MEXICO CITY — Halfway through Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s term, the man once considered the reformer in chief is now seen as the unpopular leader of a violent country with a limping economy and a number of corruption scandals.
On Wednesday afternoon, Peña Nieto sought to rebrand himself and his government in his third state of the union address.
He acknowledged that “the last year has been a difficult year for Mexico” but said that “we are going to confront these challenges with clarity, direction and absolute determination. We’re going to go forward committed to the law.”
After a fast start involving constitutional changes after he took office in late 2012, Peña Nieto’s approval rating has tumbled to 35 percent, according to a recent poll. In the past few months, the value of the peso has plummeted against the dollar, and the economy has elbow-crawled along at 2 percent, a rate less than half of what he promised in his campaign.
The government’s struggles have left many Mexicans disenchanted with Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which returned to power with his election after more than a decade out of the presidency. Last week, he shuffled his cabinet in the clearest sign yet of his desire for a fresh start.
“Our country has been deeply hurt by a series of cases and unfortunate events,” Peña Nieto said, referring to the disappearance of a group of 43 students and the prison break of drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Peña Nieto also admitted that a scandal over his family’s purchase of a house from a government contractor had caused “worry and indignation in Mexican society.”
A poll released this week by the Buendía and Laredo firm found that 63 percent of Mexicans think their country is heading in the wrong direction, about double the number who felt that way in the first months after Peña Nieto took over. These are the lowest Mexican presidential ratings the firm has tracked, lower even than those for Ernesto Zedillo during the mid-1990s peso crisis, said Jorge Buendía, who runs the firm.
“The economy is an important factor, certainly. Economic growth has been very limited in the last three years — that would be the principal driver,” Buendía said in an interview. “And, on the other side, insecurity hasn’t improved.”
When asked where Peña Nieto had fared the worst, many of those polled pointed to the changes he had enacted — oil-sector reform, overhauling the education system — measures that had won him praise in the beginning of his term.
After he took office, Peña Nieto opened the crucial oil industry to foreign investment for the first time in nearly a century, and he pushed through constitutional changes affecting the telecom industry and the education system. But problems have since mounted. Slumping world oil prices have kept investors away from Mexico’s oil fields.
“Peña Nieto obtained in his first 18 months of government what his predecessors couldn’t achieve in decades: 11 structural reforms,” columnist Sergio Sarmiento wrote in the Reforma newspaper on Wednesday. “Many are positive, but with complicated implementation, like the case of education and energy. Others have been frankly negative, in my opinion, like the fiscal reform, that only served to increase taxes and negatively affect the economy.”
The drug-war crisis still looms large for many, especially in the volatile western states of Guerrero and Michoacan, as well as along the U.S. border. In the first seven months of the year, the country’s homicide rate was about 3 percent higher than in the same period last year. The troubles confronting the government — including the disappearance of the 43 teachers college students last year, which generated months of protest; the rise of a powerful new cartel in Jalisco; and the prison break by drug lord Guzman — have outshone its successes.
“The government is going to underline the advances,” said Alfonso Zarate, president of a political consulting firm in Mexico. “But I think the government presents deceiving results.”
To achieve wider public support, he said, there would have to be a demonstration “that the government is sensitive to the poverty of the majority of Mexicans. That the reforms show results, a growth of investment, a growing economy that is reflected in paid employees, that the society can live without fear.”