|The PRI's Election Victory: A New Political Era in Mexico
by Dan La Botz
BACK TO THE past -- and with a landslide. The Institutional
Revolutionary Party (PRI) which for 70 years, from 1928 to 2000, ruled
Mexico as a one-party state won a decisive victory in the mid-term
elections on July 5. The PRI's victory represented a defeat both for
the conservative economic and social policies of President Felipe
Calderón and his National Action Party (PAN) and for the bitterly
divided left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). The
PRI emerges as Mexico's dominant party once again, but does this mean
that the system that Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa called a
"perfect dictatorship" has been restored?
No. What we are seeing emerge is a Mexican two-party system not
unlike that in the United States, even if decorated with a number of
minor parties. Mexico's powerful economic elite -- the owners of its
mines, manufacturing companies, electronic media, and the heads of the
Catholic Church -- will now run the country through the peaceful
alternation of power between two capitalist parties, one more closely
identified with big business and religion (the PAN), the other more
secular and linked by patronage to workers and the poor (the PRI).
Those two parties have now demonstrated that they are prepared to
accept this notion of the loyal opposition -- loyal to capital, of
The Election Results
The landslide has practically buried the other parties. With Mexico
suffering its worst economic crisis since 1994 and with no clear
winner in the two-and-a-half year drug wars that have claimed almost
11,000 lives, voters turned against the president Calderón and the
governing PAN. The PRI won 37 percent of the vote, the PAN 28
percent, and the PRD, with just 12 percent, suffered by far the worst
defeat in the race.
In terms of total votes cast, the PRI received over 12.5 million, the
PAN over 9.5 million, and the PRD just a little over 4 million. The
PRD stands in danger of being virtually eliminated from Mexican
politics in the 2012 elections, while the PRI foresees winning the
presidency in three years.
PRI Commands the Legislature
The PRI will now dominate the Mexican legislature. In the Chamber of
Deputies, the lower house, the PRI will now command 48 percent of the
vote, adding some 135 legislators to the 106 it possessed before the
election, giving it a total now of 241 of the 500 deputies. The PAN
lost 59 of its former 206 deputies, leaving it with only 147 or 29.4
percent of the lower house. The PRD, which had 126 deputies, lost 54,
leaving it with just 72 deputies or 14.4 percent. While the PRI
remains a few votes short of a majority, it should easily pick those
up from minor parties, such as its satellite the Mexican Green
Environmental Party (PVEM).
Similarly, the PRI now controls more than half of the states and
governs about two-thirds of all Mexicans. The PRI also won most of
the gubernatorial elections that were being contested and now runs 16
of Mexico's 32 entities (31 states plus the Federal District). The
PRI also governs another 4 through the PVEM. The PAN now governs
eight states, while the PRD holds power in only 4, though the PRD's
control of the Federal District means that it remains a political
López Obrador, the PT, and Convergencia
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the PRD presidential candidate in the
2006 election who claimed to have won and proclaimed himself the
"Legitimate President of Mexico," broke with his former party in this
election, supporting instead the candidates of two small
left-of-center parties, Workers Party (PT) and Convergence. Those
parties received only 3.7 and 2.5 percent of the vote, respectively.
The PT won one seat in the Chamber of Deputies; the
PT-PRD-Convergencia coalition won 3.
In the Federal District's Legislative Assembly, which governs Mexico's
City's ten million inhabitants, the PRD, which had had 14 seats, fell
to 12. The PAN, which already held two seats, won another in the
Cuajimalpa borough. López Obrador threw all of his effort into
supporting the PT in the Iztapalapa borough of the DF, where he won --
virtually the only victory for the left in the election. The PRD
still maintains its hold Mexico City, though now not as firmly as
The Independent Unions and the Far Left
Independent and far-left groups took various positions on the
election. The National Coordinating Committee which leads the
rank-and-file movement in the Mexican Teachers Union (la CNTE), for
example, called upon its members to give "No vote to the PRI, the PAN,
or the PRD." The Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT), a small left
group, and others on the far left called on voters to reject the PRI
and the PAN and to cast a "differentiated vote" for progressive
candidates running in the PRD, the PT, or Convergencia.
