In meetings, President Felipe Calderon has been telling guests that he and his family are likely to leave Mexico to live abroad after his term expires in December. It will be too dangerous to remain, he warns in private conversation, because powerful drug mafias might come after him.
For the commander in chief of Mexico’s U.S.-backed drug war to suggest he has not provided enough security to live in his country is a stunning revelation — and may be seen as either an admission of failure or evidence of just how hard he has fought and how far Mexico needs to go.
As Mexicans go to the polls Sunday to vote for his successor, Calderon finds his legacy battered, his ruling party unpopular and its standard bearer, the energetic former education secretary Josefina Vazquez Mota, trailing in third place in the preelection surveys.
Limited to a single six-year term, Calderon remains personally popular, with his ratings hovering around 50 percent. Yet two of every three Mexicans recently surveyed say the country is headed in the wrong direction.
Calderon’s remarks about his future were relayed by visitors who met with him and declined to be named. According to a spokesman, the president is “considering a variety of options both at home and abroad to contribute to finding solutions to global problems.” He says “security will not be [a] factor.”
The election, said the pollster Roy Campos, “appears to be about change.”
Ahead in every major survey during the three-month presidential campaign is Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, the telegenic young face of the old corrupt party that ran Mexico as “a perfect dictatorship” for more than 70 years, before the dinosaurs, as Mexicans call them, were defeated by Calderon’s predecessor, Vicente Fox, in 2000.
After 12 years of Fox and Calderon, voters appear tired of the more conservative, pro-Catholic, pro-business National Action Party, or PAN, which failed to pass the grand reforms their leaders promised to modernize the country and turn it into a kind of Brazil, the envy of Latin America.
The toll of Calderon’s drug war — the sensational, medieval violence, the 60,000 dead, major cities occupied by masked soldiers — appears also to have exhausted the patience of Mexican voters.
While an overwhelming majority of Mexicans, about 80 percent, back the continued deployment of the military in the drug war, almost the same number describe violence, and human rights violations by the army, as their major concern. Less than half think Calderon is making progress against the cartels, according to the Pew Research Center’s most recent survey in Mexico.
Hailed by President Obama and Congress as a courageous ally in the drug war, and praised by the International Monetary Fund for his sober, solid stewardship of the economy, Calderon and his party have been on the defensive, their platform sounding like a rerun.
“What has happened is that the country is not that much different after 12 years of PAN, and that is the problem,” said Raul Benitez Manuat, a specialist in North American relations at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
When Fox was elected in 2000, and the PRI swept aside, Mexico expected major improvement after 70 years of autocratic, coercive and undemocratic rule. Fox — a rancher and former Coca-Cola distributor — was a folkloric and strong campaigner, but a frustrated reformer. The former president has conceded as much in recent weeks, saying that neither he nor Calderon could pass important legislation. Fox even suggested that it might take an electoral sweep by the PRI and Peña Nieto to get big things done.
In 2006, voters hoped Calderon would prove a more nimble politician, but he, too, failed to make good on most of his party’s priorities: to bust monopolies, end extreme poverty, stop teachers from selling their jobs, and reform a corrupt and incompetent police and judiciary that deny Mexico the rule of law.
“Calderon’s problem is that in the last 12 years, Mexico has changed, it has made progress, but it has not been enough progress. The change is not profound,” said Duncan Wood, director of the international relations program at Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology. “The life of the average Mexican is not sufficiently better.”
Calderon has surrounded himself with uncritical voices. His top administration officials have been criticized as unexceptional, even by supporters in his own party.
“They are the most unremarkable Mexicans,” said Lorenzo Meyer, a political analyst and historian at the Colegio de Mexico.
A week ago, in a ceremony attended by the U.S. ambassador and Calderon’s top drug warriors, Calderon pleaded with the next administration to continue his fight against organized crime. “We cannot throw away everything that has been done,” he warned.
Peña Nieto says he would focus more on the crimes that harm ordinary Mexicans — homicide, kidnapping, extortion — and less on drug trafficking. The left’s candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has said he would pull the military off the streets in six months and has emphasized creating jobs for youth, not stopping cocaine heading north.
Calderon and his economic managers, especially Agustin Carstens, now head of the country’s central bank, have been given high praise for steering Mexico through the global recession. But annual growth during Calderon’s six years has averaged a middling 2 percent, although 2012 started with a bang — a forecast of 4.5 percent growth for the year.
In the Pew survey, six in 10 Mexicans describe the economy as bad. In a poll by the Mitofsky Group, only a third of those who answered think the country is headed in the right direction. The newspaper Reforma found that three of every four voters were ready to reject the PAN, while the periodical El Universal found only a third of voters have a good opinion of Calderon’s PAN party.
Even among Calderon’s most loyal constituents, there appears to be a loss of faith. Among voters who said their political ideology tilted toward the right, 44 percent said they would vote PRI, only 23 percent for PAN, according to El Universal.
In its surveys, the Mitofsky Group found that Mexico’s growing middle class was favoring Peña Nieto and Lopez Obredor over PAN’s Vazquez Mota.
Some of Calderon’s critics have taken to calling it “un sexenio perdido,” Spanish for a lost six years. In a piece in Foreign Policy last week, Alina Rocha Menodcal, a fellow at the Overseas Development Institute in London, wrote that the president “will leave Mexico in worse shape than when he took office.”
Many say this is too harsh.
“It is an overstatement to say that PAN was a disaster,” said Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. “There was a stable economy, the expansion of the middle class. There was no great failure, no major scandals, but the problem is there was no great success.”
While scant on specifics, Peña Nieto has vowed to build a more vibrant economy, create a million jobs, open the national oil company to foreign investment, empower the middle class, improve the safety net, slash homicide rates and end parliamentary gridlock — the very stalemate that his aides admit their party fostered.
“Peña Nieto essentially proposes much the same policies that Calderon himself has endorsed,” said Andrew Selee, director of Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “But in the case of PRI, they promise to get things done.”