By Andres Oppenheimer

With virtually all polls showing that soap opera star-looking candidate Enrique Pena Nieto, 45, is likely to win the July 1 elections, the big question is whether his victory would mean a return to Mexico's corruption-ridden, authoritarian ways of the past. Although times have changed, that may very well happen.

Pena Nieto's candidacy for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) - the party that ruled this country for seven decades until it was voted out of office in a 2000 election that was heralded as Latin America's equivalent to the fall of the Berlin Wall - is leading by about 15 percentage points over its closest rival in most polls.

According to the latest Mitofsky poll released last week, Pena Nieto has 44.4 percent of voter support, followed by leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador with 28.7 percent, and center-right candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota with 24.6 percent. The poll doesn't count non-responses.

Granted, there could be last-minute surprises. A growing everybody-against-Pena Nieto student movement known as "Yo soy 132" has emerged in recent weeks, accusing Mexico's two major television networks of promoting Pena Nieto's candidacy. The student protest movement has spread like wildfire in social media, and has helped Lopez Obrador climb in the polls.

But while there are 14 million Mexicans under 23 who will be eligible to vote for the first time in a presidential election, and many of them may back Lopez Obrador, most political insiders doubt that the student movement will have any major impact on election day because about 75 percent of Mexico's youth don't vote.

In addition, there is the fear factor. Lopez Obrador scared many Mexicans in 2006, when he lost that year's election by less than one percentage point and led massive marches to protest what he still today says was a fraudulent result. His critics, including former President Vicente Fox, describe him as a radical populist who would be Mexico's version of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

Lopez Obrador has gone out of his way to distance himself from Chavez, and - despite campaigning on the same vague anti-corruption theme that helped Chavez win his first election - has repeatedly assured Mexicans that he would not lead a revolution that would polarize society, scare away investments, and trigger capital flight.

But unlike President Ollanta Humala of Peru, a former anti-establishment leftist candidate who won the 2011 election thanks to the crucial support of Peru's Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, Mexico's Lopez Obrador doesn't have a similar public figure to help him alleviate voters' anxieties.

Lopez Obrador badly needs his Vargas Llosa, but barring big surprises - such as if Mexico's billionaire Carlos Slim, the richest man on earth, were to give him his seal of approval - he won't get one in time to win the election. Mexicans have an innate fear of instability and political violence, which goes back to the 1910-1917 Mexican Revolution that left more than1 million dead.

The PRI candidate, a former Mexico state governor who is better known for his much-publicized 2010 wedding to a popular actress than for being a deep thinker, promises "responsible change." His top economic advisers are mostly orthodox economists.

Pena Nieto aides reject the notion that his government would be authoritarian, because much of the presidency's powers have shifted to the states in recent years, and because they say he is by nature a consensus-seeking politician.

Pena Nieto says that his top priorities would be to carry out long-delayed health care, labor, tax and energy reforms, including a greater opening of the state-owned Pemex oil monopoly to the private sector, as well as to reduce the drug-related violence that has left about 50,000 dead over the past five years.

He says that he would double the size of Mexico's Federal Police's elite units and - without abandoning the war on drugs - focus on homicides, kidnappings and human trafficking.

"We will separate common crimes from drug trafficking," says Silvia Hernandez, a top PRI politician. "Much of the violence we see today comes from bands that are not tied to drug trafficking."

Pena Nieto's aides hope that, if wins by a landslide, his job would be made much easier because he would be the first Mexican president in more than a decade to enjoy a majority in Congress.

"There would be much bigger chances of approving all pending reforms," Manlio Fabio Beltrones, the likely head of the PRI congressional bloc, told me in an interview, citing that most of the country's reforms have been stuck in Congress because of lack of agreement between the three major parties.

But critics point out that a PRI government would not pass any significant reforms, because it would not risk its alliances with the country's biggest and best-organized labor unions. What's worst, old habits never die, and that PRI would not be able to shed its penchant for corruption, critics say.

For nearly a century, the PRI has been the champion of "crony capitalism" - its sweet deals with friendly business barons were the source of most of today's biggest Mexican fortunes - vote-buying, electoral fraud, and a combination of bribery and intimidation schemes to control the media, they say.

While Pena Nieto's team includes some new faces, most of them belong to the old PRI, they say. It's no coincidence that an old joke about the PRI's shady governance methods, said to have originated during the party's first presidents after the Mexican Revolution, says that "no Mexican general can resist a cannonade of $50,000."

Pena Nieto would engage in heavy borrowing, give out massive subsidies to buy votes, and leave the country badly indebted, his critics say.

"They would use the public budget to perpetuate themselves in power," Julio Castellanos, a congressman of President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party (PAN), told me. "They are not seeking to return to power for the next six years, but for the remainder of the 21st Century, creating a citizens' dependence on government subsidies."

Castellanos added that "this is not speculation, but a fact. It's what the PRI has been doing in virtually all of the 22 states where it governs."

My opinion: While the election will be much closer than the polls suggest, Pena Nieto is likely to win. His PRI party is the best organized, he has poured many times more money than his rivals into television ads, and many Mexicans seem willing to live with tolerable levels of corruption in exchange for less violence and the promise of greater prosperity.

It's a dangerous bargain, because in the long run corruption breeds instability and paves the way for messianic leaders. But elections are not about the long run.

A Pena Nieto victory would probably not turn Mexico into the "perfect dictatorship" that it was during much of the 20th century, but it could turn it into a more imperfect democracy than it has been over the past decade.


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