Other small left groups, such as Worker and Socialist Unity (UNIOS),
argued that political developments had proven that Subcomandante
Marcos and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) had been
correct in issuing their Sixth Declaration of the Lancandon jungle
rejecting partisan politics and calling for the "Other Campaign"
against capitalism. However, there was no "Other Campaign" in this
election as there had been in 2006, and so the group simply endorsed
abstention (the voto nulo) and called for building social movements.
The Campaign for Abstention
The campaign for abstention in the election proved to be personally
satisfying for those unhappy with the political alternatives
available, relatively successful and ultimately politically
irrelevant. Mexico, with a population of 111 million, has 71.3
million eligible voters. Polls which had predicted a record low voter
turnout of 30 percent proved wrong as 43.7 percent of voters turned
out to cast ballots, higher than in the 2003 mid-term election.
Still, an estimated record of 1,800,000 voters went to the polls and
voided their ballots, a protest against all parties, programs, and
candidates, though that represented a relatively insignificant number
of voters as a whole.
The president of the National Action Party, Germán Martínez, resigned
in the wake of his party's disastrous showing at the polls. Within
the Party of the Democratic Revolution, calls went up for the
resignation of Jesús Ortega, the man who led the fight to take the
party away from López Obrador and in the process, the election
suggests, apparently destroyed it. He and his supporters said he had
no intention of giving up his position even though his party has been
reduced to a shadow of its former self.
Implications for Labor and Workers
The PRI's victory was also a victory for its labor organization, the
Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), headed by Joaquín Gamboa
Pascoe. The CTM will hold seven of the 12 congressional seats now
occupied by labor union officials. A union spokesperson said that the
CTM had more than doubled it representation. In addition to the CTM
representatives there are also representatives of other unions.
Victor Flores, head of the railroad workers, and Isaías González,
general secretary of the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and
Peasants (CROC), both members of the Congress of Labor (CT), were also
elected to the Mexican legislature.
All of these organizations are known as "official" unions, that is to
say unions which have historically formed part of the PRI and its
pervasive one-party state. Their election to congress will strengthen
these unions and the union officials who now double as
representatives. These unions, cooperating with the state and often
colluding with employers, have historically opposed Mexico's
independent and democratic unions and movements. All of this will
create difficult obstacles for workers in Mexico who seek democracy in
their unions, power in their workplaces, and social justice in their
The Short History of the Perfect Dictatorship
While many Mexicans voted for the party, many others fear this could
lead to a return to the authoritarian system of patronage, corruption,
and political repression which dominated Mexican life for decades.
What was this thing called the PRI, which only ten years ago still
ruled Mexico, and what might result with its return to power?
The PRI has its roots in the defeat of the plebeian left wing of the
Mexican Revolution (1910-1940). In 1917, Venustiano Carranza,
self-proclaimed Jefe Máximo of the revolution, called a Constitutional
Assembly which laid the basis for the modern Mexican state. The
Constitution, written under the pressure of revolutionary armies,
called for the distribution of land to the peasants (Article 27) and
for the right of workers to organize unions (Article 123), as well as
ending the Catholic monopoly on education. Forced by circumstances to
grant those concessions to the country's working people, Carranza's
real objective was the creation of a modern state which could develop
Mexico along capitalist lines.
Carranza sent his friend the painter Gerardo Murrillo (Dr. Atl) to
talk with anarchists of the House of the World Worker (Casa del Obrero
Mundial) and win their support. A faction of the Casa agreed to
support the new state and to provide Red Battalions to fight on its
behalf -- while another faction went off to join Emiliano Zapata,
leader of the army of southern peasants. Carranza then turned against
the radical Conventionists, Francisco "Pancho" Villa and Zapata, the
leaders of the revolution's plebeian forces, southern peasants, and
northern miners and railroad workers. Carranza's General Pablo
González assassinated Zapata (and several years later others killed
Villa). Obregón himself, however, turned on Carranza who was in turn
assassinated in 1920. Obregon became president.
