So what's the deal with Enrique Peña Nieto? The outgoing governor of Estado de México, member of the Atlacomulco Group within the PRI, has been ahead of the presidential polls for the better part of his term as governor. He will leave office soon to announce his candidacy for the 2012 elections. And he'll most likely win. Every poll puts him in the lead by a very wide margin over all other presidential hopefuls.
Why is Enrique Peña Nieto so incredibly popular? What has he done that makes him the absolute favorite for the presidency?
Admittedly, I've never truly grasped his popularity since I've been here. I understand Andrés Manuel López Obrador's appeal (the angry anti-government left). I get why Marcelo Ebrard would win some votes (European-style liberal who champions civil rights and emancipation, strong green agenda and a good governance record). I see why Josefina Vázquez Mota is in the race (clean as a whistle, good speaker, not too associated with the president, good record as secretary, stylish and elegant image).
But Peña Nieto? Sure, he looks spotless. He's young. He's a good public speaker and he's a governor of the most populous state in the country. But still, why the dubble digit lead?
There are reasons enough why the PRI should be a frontrunner in the polls. Mexicans are not quite satisfied with two terms of PAN-governance. Both Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón suffer from a lame duck image. Even though macro-economic figures during the last 11 years have generally been good, poverty rates during PAN presidencies have increased. Calderón's war on drugs isn't working out the way the president hoped. Insecurity, impunity, lack of job creation and political gridlock bringing reforms to a standstill have made his presidency an unsuccesful one.
The left isn't in great shape either. Infighting in the PRD has hurt unity in the country's only broad progressive platform, with former presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador's maverick actions almost tearing the party in two.
But still, double digits?
What has Enrique Peña Nieto achieved in his years as governor? It can't be his law enforcement 'program', because he never had one. Violent crime skyrocketed in Estado de México during his term. The state has the second highst index of femicide. And under Peña Nieto Estado de México's share in GDP has fallen from 12.1% to around 9%. The metropolitan area of Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl/Ecatepec/Chalco/Texcoco floods every year due to poor drainage, and very little has been done to actually solve the problem.
In fact, Enrique Peña Nieto has turned out te be just a really, really bad governor. Astonishingly, his abysmal record as an administrator hasn't even scratched his popularity.
I decided to ask sociologist and political observer Bernardo Barranco, a long time observer of Estado de México's political scene, for answers to this mystery.
"Enrique Peña Nieto has executed a campaign without precedent in Mexico ever since he became governor in 2005. His predecessor, Arturo Montiel, had made certain pacts with media such as Televisa, and when he left, this pact passed to Peña Nieto. He's a product of the media through and through. Televisa turned him into a kind of Telenovela-character, who has all the traits of a soap opera hero. Mexicans love that."
"If you observe Peña Nieto's character, he's not a very cultured or intellectual individual. But he's smart and pragmatic. He breathes the image of success. He married actress Angélica Rivera, a beautiful woman, while at the same time maintaining the image of being a very faithful catholic."
"Perhaps the most important thing about him is the way he treats journalists. He has carefully crafted an aura of mystery, of being completely inaccessible to journalists. But at the same time, some reporters are very close to him. Peña Nieto is very careful not to let a lot of press get close to him, while those he does allow in his inner circle feel priviliged to be able to talk to him. That's how he maintains his mystery."
So there you have it. Estado de México's outgoing governor is not a civil servant. He's a mysterious, spotless soap opera hero with a gorgeous wife and an impeccable haircut. Enrique Peña Nieto has been in character for the last six years, and he will not go out of it until he leaves office in 2018. Mexicans love it, more than they would love López Obrador's angry-old-man act, Ebrard's liberal sophistication or Vázquez Mota's clean record and elegant charms.
When Mexico votes Peña Nieto into office in 2012 (and I have very little doubt they will), Mexico will get an actor for a president. It will get a living, breathing image, a man perpetually in character.
This is a telenovela-loving country. And what's more exciting for the fans than having a real-life soap opera hero as the country's princeps, with a soap opera beauty as the first lady?
Yeah, I think I'm starting to get it now.