• Pena Nieto’s popularity is lowest since taking office in 2012
  • Weak corruption stance, police shooting protesters not helping

Little has gone right lately for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, with a deadly clash Sunday between police and a union protesting his landmark education overhaul the latest reminder of the nation’s weak rule of law and the challenges facing his administration.

The violence this week between police and the CNTE teachers’ union, which opposes an evaluation system for educators, left at least eight civilians dead and more than 100 injured following a union uprising that had blocked highways and access to Mexico City’s airport. Pena Nieto’s party was ousted from governors’ offices in four traditional stronghold states earlier this month, and last week business groups blistered lawmakers from his party for watering down an anti-corruption bill. Tumbling oil prices at the start of the year, leading the peso lower, forced spending cuts and financial help for state oil producer Petroleos Mexicanos.

The result of all this: Pena Nieto’s popularity is now at 35 percent in a GEA-ISA poll published Wednesday, his lowest showing in the survey during his time in office and a drop of nine percentage points from the first quarter. 

"Pena Nieto has lost political capital," said Marco Oviedo, chief Mexico economist at Barclays Plc. "The population no longer supports him in the same way they did in 2012."

PRI’s Return

Pena Nieto, 49, was swept into office in 2012 with more than 38 percent of the vote, beating the runner-up by more than six percentage points in a race with three main contenders, on promises to reduce crime and spur economic growth. His Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, had previously ruled for seven decades until a defeat in 2000.

His loss of bargaining power increases the risk that the National Action Party, or PAN, the biggest opposition group, will succeed in rolling back some of 2013’s tax increase and require the government to cut spending further, Oviedo says.

Reached on Wednesday afternoon, the president’s press office declined to immediately comment when asked about the poll and recent events.

The political consequences for Pena Nieto’s party were brought into focus Monday night when Manlio Fabio Beltrones, who headed the PRI for the past 10 months, announced his resignation. Beltrones cited the PRI’s defeat in the June 5 state elections and the need for the party to move in a new direction.

The elections and criticism about the anti-corruption bill "weaken Pena Nieto’s presidency, and even provoke a lack of discipline in his party," said Jose Antonio Crespo, a political analyst at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City. "This complicates his administration and his ability to carry out any changes in the next two years."

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The events, including the killings in Oaxaca, have also taken focus away from an overhaul implemented last week that’s meant to make the nation’s justice system more fair and transparent.

The GEA-ISA poll shows Pena Nieto with less support than his predecessor, Felipe Calderon, had during the weakest moments of his presidency. It found that 24 percent of respondents blamed concerns about government corruption for the PRI’s electoral defeat earlier this month, while 18 percent cited the economy and 17 percent the popularity of the president. Taken from June 11 to 13, the survey included 990 people and had a margin of error of 3.1 percent.

‘Corruption Issue’

Teachers’ groups have protested Pena Nieto’s plans to subject them to evaluations since shortly after he took office, but the showdowns had never been as violent as last weekend. The most recent demonstrations erupted after police arrested some CNTE leaders, saying they illegally funded anti-government protests in recent years, prompting the group to intensify its demonstrations and to demand their release.

On Tuesday, the government pledged to sit down with the union to broker peace, adding, however, that reversing the education overhaul isn’t on the negotiating table.

The governors’ races this month saw the resurgence of the PAN and a jump in interest in populist icon Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s new Morena party, trends that bode poorly for the PRI, even though the next presidential election is still two years out.

"This last election cycle was more of a rejection of this administration and the PRI than it was ‘We want to look at some alternatives here,’" said Tony Garza, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico who’s now an attorney with White & Case LLP in Mexico City. "This administration is going to have to do something to face the corruption issue."

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