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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

On July 1st, Mexico will elect a new president. The moment is charged because polls indicate the candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party is well ahead and poised to return his party to power. The PRI governed Mexico for seven decades until 2000. That's when it was tossed out by an electorate tired of a corrupt political machine.

NPR's John Burnett has the first of two reports on Mexicans' queasiness as elections approach.

(SOUNDBITE OF A BUGLE)

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Every day, a color guard stands at attention under Mexico City's Monument to the Revolution - an arched stone colossus that commemorates the country's violent upheaval that gave birth to modern Mexico.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: Interred here are the heroes of the Mexican Revolution, including Plutarco Elias Calles, the father of the party that came to be the PRI.

FRED ALVAREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: A political consultant and blogger named Fred Alvarez gives a tour of the recently restored monument. With elections less than a month away, Alvarez, like many Mexicans, is pondering the return of the PRI, as it's called.

ALVAREZ: (Through Translator) What Calles did was to create a unique party, a party of the state like the Cuban or the Russian Communist Party. The PRI even adopted the colors of the national flag - red, white and green - and made them the party colors. What Mexicans don't want to see is a new state party where President Pena Nieto becomes the party chief. This would be wrong.

BURNETT: The candidate for the PRI is Enrique Pena Nieto, the 45-year-old former governor of Mexico State, with a serious demeanor and movie-star good looks. Polls put Pena Nieto ahead of his rivals by more than 10 points. The leading challengers are Manuel Lopez Obrador, of the leftist Party of Democratic Revolution, and Josefina Vazquez Mota, who represents the conservative, deeply Catholic Party of National Action - it's been in power for nearly 12 years.

ENRIQUE PENA NIETO: (Speaking foreign language)

BURNETT: Why do I want to be president, Pena Nieto asks in a campaign spot. Because our country deserves to be better; because I want to change Mexico.

If elected, does he want to take Mexico into the future or back to the past? Mexicans over 30 remember the party that brutally suppressed a student protest in 1968; that presided over financial crises in the '70s and '80s; and used the state-owned oil company as its personal ATM. But Mexico was stable.

Today, the country is agonizing through an epidemic of cartel violence that has killed more than 50,000 people and seen major cities lost to thug rule.

ENRIQUE KRAUZE: The only thing that is driving people to vote for the PRI is the perception, the idea that these things that are happening now did not happen in the days of the PRI.

BURNETT: Enrique Krauze is a Mexican historian and author.

KRAUZE: Then, we had corruption, yes, but we had peace and order. I think that is something that is drawing many people towards the PRI.

BURNETT: Krauze does not believe the PRI could ever become the state party again, when it controlled elections, the congress, the state governors, the unions and the media. Today, he says, Mexico has moved too far down the path toward democracy.

KRAUZE: The restoration of the PRI, as we knew it, I think it is truly impossible. Again, this is a different country.

BURNETT: Back at the Monument to the Revolution, on a sunny morning, a vendor named Maria Resendiz takes a break in the shade. Her drawn face bespeaks her hard life selling cigarettes, candy, and Chiclets on the street. She describes herself as a lifelong PRI-ista.

MARIA RESENDIZ: (Through Translator) I'm not naive. Sure, there was corruption in the PRI, but that was their work and they let us do ours. That's why we didn't mind when they asked for a 10-peso bribe.

BURNETT: A new generation of Mexicans has not inherited these old party loyalties. They're young and independent, wired, well-informed and deeply skeptical of traditional Mexican politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTORS)

BURNETT: Last month, thousands of university students marched through the streets of Mexico City, denouncing Pena Nieto and the PRI.

VIDAL ROMERO: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: On Monday nights, Professor Vidal Romero teaches a class in advanced political methodology at the prestigious ITAM University. As a sort of free association game, his students are asked to come up with a one-word description of each leading presidential candidate. Their answers are revealing.

First Josefina Vazquez Mota(ph) of the PAN.

JOSEFINA VAZQUEZ MOTA: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: False, maternal, more of the same, innocent. Then, Manuel Lopez Obrador of the PRD.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: Combative, retrograde, old, incites hatred. Finally, the frontrunner, Enrique Pena Nieto of the PRI.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

(Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: Corrupt, cretin, fool, puppet, immoral.

Pena Nieto takes pains to tell Mexico the PRI has changed, that during its political exile the party has become honest and democratic. Its platform differs little from the PAN on education, security and job creation. To win, the PRI simply has to capitalize on public discontent with the party in power.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL DEBATE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: To that end, at the first presidential debate held last month, Piena Nieto gripped his podium and peered into the television camera.

PENA NIETO: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: Mexico has to be different, he said. For this, I insist the same ones cannot keep governing.

A few moments later, Manuel Lopez Obrador, the white-haired candidate of the left, said with a smirk.

LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: Do you all really believe that if the PRI returns, things will get better in this country, he asked. You'd better knock on wood.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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