MEXICO CITY — When José Antonio Meade, Mexico’s finance secretary, tendered his resignation Monday morning, there was plenty of praise from President Enrique Peña Nieto — but no mention of why Meade was leaving or where he was going.
Many Mexicans, however, thought they know exactly what was coming next.
Meade's resignation seemed eerily similar to a ritual known as “El Destape,” or “the Unveiling,” a relic of Mexico's days under one-party rule. During the 71-year reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, the president would present his preferred successor, who would then be endorsed by PRI power brokers — presumed representatives of the working and popular classes — and praised effusively by members of the political class and the media.
With other potential PRI candidates such as Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong recently bowing out of the race, Meade seemed like he was the party's chosen one. Sure enough, he announced later on Monday that he will run for the PRI nomination. But using such an old-school selection process doesn't seem to fit in a country that has left one-party rule behind
“This is the sad spectacle of a PRI that has not known how to adapt to democracy and still chooses its candidate on the whims of its party elites,” said Viridiana Ríos, a scholar at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank.
“It’s a pathetic spectacle, too. We’re all paying attention as if we’re implicitly accepting the PRI can win in 2018.”
Immediately after resigning, Meade continued the “destape” ritual, making appearances at PRI-linked institutions such as the CTM union, a labor organization tied to the party but not known for doggedly defending workers.
“The PRI is made in the mold of José Antonio and José Antonio is made in the mold of the PRI,” said CTM boss Carlos Aceves, whose enthusiastic comments received lengthy applause.
Mexican media also covered Meade’s resignation closely — much more so than other cabinet shuffles or resignations. Stories centered on Meade’s impeccable track record, absence of scandal and how he would drive his own car to work or even take public transit in a city where public officials ply the streets in SUVs with security details.
Media outlets also reported on Meade’s imminent meetings with PRI power brokers, along with the withdrawal of the party's other top contenders, even as they polled better than Meade in hypothetical election matchups (the PRI has no primary system that pits potential candidates against each other).
“There’s a part of Mexico that feels comfortable with this charade. The press can cover this in the style it knows. It’s how they were brought up,” said Esteban Illades, editor of the Mexican magazine Nexos. “This is the Mexico my parents told me about.”
“It’s not only about this patrimonial presidency,” tweeted Carlos Bravo Regidor, professor at the Center for Teaching and Research in Economics. “It’s also the fact that there are so many in the media willing to be on the bandwagon or even celebrate it as if we’re in 1976.”
Meade is not, as yet, even a member of the PRI. But the party has been battered by corruption and conflict-of-interest scandals, and violence hit record levels in 2017. Polls show the PRI trailing both its main rivals; an August survey by market research firm Buendía & Laredo found 41 percent of respondents saying they would never vote for the party.
Meade also generates excitement in business circles — especially among investors spooked by the prospect of left-wing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador winning the presidency — and has a good record as a cabinet minister in successive administrations under presidents from different parties. PRI leaders are apparently hoping that Meade is a “clean” candidate capable of changing the party’s toxic image — even if his selection may prove that the same old power brokers are still in charge.
“If confirmed that the candidate is Meade, we will see the PRI promote him as a ‘citizen’ candidate, without party affiliation, with technical training, not a politician, rather a functionary,” Bravo Regidor said. “It’s to say there are elements of an anti-political discourse in the service of the PRI.”