The Sonoran Dynasty
Obregón, leader of the victorious forces, and his co-thinker Plutarco
Elías Calles, both from Sonora, then founded the modern Mexican state
in 1920. Observing that no general can withstand a barrage of
$100,000 pesos, Obregón bought off the various generals who had headed
the revolutionary armies and they retired to manage the estates they
had confiscated from the ancien régime. Obregón served as president
the first four years, Calles the second, the presidents of the
so-called Sonoran dynasty.
When Obregón contemplated a second term, he was assassinated by a
militant Catholic opponent of the government. The assassination of
Obregón threatened to return the nation to civil war. To meet the
crisis, Calles convened the leaders of the various revolutionary
factions each of which controlled a different state or region of the
country. Out of that meeting came the National Revolutionary Party
(PNR), a party which would be made up of government officials and
employees. The state had created a party to manage its affairs, a
party that won office through fraud, held it through patronage, and
benefited from it through corruption. Calles, while never again
holding office as president, remained the power behind the throne
while others held the presidency.
Lázaro Cárdenas and the Crisis of the 1930s
The world economic crisis of the 1930s also brought economic
depression and social upheaval to Mexico, a situation complicated by
the revolutionary government's war against the Catholic Church in
western Mexico. In 1934, Calles, with the intention of continuing his
game as political puppeteer, decided to put forward another man for
the presidency, his Secretary of War, Lázaro Cárdenas. Cárdenas,
however, already popular with the army, also won the support of labor
unions and peasant leagues, and soon drove Calles out of Mexico.
Under the new six-year presidential term, Cárdenas would serve until
1940, channeling the widespread discontent in Mexico -- workers
strikes, peasant land seizures, and political discontent -- into the
A left nationalist and a political genius, Lázaro Cárdenas took
advantage of the economic crisis to end the hacienda system which had
dominated the Mexican economy for four-hundred years. He distributed
forty million acres of land from the economically failing haciendas to
villages of peasants and Indians in the form of ejidos, state-owned
lands given in perpetuity to those communities as long as it was
farmed. Cárdenas also recognized and supported the labor unions.
Most important, in 1938 Cárdenas nationalized the oil companies owned
by Royal Dutch Shell and Standard Oil Company. During those years
Cárdenas changed the state party's name to the Party of the Mexican
Revolution (PRM) with the slogan "For a Socialist Mexico."
The Reorganization of the State Party
Cárdenas reorganized the state-party on the basis of three pillars:
the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), the National Confederation
of Peasants (CNC), and the National Confederation of Popular
Organizations (CNOP). When a worker was hired into a factory, he
automatically became a member of the CTM, and, as a member of the CTM,
also a member of the ruling party. Cárdenas' profound social reforms
provided the still authoritarian state-party with a new social base of
support. While working people had little control over those
organizations or over the party, the party was capable of using those
organizations to support its political campaigns.
When in 1940 Cárdenas left office, he was succeeded by Manuel Ávila
Camacho who turned the party to the right once again, and changed its
name in 1946 to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The
PRI-government, a one-party state, oversaw an economy based on a mixed
economy of nationalized industries (oil, telephone, railroads,
electrical power), foreign-owned corporations heavily invested, for
example, in mining, and Mexican-owned companies of all sizes from
great corporations such as the brewing and glass companies of
Monterrey to the many family businesses found throughout the country.
Throughout this period from the 1940s to the 1960s, the PRI oversaw
what was called the "Mexican miracle," the economic expansion paid for
by the low wages of workers and peasants.
The Cold War, Anti-Communism, and the Crushing of Popular Movement
With the coming of the Cold War starting in the late 1940s, both for
its own reasons and to comply with the wishes of the U.S. State
Department, the Mexican government carried out its own anti-Communist
campaigns similar to McCarthyism in the United States, only more
brutal. The Communists and other radicals were driven out of the PRI
and out of its Confederation of Mexican Workers. When the industrial
unions of railroad workers, miners, and oil workers showed signs of
independence, the PRI sent the army, police and sometimes gangsters to
remove union leaders and replace them with PRI-loyalists. The
violently imposed union bureaucrats were called charros, or "dudes,"
after one of them who liked to dress up in cowboy clothes.
