MEXICO CITY -- The last time Mexico experienced a political crisis more serious than the one it is undergoing today was in 1994, when a group of so-called Zapatista guerrillas staged a semi-armed uprising in the southern state of Chiapas. The president's handpicked successor was assassinated, and, as if that was not enough, the value of the peso had plummeted by nearly 70 percent. Today's crisis is not quite as bad, but it is getting close.
In December 2012, President Enrique Peña Nieto took office under inauspicious circumstances. He was elected with just 38 percent of the vote, without a majority in either house of Congress, and with the opposition in control of Mexico City, the capital. The presidential runner-up, opposition leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador, questioned the results of the election.
Peña Nieto faced serious challenges. His Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had governed Mexico for 70 years, until it was swept out of power in 2000. A large majority of Mexican voters continued to suspect it of corruption, authoritarianism, and economic incompetence. Peña Nieto's predecessor, Felipe Calderón, had bequeathed him a war on drugs that had already caused more than 60,000 deaths; at least another 22,000 Mexicans were missing.
At first, it looked like Peña Nieto would be able to turn things around. He cut a deal with both opposition parties -- the center-right National Action Party (PAN) and the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) -- and proceeded to win significant legislative changes. He was hailed as a world-class reformer. The country was living the "Mexican Moment," as his handlers labeled it, and appeared to be on the verge of fulfilling, at long last, its great promise.
Two years on, success seems to be slipping through Peña Nieto's hands. The country and its increasingly grey-haired president are experiencing one tragedy, scandal, or disappointment after another.
The price of oil, from which the government obtains one-third of its revenue, has plunged 40 percent in six months. With last year's economic growth projected to be 2 percent, following just 1.1 percent growth in 2013, Mexico will barely have grown faster during the first third of Peña Nieto's six-year term than it did during the last quarter-century.
Meanwhile, a pact Peña Nieto made with his predecessor is returning to haunt him. In exchange for support in the Senate for energy-sector reform, he gave Calderón and his aides a tacit blanket pardon for any conceivable misdeeds committed by Calderón's presidential administration. This hurts Peña Nieto's image in exactly the areas in which Mexicans most mistrust their leaders: violence and graft.
The massacre of 22 civilians by the army last June in Tlatlaya, a small town west of Mexico City, and the disappearance and subsequent murder and incineration of 43 students, also close to the capital, was not a new type of development in Mexico. Extrajudicial executions and disappearances were common under Calderón.
But this time something snapped. Protests erupted across Mexico. The government mishandled both episodes, believing that they would blow over. Peña Nieto has yet to visit Iguala, the town where the students were abducted and murdered. He waited a month after they disappeared before meeting with their parents, and spent a week in China and Australia in the middle of the crisis.
Meanwhile, charges of corruption have been piling up. Just hours after Peña Nieto canceled a contract with a Chinese railroad company to build a fast train north of Mexico City, it was revealed that his wife had acquired an ostentatious home -- thanks to a mortgage extended to her by the Mexican partner of the Chinese railway firm.
The conflict of interest was so brazen, even by Mexican standards, that the first lady -- a popular former telenovela actress -- quickly announced that she would sell the mansion. Then, in early December, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Peña Nieto's finance minister, Luis Videgaray, had also purchased a home in late 2012, just before taking office, from the same contractor, with a similar mortgage. On the second anniversary of Peña Nieto's inauguration, his approval rating had dwindled to 39 percent, with 58 percent of the public disapproving of his performance.
Peña Nieto has tried to soldier through the crisis by promising reforms aimed at improving security and strengthening the rule of law. The trouble with this strategy is what no Mexican president has been willing to acknowledge: the country has never experienced the rule of law.
Before the advent of democracy in 2000, order was imposed by the iron hand of a corrupt, authoritarian state. When its grip was loosened, any semblance of law and order disappeared. Unless and until this is recognized, reforms in this area will lack credibility for Mexicans and foreign investors alike, and thus are unlikely to be effective. Unfortunately, Peña Nieto, whose party ruled Mexico in the bad old days, is unlikely to be the president who breaks the mold.
Mexico was once accustomed to crises (even if it hasn't had one for 20 years); but they typically erupted at the end of a presidential term. Peña Nieto has four more years in office, and he is constrained by the political elite that brought him to power from implementing the drastic measures -- a cabinet reshuffle, criminal accountability for corruption and human rights violations, and radical judicial reforms -- that Mexico needs.
But the alternative could be worse: a populist backlash that destroys much of what Mexico has achieved over the last two decades.
Jorge G. Castañeda, Mexico's Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 2000 to 2003, is Professor of Politics and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University.
© Project Syndicate