JPRI Critique Vol. XIX No. 2 (March 2013)
Mexico’s Elections: Is the Return of the PRI a Return to the Past?
by Arturo Santa-Cruz

The 2012 Mexican elections brought to an end the era of the alternancia—i.e., alternating governments. That era began in 2000, when the victory of National Action Party (PAN) candidate Vicente Fox ended seven decades of rule (under three different names) of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Although the PAN almost lost power in 2006 to a leftist coalition, the fact that in 2012 it handed power back to the PRI has aroused widespread fears that this would return Mexico’s political system to authoritarian times. I believe such fears are misplaced.

For starters, Mexico’s long transition to democracy concluded well before the PRI’s defeat in the 2000 presidential elections. The start of the country’s long road to democracy might be dated to 1977, when José López Portillo’s administration passed a sweeping electoral reform that brought some political groups—particularly the Communist Party—into the political fold and gave the opposition more voice through seats in Congress. Two decades and several electoral reforms later, during president Ernesto Zedillo’s term, what became the definitive electoral reform was passed; both the 2000 and 2006 elections took place under rules established by this legislation. Among other things, governmental participation in the electoral body in charge of organizing elections ceased; the Federal Election Tribunal was placed within the Supreme Court; corporatist (i.e., massive) party affiliations were made illegal; it was established that public funds should predominate over private ones in party finances; and the mayorship of Mexico City (the country’s center of power) was opened to electoral competition (instead of the mayor being appointed by the president). Thus, the possibility for opposition parties to make substantial inroads increased.

And those possibilities materialized. Already, the mid-term 1997 elections completely changed Mexico’s political landscape. For the first time, the PRI no longer held an absolute majority in the lower house. Furthermore, the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) won Mexico City’s first-ever mayoral election. Thus, whereas in 1982 the PRI controlled 91 percent of all elected positions (including the presidency, seats in congress, governorships, local congresses, and mayoralties), in 1997 it controlled only slightly over 50 percent.

That is why, although important for a myriad of reasons, the outcome of the 2000 elections was by and large unrelated to Mexico’s transition to democracy. Since the outcome of elections was no longer predetermined, the country’s authoritarian regime was already a thing of the past. The still burgeoning political plurality was simply confirmed by the 2000 electoral process. Vicente Fox certainly did achieve the highly symbolic feat of defeating the PRI (with a plurality of the votes: 42.5 percent, not with an absolute majority, it should be noted) but, not surprisingly, for the second time the (new) president would not have a majority in Congress.

Toward the end of the Fox administration, when Mexicans were supposed to be getting used to the uneventful democratic normalcy of a country with contested elections, separation of powers, checks and balances, an independent press, and an autonomous electoral body, to name just a few of the features of the young Mexican democratic regime by the mid-2000’s, the country went through an unexpected—and arguably also exciting—political upheaval. The 2006 election seemed to make up for what until then had been a rather tedious democratic transition. To fully grasp what transpired in 2012, particularly the fear that a PRI comeback would set back the political clock, it is necessary to understand what happened in 2006—especially the fact that the candidate who came in second on both occasions (2006 and 2012) was the same: Andrés Manuel López Obrador, of the PRD.

The 2006 Election

The Fox administration and the PAN were understandably reluctant to hand over power to another party after only one term in office. Thus, in late 2005, at the start of the presidential electoral campaigns, and with Lopez Obrador’s poll numbers skyrocketing, the easiest political maneuver for the incumbent PAN administration was to (obliquely) accuse the candidate of the “Coalition for the Good of All,” formed by the PRD and two other small parties, of being a populist. Although Fox was not running (since the Constitution does not allow a president to serve multiple terms), he acted as if he saw the 2006 elections as a plebiscite on his performance. Similarly, PAN candidate Felipe Calderón adopted the political strategy of identifying López Obrador with populism in general, and with Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez in particular. Thus, starting in March 2006, Calderón’s inner circle decided to run a US-style campaign—mud throwing included. The bottom line of the PAN’s new tactic was to present López Obrador as “a danger to Mexico.”

Calderón’s negative campaign worked at first, but by May of 2006 López Obrador had recovered, ending his campaign with a very small lead over Calderón, according to most published polls. When Election Day—July 2nd—came there were no major obstacles to holding a fair election; early that day a PRD leader recognized as much. The problems started when, at the time that it had been agreed for the president of the electoral body to go on national TV in order to provide preliminary results, he instead announced that it was not possible to declare a winner.