By the 1950s, the Mexican state-party had come to rule with a heavy
hand. When workers fought for higher wages, as in the great railroad
strike of 1959, the PRI-government turned out the army to smash the
strike and sent the strike leaders to prison for long terms. When
students marched for democracy and in support of Cuba at Tlatelolco
(the Plaza of the Three Cultures) in 1968, President Gustavo Díaz
Ordaz, head of the PRI-government, sent the army to crush the
movement; officially 40 were killed though most believe that hundreds
died. Similarly in 1976 the PRI-government sent in the army and
gangsters to break the electrical workers and the Democratic Tendency,
a union coalition they had created.
The PRI and the Challenge of the 1960s and 1970s
During the 1960s and the 1970s, students moved to the left, and some
joined guerrilla groups determined to overthrow the PRI government by
force. Other young activists joined leftist organizations which
worked with workers and peasants to build a social force capable of
overthrowing the government through an upheaval from below. These
years saw a wave of labor protests and strikes known as the
insurgencia obrera, the worker insurgency. The government's response
to the upsurge was repression, a dirty war -- kidnappings, torture,
and murder by police and military -- that left 500 dead. But a
political response was also necessary and to tame the movement the
PRI-government decided to encourage the left to enter politics.
Politics now became more complicated. A right-wing party, the
National Action Party (PAN) founded by bankers and Catholic activists,
had existed since 1939. Now there would also be left parties, three
major ones: a left nationalist Mexican Workers Party (PMT) led by
Heberto Castillo, a Communist Party whose name would change over the
years to the Unified Social Party of Mexico (PSUM), and a Trotskyist
Revolutionary Workers Party whose candidate Rosario Ibarra de Piedra
would make history as the first woman to run for president.
Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s the right and left parties would
each generally win about 10 to 15 percent of the vote, while the PRI
won virtually all of the elections.
The Mexican earthquake of 1985 represented an important turning point
in the development of a new movement called "civil society," that is
non-governmental organizations and social movements. The September
earthquake devastated Mexico City, killings thousands as buildings
throughout the central city collapsed. When the PRI-government failed
to respond to the disaster, citizens groups, often led by local
leftists, undertook the search and rescue operations. While the
earthquake took 10,000 lives, it revived a sense of self-confidence at
the grassroots of Mexican society. The Mexican people emerged from
the crisis prepared to change the government.
The Debt Crisis, the Split in the PRI, Cárdenas, and the PRD
Mexico, an oil-rich nation, in the late twentieth century found even
more oil and used it as collateral on billions of dollars in loans --
eventually about 100 billion. When in the mid-1980s the price of oil
fell, Mexico was essentially bankrupt. The U.S. banks and the
U.S.-dominated international financial institutions forced Mexico to
change its nationalist economy. The PRI-government began to split
into two factions: a technocratic faction which both under
international pressure and for its own reasons wished to end the
nationalist economy and enter into the global markets and a
nationalist faction which hesitated to break with the past.
As the technocratic faction began to strengthen its hold on the party,
the nationalists formed the Democratic Current to fight to control the
PRI. When by 1988 it had become clear that they could not do so, its
leader, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, son of the former president, led his
group out of the PRI and ran for president against the PRI government.
Most observers believe that Cárdenas won the 1988 election, but
President Miguel de la Madrid and the PRI-government announced that
their candidate, Carlos Salinas, had won and he became president.
After being cheated out of the election, Cárdenas and his group from
the PRI joined with others from the PSUM and other leftists to create
the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). The PRD militants
fought throughout the country to defend their local electoral
victories in the period from 1988 to 1994, with over 600 PRD members
killed in the attempt and many others seriously injured.
The Neoliberal PRI of the 1980s
President Salinas, having taken the presidency, now began to transform
Mexico. With the exception of oil and electric power, Mexico's
nationalized industries such as telephone and railroad were sold off
to private investors, often foreign investors. Salinas approached the
U.S. and Canadian presidents about the creation of a North American
Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), first working with Brian Mulroney of
Canada and George H.W. Bush of the United States and later with U.S.
