Mexico's PRI makes a comeback in midterm elections

MEXICO CITY -- The political party that ruled Mexico with an iron fist for 71 years made a significant comeback in Sunday's midterm elections.

When the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, lost the presidency for the first time in 2000, a new era of democracy was hailed in Mexico. But it appears that a sharp economic downturn and a deadly drug war have given the venerable party a boost.

According to preliminary results, the PRI was leading the race by 8 percentage points, despite a generally high approval rating for Mexican President Felipe Calderon, of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN. The PRI also held leads in four of six governors races.

"It's a fact that the president is very popular. But that popularity didn't translate into votes for his party," said Juan Pardinas, a political analyst with the Mexican Institute for Competition. "The PRI gives off an image of gravitas, of experience in power, of order and command that the PAN isn't able to give off."

It appears that many Mexicans are seeking some semblance of security. The economy is in its worst shape since the 1990s and is expected to contract by more than 6 percent this year. And a bloody conflict with organized crime has left at least 11,000 dead since Calderon took office in late 2006.

Jorge Alejandro Corona, a government worker who cast his ballot Sunday in a working-class neighborhood in Mexico City, says that jobs and drug violence are his main concerns. He criticizes the government on both fronts.

"I think that first, in order for a program against drug traffickers to work, we should improve the economic situation," Corona said. "If the economic situation improves and wages increase, then I think we can start to think about how to attack drug trafficking. But the economy is the main point."

Employment has fallen in key sectors such as tourism and manufacturing as U.S. consumers spend less and the recent outbreak of swine flu keeps visitors away.

In the last Congress, the PAN had 206 seats while the PRI held 106 in Mexico's lower house. After Sunday's election, the PRI likely will double its share.

"The PAN has done things very poorly," Corona said, "and because of this the PRI is just seizing the opportunity."

Some analysts say that a strong PRI vote could force Calderon to change some of his policies. Allison Benton, a Mexico analyst with the consulting firm Eurasia Group, says a loss could serve as a wake-up call, which could lead to changes in strategies on key issues such as the economy and security.

Calderon has attempted to allow more private investment in the oil industry for deepwater exploration and wants to reform tax and labor laws. But he will have to negotiate with a less-friendly Congress going forward.

When Calderon took over the presidency in 2006, he faced significant challenges: His rival, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who lost the race by less than a percentage point, accused him of fraud and declared himself the legitimate president of Mexico. Calderon may face an even bumpier passage ahead. "Surely he is going to be a more isolated president than he was during the last three years," said Pardinas, the political analyst.

After the PAN's national leader acknowledged the PRI's gains Sunday night, Calderon urged cooperation.

"The competition is behind us, and now we have to focus our efforts on seeking the agreements the country needs to recover, as soon as possible, on economic growth, job creation and public safety," he said.

(Miller Llana reported from Tegulcigalpa, Honduras, and Roeder from Mexico City.)