part of the hemisphere. Pena Nieto is expected to continue the effort to persuade Obama to abandon the U.S.-led endeavor, which has not come close to shutting down drug-trafficking or the druglords themselves.

Much of the press has pointed out that Pena Nieto ??? for all his billing as a reformer, is the candidate of PRI, which ran Mexico for 70 unbroken years with little opposition in what novelist Mario Vargas Llosa called ???the perfect dictatorship.??? Now, after a dozen years in the wilderness and with its leader insisting the party???s corrupt old leaders (known as ???dinosaurs???) are finished, PRI is back.

Whether it lives up to its new billing as the party of reform under a fresh leader will clearly be a story worth watching unfold.