After voting the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) out of Los Pinos, Mexico's presidential residence, twelve years ago, the country looks poised to bring it back. The PRI's candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, continues to lead the majority of electoral polls by double digits, making it increasingly unlikely that his rivals will catch up by the time polls open on July 1. The same goes for Mexico's congress. With every seat up for grabs, the PRI looks to make headway and perhaps gain a majority in both houses. 

Political rivals and anxious commentators question whether a PRI victory will return Mexico to its less than democratic past. After all, for decades the PRI maintained control by buying votes, co-opting the opposition, and, at times, wielding a heavy repressive hand. Denise Dresser, a prominent Mexican political analyst, has written that the party "continues to be a club of corruption, a preserve of tightly linked political and business interests, a network woven together through the constant exchange of favors and positions, negotiated in the shadows." Meanwhile, an often repeated phrase sums up the view of a significant part of the Mexican population: "They may have been corrupt, but they knew how to govern."

For its part, Peña Nieto's campaign dismisses such concerns by arguing that the PRI today is made up of "a new generation of politicians, one that grew up in this democratic regime." In his stump speech, the candidate has repeatedly assured potential voters that he will not "reinstate the past that we overcame" and positions himself as the face of a new forward-looking political organization. 

Whether the PRI set to take power is a new version of its old self is less important than the fact that Mexico's democratic institutions will hem in the next president, regardless of party or personal preferences.

Today, the PRI casts a wide ideological umbrella, encompassing just about everyone from market-friendly technocrats to progressive nationalists. It embraces polling gurus and media-savvy political operatives alongside traditional union and campesino bosses. These various groups have coalesced behind Peña Nieto, determined to move past their embarrassing third-place finish in the 2006 elections (due in large part to deep party divisions) and regain power. 

On the surface, Peña Nieto's team does look fresh and new. The candidate's inner circle is full of youthful, foreign-educated advisers -- most of whom were just youngsters during the last halcyon days in the 1980s and early 1990s of the PRI's 71-year rule. His campaign manager, Luis Videgaray, is a 43-year-old MIT graduate. Other upper-level staffers have degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and the University of Pennsylvania, and they come to politics from academia, multilateral organizations, and even a New York-based hedge fund. 

But the old guard lingers. Well versed in the backroom power brokering of the past, figures such as former President Carlos Salinas de Gotari, Emilio Gamboa Patrón (whose high-level positions within the PRI span some 30 years), and members of the notorious State of Mexico political machine have all been seen in the company of the glossy new candidate. Their backing Peña Nieto led some Mexican commentators to dub him a "baby dinosaur," essentially a young acolyte to the PRI's fossilized past.

So far, Peña Nieto has maintained his lead by using vague proclamations and personal promises to unite disparate factions. But this cohesion will be much harder to maintain if the PRI begins to govern. If Peña Nieto triumphs, he will have to make cabinet choices and install his main operatives; likewise, he'll need to set an agenda. In doing so, he will have to choose between the young guns and the old guard. 

But whatever he decides, Mexican democracy has evolved in ways that make a return to wholesale PRI dominance unlikely. Consider how the role and power of the legislative and judicial branches have changed since the 1990s. During the old PRI's heyday, Congress was little more than a rubber stamp, with the PRI's delegates rarely questioning the edicts of their president. Now, Congress is a real fulcrum for negotiations and debates between Mexico's three main parties. Even if the PRI gains a majority in both houses, the administration will need the support of at least a segment of the opposition to pass the big-ticket items on the agenda -- energy, tax, labor, and political reform -- some of which would require constitutional changes. Unlike the PRI of the past, whoever wins will need to work with the opposition in order to govern.

Likewise, the Supreme Court is more powerful than in decades past. It now provides a check on the president and on vested interests. In the old days, the justices blessed whatever legislation came their way. But in the 1990s, President Ernesto Zedillo reorganized and professionalized the court, creating an independent institution as a hedge against an opposition takeover, which had begun to look increasingly likely. Since then, the court has become an independent and final arbiter on many political issues -- it has passed judgment on topics as diverse as the constitutionality of new legislation, the rules governing elections, and the jurisdiction of civilian courts over the military. 

Underscoring the point, in 2007 the Supreme Court took on two of the most prominent interests in the private sector when it overturned the widely decried "Televisa law," legislation that sought to assure the continued duopoly of the Televisa and TV Azteca networks by automatically renewing their licenses, giving them preferential access to new bandwidth, and limiting competition. Mexican newspapers and analysts heralded the court's reversal of the law, which flew in the face of old PRI interests, as a step forward. More recently, the court ruled that regulatory edicts become effective immediately (rather than after completing a lengthy appeals process), strengthening the power of regulatory agencies vis-à-vis other powerful business interests. 

On a broader scale, over the last 12 years, power has been increasingly decentralized, making a return to the PRI's historical hallmark, the "imperial presidency," virtually impossible. Once upon a time, a leader such as Carlos Salinas -- president from 1988 to 1994 -- could dismiss half of the sitting governors during his term without a hint of blowback. Today states and their elected leaders are autonomous, both politically and increasingly economically, from the federal government.

In fact, states wield great power at the national level through their federal senators and representatives (who now often depend on the favor of the governor to stand for office). Peña Nieto knows this -- he spent six years as governor of the State of Mexico. Although many scholars argue that this decentralization has not in fact been good for democracy -- protecting the last bastions of authoritarianism in less electorally competitive states -- it will nevertheless deter a return to the old political model in which Los Pinos could steamroll regional-level executives.

Civil society is stronger in Mexico today, too. A few decades ago, if the PRI found itself displeased with news coverage, it could literally stop the presses, as it held a monopoly on newsprint. Now Mexico has developed a vibrant and fiercely independent press, led by El Universal, Reforma, and La Jornada. Mexican voters and society have also gained a stronger voice, using social media and information now publicly available through Mexico's freedom of information law to shame corrupt bureaucrats and politicians. 

Mexico's democracy still struggles with deep-rooted vested interests, and the country has a limited set of tools for ensuring open, accountable, and responsive government. A forward-looking democratic administration could push doors open further by investing in political reforms to encourage elected officials to be more accountable to their constituents, fully implementing the country's judicial reforms, and ensuring the continuation of a free press and active civil society. All these moves would benefit the country's economy, politics, and society.

A misaligned government could, of course, fight to roll back gains in transparency and openness, and delay efforts to take on systematic corruption. But the fundamentals of democracy in Mexico seem here to stay, whatever the intent of the future resident of Los Pinos.

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  • SHANNON K. O’NEIL is the Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She publishes a blog, Latin America’s Moment, on Follow her on Twitter @latintelligence.
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