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Opinion Fed up with corruption, will Mexicans usher in a new political era?

Ken Frankel is president of the Canadian Council for the Americas.

Six years ago an international observer of the Mexican presidential election wondered aloud to several high level supporters of candidate Enrique Pena Nieto of the PRI party.

He wondered how they reconciled an apparent contradiction. The PRI, which had been voted out of office for the previous 12 years after its uninterrupted 70-year reign, promised Mexican voters that it had transformed itself into the “new PRI,” having embraced transparent and clean governance.

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Their candidate however had been tutored from childhood by masters of the PRI’s opaque machinations, creating lingering doubts about his own past.

They demurred. The imperative was winning the election. They’d manage any fallout six years down the road.

Six years down the road, corruption has been forced to the top of Mexico’s political agenda owing largely to the efforts of grassroots citizen efforts and the PRI’s impressive record of corruption among its federal and state office holders.

The fallout looks to be unmanageable and catastrophic for the PRI in this Sunday’s election. Despite enacting important energy, telecom and education reforms under Mr. Pena Nieto, the “new PRI” will be punished badly at the ballot box.

Its candidate, Jose Antonio “Pepe” Meade, a well-respected technocrat who headed several key ministries for Mr. Pena Nieto and his predecessor from the PAN, former president Felipe Calderon, trails far behind in third place. The PRI’s prospects in the congressional and gubernatorial races are equally dismal.

The PAN, Mexico’s other major party, wasn’t particularly transparent or effective during its 12 years in power from 2000 to 2012. Mr. Calderon’s “war on drugs” strategy, which resulted in 150,000 deaths and 28,000 disappearances, is still fresh in Mexican minds. Citizen security is the other major issue in this campaign and Mexicans are primed to consider alternative approaches.

Its candidate, 39-year-old Ricardo Anaya, wrested the party away from its elders and brought renewed vigour. He wears his ambition on both sleeves and comes off to many Mexicans as studious, but unseasoned. His pledge to prosecute Mr. Pena Nieto and other PRI government officials reverberates as another spin of the cycle of the same inside folks accusing the same inside folks of crimes that gets the country no closer to solutions.

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Mexicans are turning to the candidate who has railed against political corruption and impunity for more than three decades: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or AMLO as he is called. It’s his third presidential bid, having come a whisker’s distance from winning in 2006.

Barrels of ink have been spilled and words spoken by everyone with an opinion to characterize AMLO. He has been labelled a false messiah, a pragmatist, autocratic, a humble and incorruptible public servant, a social conservative, a nationalist, a populist, a crypto-Chavista, an inclusive collaborator, among other labels. As with many politicians who have been in the public eye for numerous years, you can find some evidence to support or refute almost any opinion, and none would be completely accurate.

AMLO describes himself as a man of “ideas and principles.” The most basic of these is what he calls mexicanismo – a belief that Mexicans have the ingenuity and resourcefulness to develop solutions tailored to their own history and circumstances. He welcomes all Mexicans under his big tent, including oddly a few labour leaders with unsavoury histories.

So far he has provided only a few specifics of how mexicanismo gets translated into policy: significantly raising the minimum wage (also supported by the conservative PAN), reorienting the fight against illegal drugs by focusing on education and opportunities for vulnerable youth and instituting presidential recall referenda every two years, among others. The state will be more involved in the economy and other areas.

AMLO says confidently that he and U.S. President Donald Trump will have a respectable and productive dialogue over NAFTA and immigration. No telling how that will go, Mr. Trump might respect AMLO more than a PRI or PAN leader with an “internationalist” outlook.

In six years, AMLO’s most successful achievement if he were to become president may be recreating a PRI-like party in his own image, for better and/or worse. Not the new PRI, but the nascent PRI of the 1930s, led by one of his and Mexico’s icons, President Lazaro Cardenas. Mr. Cardenas’s most revered act was nationalizing the oil companies in the name of Mexican sovereignty and know-how i.e. mexicanismo.

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The challenge is that there is plenty of room for sideshows under a big tent that can destroy a political project. Just ask the new PRI. If that happens, where will the deeply disillusioned turn?

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