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Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto slumps in polls despite policy wins

Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto (L) and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö meet during the Boao Forum for Asia in Boao, China in southern China's Hainan province on 7 April 2013.

Plenty of world leaders would be thrilled to have the kind of executive hot streak blazed by Mexico's Enrique Pena Nieto during his first 16 months in office.

In that short span, he and his administration have steered more than a dozen major new laws through congress, overhauling the country's energy, banking and education sectors, among others.

Pena Nieto has stood up to powerful interests from Mexico's business world and underworld. He has locked up drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the world's most wanted trafficker, quieting doubters in the United States who questioned his crime-fighting mettle.

Yet for all the praise he has won in Washington and elsewhere in the world, Pena Nieto's opening act is getting panned in the only place it really counts: Mexico.

After Time magazine put him on the cover of its international edition recently with the headline "Saving Mexico," a flood of ridicule and derision followed.

Pena Nieto's approval ratings have fallen fairly steadily since he took office in December 2012, dropping to 37 percent in one recent poll, with other surveys rating him in the mid-40s.

The biggest problem, analysts say, has been Mexico's feeble growth. Last year, the country's economy expanded at just 1.1 percent, far below the goal of 5 percent growth Pena Nieto set when he ran for president.

His most widely touted move, a constitutional amendment opening Mexico's state-controlled energy sector to private and foreign investment, was advertised as a catalyst for faster growth. But it may take years for the benefits to materialise.

According to Mexican economist Luis de la Calle, a bold legislative agenda doesn't tend to favor short-term success.

"By concentrating on reforms, it's tougher to pay attention to important development projects. So there's an economic cost as well as a political one," de la Calle said. "And an ambitious reform agenda is something that introduces uncertainty into the economy."

De la Calle and others say Pena Nieto and his team have made a strategic calculation to spend political capital and lose popularity at the outset of his term in hopes of reaping rewards later, in time for next year's midterm congressional elections.

Pena Nieto's attempts at overhauling Mexico's institutions have made him powerful enemies. He has challenged mega-billionaire Carlos Slim's near- monopoly on Mexican telecom and tossed the once-feared teachers union boss, Elba Esther Gordillo, in jail on corruption charges.

Such moves won't result in immediate, tangible benefits for ordinary Mexicans.

They have, however, made a splash in foreign capitals, where Pena Nieto has spent a lot of time trying to turn around negative perceptions of Mexico as chaotic, corrupt and dominated by drug traffickers. He has traveled to China and other Asian countries to drum up business, sought to repair strained relations with France and met frequently with President Barack Obama, promoting his "reform" agenda at every stop.

Yet the changes that earn Pena Nieto applause at global policy forums are getting booed back home.

"Pena Nieto is taking on the big issues that most economists would agree have been holding Mexico back, so the view of Mexico has been quite positive," said Shannon O'Neil, a Mexico expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

At the same time, O'Neil said, "the reforms have yet to make life better for the average Mexican."

On the contrary, middle-class Mexicans have seen their property taxes rise under Pena Nieto. Gasoline is more expensive and so are soft drinks, hit with higher taxes. Nearly half the country remains in poverty and consumer confidence is falling, with other indicators showing the poorest Mexicans doing worse under Pena Nieto than under his predecessor, Felipe Calderon.

Calderon and his predecessor, Vicente Fox, came from the National Action Party, and their legislative plans were frequently blocked by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of Pena Nieto.

But because the PRI now controls the largest number of seats in congress, Pena Nieto can't blame Mexico's troubles on his opponents.

He also faces higher expectations, having crafted his political identity as a measured, disciplined leader who delivers results, pollster Jorge Buendia said.

"He ran for president as someone who keeps his word, and emphasises his record of getting things done," Buendia said.

Buendia said the president got a modest, fleeting bump in the polls after Guzman's arrest. But while Calderon put Mexico's fight against drug cartels at the center of his presidency, Pena Nieto has sought to shift attention to trade, energy and other themes. So for him, analysts say, the political rewards for taking down big drug bosses have been somewhat diminished.

If Mexico's economy does not return to growth rates above 3 percent this year, Buendia said, Pena Nieto's PRI is likely to suffer compounded losses in July 2015 midterm elections, when the party in power often loses seats, as happens in the United States.

The most likely beneficiary would be the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party and the breakaway party Morena, headed by former presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who has been leading street protests since Pena Nieto defeated him in 2012. Those parties could make it tougher for Pena Nieto to get subsequent legislation approved.

And while Pena Nieto's low-key style hasn't made him many personal enemies, he represents a political party with a spotty past from the 72 years it controlled the Mexican government prior to Fox's win in 2000.

Jorge Castaneda, Mexico's foreign minister under Fox and one of its most prominent columnists, said Pena Nieto's popularity will always be limited because the PRI is widely disliked.

"This guy was elected with 38 percent of the vote, and his party hasn't gotten anywhere beyond that during the past 20 years," Castaneda said.

"They have a glass ceiling they can't crack through, and they probably never will," he said. "The country just doesn't like these guys."

Nick Miroff – The Washington Post
Image: Martti Kainulainen / Lehtikuva