Has anyone had a worse autumn than Enrique Peña Nieto?
Bill Cosby maybe. The Philadelphia 76ers. But out here in the real world, the president’s plummeting approval rating — by some measures it’s under 40% — tells us a lot about a new mood in Mexico.
The cause of his fall, as much of the planet knows by now, is the mass murder of four dozen young people in the city of Iguala, Guerrero, most of them teacher trainees.
But the president didn’t kill them. He didn’t have anything to do with it. Nor did anybody involved with the federal government, as far as we know.
In fact, it was Iguala’s mayor who had the students turned over for assassination to the local drug-trafficking mafia, with whom he co-governed. Both that mayor (in custody) and the state governor (resigned) are members of the PRD, the chief political opponent of Peña Nieto’s PRI.
So why is it Peña Nieto who’s taking the hit?
The administration’s answer is that political forces opposed to the PRI on other matters are milking the tragedy. The navy secretary was even sent out the other day to accuse the growing reform movement of just that.
“They’re trying to discredit what the administration has done,” he said. “What angers me even more is that they’re manipulating the parents (of the victims).”
No doubt the anti-peñistas are pouncing on the situation; that’s what political opponents do. But the administration’s defensive posture doesn’t wash. If people were convinced that what’s going on now is nothing more than cynical manipulation by malcontents trying to hurt the president and destabilize the nation, the president’s rating would go up, not down.
Peña Nieto hurt himself early when he ignored the tragedy for weeks — the kind of thing that drives political handlers crazy.
“Why did the president stay silent?” said Antonio Solá, a Madrid-based campaign strategist who advised Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón. “That really hurt his approval rating.”
Juan José Rendón, a Venezuelan strategist who helped Peña Nieto with his 2012 campaign, blamed the president’s slow response for the very situation that the administration claims exists now.
“It allowed the idea to grow in public opinion that what happened in Ayotzinapa was a crime of the state,” he said in a newspaper interview. “His adversaries, interested in destabilizing the nation, took advantage of that.”
Such is the spinmeisters’ default approach to crisis. Forget what’s true, forget what’s right. Just make sure you engage in pre-emptive manipulation to get ahead in the image race.
So did the president simply drop the ball? Or was there more to it?
There’s a good case to be made that he was caught flat-footed. Until September 26, when the trouble started in Iguala, his administration had been free of crises, or at least of new ones. He was knocked down by something he didn’t see coming.
Why anybody in today’s Mexico would be caught off guard by a violent event, even such an extreme one, may seem baffling. But keep in mind that the Peña Nieto administration had not been about crime control. It was about economic reform, which it sees as the ultimate antidote to insecurity. The subject of violence was downplayed.
As Jorge Chabat, an international studies professor at the CIDE think tank, put it: “It’s as though insecurity were a demon that only appears when you say its name.”
Iguala shouted the name, and crashing down came the administration’s fantasy of superimposing a prosperous economy on an institutional infrastructure so rotted that a mayor of a fairly good-sized city can rule in tandem with a murderous criminal gang and get away with it until he went too far.
When it finally engaged, the administration alienated itself more from the energized public by hinting at using force to control the demonstrations, using language uncomfortably reminiscent of President Díaz Ordaz before the 1968 army massacre of students in Tlatelolco square.
Defenders insist (correctly, on the surface) that the warning was aimed at the violent, march-infiltrating masked anarchists, who in theory are the enemies of both the government and the true protesters. But the message was clear, and Peña Nieto came off, oddly, as opposing a movement to eliminate state violence and corruption.
Why wasn’t he leading that movement? Wouldn’t it be a more noble defining mission for an administration than opening up a dying oil industry?
The president’s program for action, once delivered, probably pushed his ratings down a few notches more. Some points seem somewhat helpful, some window dressing, and none new (most were previously proposed by Calderón and opposed by the PRI).
All, however, miss the point.
Not many Mexicans are going to be satisfied with strategy tweaks, new laws, tourism promotion projects and money tossed around here and there. The violence and injustice that cheapen the lives of 120 million people isn’t the result of wrong policies but of corrupt, putrid state institutions that need to be disinfected and overhauled.
Despite the silly slogans about Peña Nieto resigning, and about bringing back the students alive, such a cleansing is what the new movement is really all about. The old nihilism may be giving way to a new notion: We don’t have to live this way.
The president has lost popularity because people doubt that he can fix things, or even cares to try. They’ve come to the conclusion that he’s not on their side in this fight.