President Bill Clinton. In preparation for the NAFTA negotiations,
Salinas pushed through Congress the revision of Article 27 which had
given land to Mexican peasants. Under the revised articles, the
communities and owners could sell the land. Salinas also used his
power to break the power of the PRI's own labor unions, sending the
Mexican Army to occupy the Cananea copper mine on the eve of its sale
to private investors and sending police to arrest the leaders of the
Petroleum Workers Union on trumped-up charges.
Under Salinas and his neoliberal government, the PRI-government lost
many of its traditional sources of political support. The
nationalized industries which had been a source of patronage had been
sold. The labor unions which got out the vote on election day had
been weakened and alienated. The traditional peasant communities had
been weakened by the revisions to Article 27, undermining another
traditional base of support. At the same time, Salinas created new
government poverty programs to keep poor people under party control.
Challenges from the Left and from a New Right in the 1990s
Meanwhile, the PRI-government, Salinas and his successor Ernesto
Zedillo, faced new challenges as well from new social movements, most
importantly the Chiapas Uprising of 1994 led by the Zapatista Army of
National Liberation (EZLN). The uprising by Mayan people in the south
of Mexico inspired the growing "civil society" movement which demanded
human rights and civil liberties. The middle-class feminist movement
played an important role among civil society activists, while
working-class women in the urban slums continued as they had since the
1960s to lead local urban popular movements. The combination of the
EZLN led by Subcomandante Marcos, the PRD led by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas,
and the growth of civil society -- together with many other grassroots
movements of environmentalists, women, and labor -- seemed to
represent the forces that could bring democracy and social justice to
Mexico. But other forces arose on the right as well.
During the 1980s and the 1990s, the National Action Party underwent a
transformation as it continued advocating conservative free-market
policies; it decided to adopt the political action model taken from
Ghandi, Corozón Aquino, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The driving force
behind the new PAN was COPARMEX, the conservative Mexican Association
of Employers. During the 1980s PAN members began to engage in civil
disobedience to challenge the PRI's corrupt electoral system, for
example, blocking the bridges and crossing points at the U.S.-Mexico
border. At times, PAN leaders even sought alliances with parties of
the left against the government's oppressive policies. PAN's new
found activism galvanized its younger members, and the party's image
improved as its influence spread.
The Fall of the PRI -- and Its Rise Again
Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas ran for president again in 1994, winning 17
percent of the vote and, coming in third. However, in 1997 he was
elected mayor of Mexico City, putting him in a position to run for
president again in the year 2000. By then, many Mexicans of all
political persuasions had come to two conclusions. First, it was
necessary to end the rule of the PRI. Second, the PRI -- by fair
means or foul, or by force -- would never permit a party to its left
to win the presidency. Therefore, many (although not all) on the left
concluded that one had to cast a voto útil, a useful vote, a vote that
could end the PRI dictatorship. The way to do this it appeared would
be to vote for Vicente Fox, the rancher, boot manufacturer,
representative for Latin American of the Coca Cola company, and
governor of Guanajuato, who had become PAN candidate for president.
In 2000, Fox won a plurality of 43 percent of the vote, defeating the
PRI candidate Francisco Labastida who gained 36% and Cárdenas 17
The election of Fox in 2000, succeeded by Felipe Calderón in 2006,
together with the contempt and disdain in which the PRI was held by
many Mexicans, seemed to have assured that its era had ended, perhaps
forever. Now, just nine years later, it appears that the PRI is back,
positioned to become once again the ruling party of Mexico. Many
things have changed since the era of the PRI's one-party state:
Mexico's economy has been integrated and subordinated to that of the
United States; nationalized industries were sold off; the constitution
was amended to permit the sale of the ejido lands. All of these
things mean that the old state cannot be rebuilt on the same basis.
Whether or not it can reestablish its one-party state remains an open
question, and highly doubtful, but that it has become the Mexican
elite's political alternative seems clear. After having experienced
the alternation of political parties, and after a twelve-year hiatus
in the PRI's power, the PRI in power in the 21st century will not be
the PRI in power in the 20th. But, if different, if might turn out to
be equally disastrous for the Mexican people.
1 Arnaldo Córdova makes this analysis in his article "Después de las
elecciones. El bloque en el poder," La Jornada, July 12, 2009.