Notebook

April 8, 2014 5:13 pm

Sleaze v spin in Mexico’s race for reform

Enrique Peña Nieto’s government combines reform with rigid control, writes Jude Webber
©Bloomberg

When Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s president, ran a 10km race last month, he cruised over the finish line without so much as a ruffle in his impeccably coiffed hair – and that was despite knocking a minute off his personal best in the event.

It produced the perfect picture of a leader whose 16 months in office have been imbued not only with an ambitious push for reform but also with rigid discipline – especially when it comes to “the message” and turning round Mexico’s reputation from yesteryear’s narco badlands to today’s reformist comeback kid.

No surprise, then, that news rarely leaks from Los Pinos, the presidential palace, where Mr Peña Nieto runs a tight cabinet. The government even admits with disarming candour that, instead of staging news conferences, the presidency prefers delivering statements that make it easier to stay on-message rather than answer pesky questions from journalists.

Mexico is peculiarly hierarchical; there is an Aztec ceremoniousness to public affairs, where ritual and form are often worshipped. Even so, long-time political observers detect a new modus operandi. “This is a control-freak government,” says one senior official from a past administration.

Mr Peña Nieto, who jets around the country almost daily in a slick suit, delivers speeches at public works inaugurations that sound remarkably similar, perhaps because they are bland. Still, the president appears not to be a control freak himself, although his appearances are carefully choreographed; even when greeting children, he fails to come across as entirely spontaneous. With such close scripting, it is as if he has taken a page from his soap-opera wife, Angélica Rivera, a Carla Bruni-type, former telenovela star.

He has, however, honed a reputation as a canny political operator. Instead of micromanaging, he delegates to confidants such as Luis Videgaray, his finance minister, and Aurelio Nuño, his chief of staff. Despite his mild-mannered exterior, Mr Videgaray is said to strike fear into his subordinates, while Mr Nuño, so the gossip goes, has been tasked with letting businesspeople know the government is top dog.

The clearest example of the power Mr Peña Nieto sought to reinvest in the office of the presidency is the positive attention he has rightly attracted for his reforms, especially a bid to chop long-cosseted corporate telecoms and broadcast titans down to size. Nevertheless, cynics say the official stance is harsher on the phone magnate Carlos Slim than on Emilio Azcárraga, head of the Televisa network widely considered sympathetic to the president – a point that returns to the way the message has been crafted.

In the few months I have spent here I have found the administration at times frustratingly hermetic but more often pleasingly accessible – a happy state of affairs after Argentina, where the government disdains the media to the extent of launching almost full-frontal attacks. Argentina’s government, under the mercurial President Cristina Fernández, is more of a personality; Mexico’s is a machine.

Banx cartoon

Still, I was slightly floored when asked by one press handler, after interviewing a minister on my mobile phone and his, if I would mind sending them a recording. And when Pemex, the state energy company, sent, at my request, a presentation that had been shown to journalists at a news conference but not distributed, the most interesting page was curiously not there.

When Mr Peña Nieto, a 47-year-old telegenic former state governor, last year swept Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary party, or PRI, out of a 12-year wilderness and back to the throne it had occupied for most of the 20th century, there was much debate about whether this was a New Labour moment. Was it real reform or party rebranding in the manner of former UK prime minister Tony Blair? That has raised the question: how much of the old PRI – with many of its cadres reared on the feeling that they had a divine right to govern – remains?

In recent days the PRI boss in Mexico City has been dumped after allegations he hired female staff who were expected to have sex with him; and a top official in Michoacán state has been detained pending a probe of potential links with organised crime.

These moves are promising but suggest there is some way to go before a party used to governing in a “perfect dictatorship” can be pronounced sleaze-free. Delivering on that message of zero tolerance is another reform to which Mr Peña Nieto is committed. It will require all the discipline at his disposal.

jude.webber@ft.com

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