Mexico’s voters have chosen 45-year-old Enrique Peña Nieto to run their country. Attractive, charismatic, and married to a glamorous television star, the former governor fits the role of president as if cast by a Hollywood agent.
Peña Nieto’s campaign rallies resembled a rock concert more than a political event. Women would stand in line for hours, pressing against barricades. At the first sight of him, they would scream Enrique! and even “bonbon!” (sweet thing), as they snapped pictures. Many would grab the candidate and try to kiss him.
“He has a certain connection with people, particularly with women, and I think this will help him if he’s able to channel all of this into policy,” says NBC News Latin American policy analyst Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister who teaches Latin American affairs at NYU and Columbia University. At the end of the campaign, Peña Nieto showed some journalists the sore welts and scratches on his hands reportedly caused by frenzied followers, adding with apparent pride that he had shaken the hands of hundreds of thousands.
A scandalous past did not deter voters. Reports that he fathered two children in extramarital affairs while his wife Monica raised the couple’s 3 children, plus the investigation into the sudden death of his wife at home in 2007, have prompted many to call him the Teflon candidate because trouble seems to slide off him. Doctors concluded his wife died as a result of an epileptic seizure in 2007.
Two years later he announced his engagement to soap opera actor Angelica Rivera, known as “La Gaviota,” (the seagull) for the character she played in a ratings-grabber telenovela seen not just in Mexico, but also in the U.S. and many Latin American countries. Rivera became his wife in a star-studded wedding ceremony two years ago and is now poised to become the first lady of Mexico.
The soap opera star played a sort of impromptu reality TV producer during her husband’s quest for the presidency. She would tape short videos during campaign stops of her husband and her sharing ice cream or chatting about their experiences at the end of the day. The videos titled “What my eyes see, what my heart feels,” (Lo que mis ojos ven, lo que mi corazon siente) would then pop up on YouTube.
From his mother to his second wife, women have played key roles in helping the politician succeed says the author of a book titled “The Women of Pena Nieto,” (Las Mujeres de Pena Nieto), Alberto Taviras. Taviras spent months digging into the candidate’s past, interviewing friends and former lovers. “Enrique has a fascination for women, “ he concludes. “Women have been his driving force.”
Peña Nieto represents the Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, the party that ruled Mexico for 71 years before Mexicans elected PRI-opponent Vicente Fox 12 years ago. By electing Fox of the Conservative National Action Party, PAN, Mexicans appeared ready to embrace a more democratic government, where key institutions like the Supreme Court and the Central Bank and the elections commission finally would work independently from the government.
Fox’s successor, Felipe Calderon took on a different kind of challenge. He launched a bloody war on drug traffickers, and the close to 60,000 deaths associated with it, prompted many Mexicans to bring the PRI back to power.
“Many Mexicans see the PRI as the party that can deliver results,” says Andrew Selee, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. “They want to bring them back because they think they might be able to do something about the violence in the country and they might be able to do something to make the economy more dynamic,” he added. Over half of Mexicans live in poverty despite the country’s trillion dollar-worth economy fueled by oil and tourism.
“I think change is going to be good,” says Alejandro Aguilar Rocha, a Mexico City tour guide and former resident of Mexico state, where Peña Nieto was governor. “What I like about Pena Nieto is that he would say, for example, I’m going to plant trees here, and he would sign his pledge before a notary public, and the trees would be planted.” Signing pledges before notaries was part of Peña Nieto’s strategy during his presidential campaign. He has signed hundreds of what he calls commitments (“compromisos”), pledging to fund public works projects in cities all over Mexico, including modernizing a port and building a new highway.
Critics say Peña Nieto’s credentials as a governor do not give him the necessary experience to run a country of almost 114 million. Among his critics, a group that calls itself “Yo Soy 132,” started by the students from Universidad Iberoamericana after hecklers met Peña Nieto’s appearance there in May. PRI party members fired back that the people booing were not students. The protestors turned to the web to prove their identity. They recorded videos of identifying themselves and showing their university student ID cards. “As a matter of honor, we had to answer and the way we know how to answer is through social media,” says Rodrigo Serrano, spokesman for the group. Named for the number of students who stood up to critics, the movement “Yo soy 132” was born.
“Yo soy 132” rattled the PRI candidate’s steady leads in the polls for a while. La Reforma, a well-known Mexican newspaper, showed Lopez Obrador only 4 percentage points behind. But that was two months ago and by Election Day, Peña Nieto enjoyed a comfortable lead in the polls.
Peña Nieto beat and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who came close to winning the presidency in 2006, and Josefina Vazquez Mota, who represented the part of the incoming president as she hoped to become the country’s first female leader.
The PRI candidate’s good looks definitely helped, but what also gave him an edge is the other candidates’ lack of charisma. “It turns anybody into a very popular figure if your rivals are unpopular,” says Castañeda.
Tour guide Aguilar Rocha is not focused on the president elect’s good looks. The father of 2 elementary-school aged boys hopes Peña Nieto sticks to his campaign pledges of fixing schools and infrastructure. “I hope he builds bridges, roads, schools,” he says. “I have hopes that things will change, that those were not just empty promises.”
Erika Angulo, NBC News producer covering the Mexican elections.