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Old party returns to rule a changed Mexico

MEXICO CITY — The political party that ruled Mexico for seven straight decades is back, assuring Mexicans there’s no chance of a return to what some called ‘‘the perfect dictatorship’’ that was marked by a mixture of populist handouts, rigged votes, and occasional bloodshed.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, reclaims the presidency Saturday after 12 years out of power, and President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto calls it a crowning moment of an effort to reform and modernize the party that ruled from 1929 to 2000.

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He promises an agenda of free enterprise, efficiency, and accountability. He’s pushing for changes that could bring major private investment in Mexico’s crucial but creaking state-owned oil industry, changes blocked for decades by nationalist suspicion of foreign meddling in the oil business.

PRI leaders acknowledge the party is returning to power in a Mexico radically different from what it was in the party’s heyday. The nation has an open, market-oriented economy, a freer, more aggressive press, an opposition that can communicate at the speed of the Internet, and a population that knows the PRI can be kicked out of power.

‘‘The skeptics say that the PRI will return to the past, as if such a thing were possible,’’ PRI leader Pedro Joaquin Coldwell told a party gathering earlier this month. ‘‘It’s not, because this is a different country.’’

Yet critics already see hints of a yearning for the old days of an imperial presidency in some of the measures the PRI is pushing through Congress.

A bill proposed by Pena Nieto would gather the police and security apparatus under the control of the Interior Department, an office long used by the PRI to co-opt or pressure opponents, rig elections, and strong-arm the media.

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PRI leaders say the measure would unify a fractured security apparatus and produce a more coordinated strategy in Mexico’s fight against drug cartels.

Political analyst Raymundo Riva Palacio says a return to the old ways is unlikely, noting there are now independent electoral authorities, judges, and rights groups to help keep authorities in line. ‘‘I don’t think they’ll try to restore the old regime, like we saw in the 1970s,’’ he said.

But Alejandro Sanchez, the assistant leader of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, warns of an attempt ‘‘to return to the authoritarian regime of the 1970s, when torture, contempt for opponents, and impunity were the norm.’’

The PRI no longer holds a majority in Congress, so it will probably have to negotiate more.

This month, PRI members in Congress, who include several autocratic labor leaders, successfully maneuvered to block a measure to require secret ballots in union elections and approval by union members of proposed contracts.

The PRI also supported a bill that to give federal and state auditors more authority to block spending by governors, who currently face little fiscal oversight. That may help curb the power governors have acquired since the PRI lost power, but some critics see the measure as a bid to return to the days when presidents controlled the states from Mexico City.

Another PRI proposal would restore the president’s ability to hire and fire hundreds of mid-level government officials at will, removing the posts from civil service protections. Senator Javier Corral of the National Action Party, which has held the presidency for 12 years, said the PRI ‘‘wants to bring back the old custom that has done so much damage in Mexico, of treating power as booty, and giving out these jobs according to the party’s criteria.’’

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