With poll numbers hovering around 20 per cent, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto might have felt he had little to lose in confronting the blustery businessman from the north, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on Wednesday.
But as he prepares to deliver a national address tonight, the question is less about Peña Nieto’s political future but that of his party, the once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI, which could have a tough time hanging on to the presidency when his term runs out in 2018.
“I don’t think it is going to bring down the president or anything right now,” said veteran pollster Ricardo de la Peña. “But I do think it makes it clearer than ever that the PRI will not stay in government after 2018.”
The pollster also predicted that from now on Peña Nieto is likely to remain a figure of disdain, and that the image of him cutting a docile figure being patted on the back by Trump will haunt him for the rest of his term in office.
“It could help turn bashing Peña Nieto into a kind of sport,” he said. “A competition to see who hits him harder.”
Peña Nieto certainly seemed worried on Thursday — the day after his encounter with the Republican Party candidate in the presidential residence of Los Pinos, with just hours to go before his yearly state of the nation address this evening.
Breaking his usual impersonal solemnity, Peña Nieto responded directly to a Trump tweet insisting that Mexico will pay for the wall he has promised to build to keep Mexicans out of the United States.
The press conference after the meeting was always going to be controversial because of Trump’s multiple insults directed at Mexico and Mexicans. The fact that the Mexican president had not only failed to demand an apology, but also failed to even react when the candidate blithely said they would be discussing payment for the wall “later,” hit a particularly raw nerve.
“It’s not good to see the president looking servile and accommodating,” De la Peña said. “People were expecting a clear and indisputable challenge.”
Peña Nieto’s tweet was just one part of a seemingly desperate damage control operation that also included an interview on Mexico’s most popular news TV show in which he said he met the candidate because he is honour bound “to confront the threat and risk that our country faces.”
By Thursday, however, the question “why?” had been largely replaced by shock at just how badly it had gone. This included a cascade of scathing opinion pieces that underlined how, for many, Trump’s visit represented some kind of turning point.
In an article in the Spanish paper El Pais, Oscar-winning Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu called Peña Nieto a “traitor.”
“I cannot accept as my representative somebody who denigrates and puts at risk his compatriots instead of defending them,” González wrote. “Somebody like him is not fit to represent any country.”
González Iñarritu has criticised Peña Nieto publically before, but disowning him as his president hints at the depth of the impact of Trump’s visit on many Mexicans.
“I think this one is going down in history,” columnist Héctor de Mauleón wrote in the Mexican newspaper El Universal. “And how shameful that it should be this way.”
Peña Nieto took office almost four years ago promising to be the new modern face of the PRI, which had ruled for 71 uninterrupted years until 2000.
The first two years went well.
Bold pro-market reforms impressed pro-market voices around the world while Peña Nieto’s telenovela star wife impressed society magazines with her wardrobe on international trips.
Time magazine put Peña Nieto on its cover under the headline “Saving Mexico” in February 2014. The rot set in a few months later when the disappearance of 43 student teachers, after they were attacked by police in league with a drug cartel, blew apart the government’s efforts to keep security issues on the back burner.
The scandals tumbled over themselves after that. They ranged from the exposure of major human rights abuses to drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s escape from maximum-security prison, and allegations of conflict of interest involving the presidential family.
Last month a local new site revealed he copied almost 30 per cent of his undergraduate law thesis. On Monday the federal police chief stood down in an effort to release some of the pressure on the government from a major human rights report that alleges officers “arbitrarily executed” at least 22 suspected criminals.
Mexico’s state of the union speeches have traditionally been formal affairs that last for hours and involve reams of statistics nobody listens to. This year Peña Nieto has promised an informal town hall-style question and answer session with 300 young people who can touch on whatever subjects they like — including, presumably, tough questions about the now-ubiquitous Trump.
Support for a Mexican president has only previously dropped below 30 per cent was during a massive economic crisis in the 1990s, and while open revolt isn’t the conservative PRI’s style, a reckoning is coming and the party could be the one that ultimately takes the fall.
“Peña Nieto already had an unprecedented accumulation of negative opinion,” said pollster De la Peña. “This thing with Trump is the nail in the coffin.”
Jo Tuckman contributed to this report
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