Mexico’s unpopular president to leave behind troubled administration mired in scandal, controversy

MEXICO CITY – In his final state-of-the-nation speech this month, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto highlighted his attempts at curbing corruption, but among the attendees at the annual address: a government contractor, whose company sold the first lady a $7 million mansion.

It was a fitting finale for an outgoing president who came into in 2012 promising to transform Mexico with an ambitious agenda of structural reforms that he promised would raise living standards and modernize the economy.

His remarks, however, unfolded more as a funeral – even though the annual “informe” (as the state-of-the-nation address is known) is traditionally an annual spectacle of pomp, political theater and presidential reverence. 

The speech only served to offer Mexicans a rude reminder of six years of scandals and controversies, which plunged his approval rating into the teens and left his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) so unpopular that some of its leaders are proposing a name change.

It also followed three-time presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO) winning the July 1 presidential election with 53 percent of the vote and taking both houses of Congress on an agenda of austerity, getting rid of graft and undoing Peña Nieto’s reforms. 

Peña Nieto, who leaves office Nov. 30, was reflective and acknowledged some shortcomings, but was unrepentant. He boasted of record job creation, record tourist visits and robust infrastructure investment. “Mexico is a better country today than six years ago when I arrived,” he told an audience of political and business elites.

Past informes often were opportunities for the president to project power. But people took pot shots at the president on social media and point to problems such as Mexico’s homicide rate hitting a record high in 2017, perceptions of corruption climbing and public finances deteriorating. Some even wondered aloud what country their president was speaking about.

“It’s Peñalandia,” said Julio Astillero on Imagen Televisión. “It’s the territory where everything blooms, everything moves, everything is a success, everything works.”

Attempts at defending the Peña Nieto administration have proved clumsy. A partisan told journalist Carmen Aristegui that he saw record numbers of Mexico’s traveling to Russia during the World Cup, but were unappreciative of improvements achieved at home.

“I see on photos on Instagram of friends in Europe. They can go. There’s a sector that can easily travel to Europe that couldn’t before, but they’re also unhappy,” PRI lawmaker Jorge Carlos Ramírez Marín told journalist Carmen Aristegui. “They complain they can’t travel in first class.”

Some pundits saw a mixed record marked by scandals.

“This current administration did some very good things, the reforms, which have not been valued enough (and) will change the face of the country in some years,” said Valeria Moy, director of Mexico ¿Cómo Vamos? a think tank. 

“I see restaurants full, shopping centers are full, every flight I take is fully booked,” Moy added. “But the corruption that comes together with (the reforms) has been devastating. This same administration has thrown overboard the accomplishments that they achieved.”

Peña Nieto spent massively on publicity during his six years in office and received positive press from publications receiving government advertising. But a barrage of ads ahead of the informe only stoked controversy.

In one ad, he spoke positively inviting then-candidate Donald Trump to Mexico City mid-campaign in August 2016, when the New York billionaire spoke of Mexico paying for his border wall idea, during a joint press appearance at the presidential palace – only to have Peña Nieto not respond until afterward.

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