MEXICO CITY — President Enrique Pena Nieto came to power Dec. 1. He promised a new Mexico, an economic powerhouse far from its image as a land overrun by drug traffickers. He passed radical reforms for education and telecommunications and proposed more for energy and taxes.
But nine months later, as Pena Nieto prepares to give his first state of the nation address on Monday, the new Mexico looks a lot like the old one. Economic growth projections have been cut nearly in half. The streets are clogged with anti-reform protesters, who have blocked Congress and even forced the president to change the date and location of that state of the nation speech.
Drug-related killings are down, his government says without releasing statistics. But kidnapping and extortion, the crimes affecting average citizens that Pena Nieto promised to attack, are on the rise.
After 12 years out of office, the once-autocratic party known as the PRI is encountering a more complicated, democratic country than the one it ran for 71 years.
“They have to learn how to govern in a new context where there are a greater number of new voices from new spaces, and there is less control,” said Alberto Aziz Nassif, an analyst with the Center for Investigations in Social Anthropology.
With GDP growth projections dropping from 3.1 to 1.8 percent this year, and protesting teachers forcing legislators to shelve a key piece of his education reform, Pena Nieto cancelled a trip to Turkey to rescue the meat of the education reform in Congress.
“Let me tell you, in this effort we will not relent. We will not surrender. We are going firmly and with determination to make education reform happen,” he said at a presidential stop on Wednesday celebrating Senior Citizens Day.
Mexico’s oil fields are drying up and Pemex lacks the equipment to explore in deep water or to extract shale gas. Production has plunged about 25 percent over the last decade. But the proposed reform requires constitutional changes that strike at the heart of one of Mexico’s proudest moments: President Lazaro Cardenas’ nationalization of the oil company in 1938.
Led by Cardenas’ son Cuauhtemoc, a leftist leader, thousands marched through the heart of Mexico City on Saturday to protest against the energy reform. Thousands of others have taken over the capital’s main plaza, camping out to protest the education measure.
And more controversy looms: the government plans to introduce a tax reform widely expected to include an unpopular sales tax on food and medicine.
“What we’re seeing is that the honeymoon doesn’t last forever and that in the end, governing is a complicated exercise that requires a great ability to negotiate and establish relations with various political and social forces,” said Helena Varela, political sciences director at the Iberoamerican University.
Pena Nieto won the 2012 presidential election with only 38.2 percent of the vote, with leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at nearly 32 percent. His approval ratings so far, around 50 percent, have been surprisingly low for a new president in Mexico, where 70 or 80 percent popularity is not unusual.
In the days leading up to his speech, he has run television ads to try to boost the mood.
But taking on teachers, Mexican oil nationalism, media and telephone magnates and consumers all in the same year may have been a political miscalculation.
“That’s a multi-billion-dollar question everyone is asking right now,” said Duncan Wood, director of the Washington-based Mexico Institute. “I don’t think they were really prepared for this ... There’s a perfect storm of factors coming up that are proving to be the biggest test so far.”