A few days later, when official results were to be produced by adding tally sheets at the district level, López Obrador was already calling for either a total recount or the annulment of the election. After the Electoral Tribunal ordered a partial recount, both López Obrador and Calderón lost votes (the former 73,254 and the latter 83,357). Finally, on 5 September 2006, the Electoral Tribunal issued its verdict. While noting that there had been some problems, such as president Fox’s constant interventions, it found no evidence of widespread electoral fraud and therefore refused to either order a full recount or annul the election, as the PRD demanded. In the end, Calderón won with 35.89 of the popular vote—a difference of only 0.58 percent over López Obrador. In Congress, for the third time since the 1997 electoral reforms, no party held a majority.

López Obrador nonetheless proclaimed himself the “legitimate president” of Mexico and started campaigning for his second run in 2012. At first a series of political blunders on his part (such as blocking one of Mexico City’s main arterials with his supporters), as well as internecine fighting in the PRD, seemed to doom the PRD chances of making a 2012 comeback. Not surprisingly, the party’s performance in the mid-term 2009 elections was rather disappointing (it obtained 71 seats in the lower house, compared to 126 three years earlier). However, two factors worked in López Obrador’s favor during the second half of the Calderón administration: first, with unemployment levels not receding since his arrival in office, Calderon’s electoral campaign promise to be “the president of employment” sounded rather like a bad joke; second, and perhaps more important, Calderón’s most trumpeted governmental program, his war on drugs, had claimed about 50,000 lives by the time the presidential electoral year started. Although these two factors also worked in favor of the PRI, what seemed like a deeply held and widespread anti-PRI sentiment gave López Obrador hope that he would succeed in his second attempt to make it to Los Pinos (as the presidential house is called).

The 2012 Election

The PRI, however, rallied behind a good-looking emerging political figure as its presidential candidate: Enrique Peña Nieto. From 2005 to 2012 the governor of the state of Mexico (the economic powerhouse that surrounds Mexico City), the young and well-connected politician did not prove to be a charismatic figure. However, his constant appearances on national TV (to which his state’s government devoted abundant resources), his marriage to a soap-opera star, his good looks and, not least, a lack of major blunders during his administration, made him the most popular of the presidential hopefuls. By late 2011 he had a lead of over 20 percentage points over his rivals in practically all the polls. Although one would be hard-pressed to find evidence that the PRI had transformed itself during its few years as an opposition party (a new role for it since it was established in the late 1920s), the young Peña Nieto (he was 45 when obtained his party's nomination) had as one of his slogans that he represented the “new PRI.”

Whether voters bought Peña Nieto’s story or they simply didn’t care, the fact is that on 1 July they elected him president by a wide margin, even if not as wide as most polls predicted: eight percentage points over López Obrador, who again came in second. Although the latter cried fraud and called for new elections, this time he abstained from proclaiming himself the legitimate president, and the protests he led made little headway. In Congress, for the fifth time since 1997, no party received a majority.

What Does It Portend?

Which brings us back to the question of political restoration. Many on the left believe that the PAN and the PRI were accomplices in preventing the PRD coalition from reaching the presidency in 2006 (and to a lesser extent in 2012). They worry that the anti- PAN vote, which in the end favored the PRI, will return Mexico to pre-democratic times. As noted before, I believe that will not happen. My reason is twofold: not only the political system, but also Mexican society is not what it used to be when the PRI ruled as an authoritarian regime. For instance, not only are elections now run by autonomous bodies at both the federal and state levels, but a truly independent judiciary and legislatures also exist. Furthermore, perhaps the single most important achievement of the first alternancia administration (i.e., Fox’s government) was the passage of the “Governmental Public Information and Transparency Law.” Going much further than the US Freedom of Information Act, the Mexican law and its accompanying Federal Institute for Access of Information (IFAI) mark a watershed in Mexico’s tradition of governmental secrecy and misuse of public information. Although it has run into some political problems since it was established, the IFAI has become an important resource for citizens and the press to keep the government accountable. In addition, a myriad of non-governmental organizations have emerged in the last two decades, making for a vibrant civil society that is not likely to be controlled by the new PRI-government, should it attempt to do so.

This is not to say that the state of Mexico’s democracy is ideal—far from it. The country’s long transition has produced no major reforms in the security apparatus of the State, no justice-seeking mechanisms such as a truth commission, nor major reforms in the country’s political economy intended to do away with monopolistic actors in the market. Moreover, in terms of their private wealth, the members of newly independent electoral, judicial, and legislative branches are among the most privileged in the world, to say nothing about the excessive amounts of public money that finance political parties and the discretionary powers enjoyed by the recently made independent state governors, who in some cases have become veritable feudal lords. It is not surprising that the legislative branch, along with the police and political parties, ranks at the bottom in the level of trust citizens have in the country’s economic, political and social institutions. Nonetheless, Mexico’s political regime is far better now than it was a couple of decades ago. The deep changes that have taken place in both the state and society make a retrograde PRI restoration under Peña Nieto a most unlikely event.


Arturo Santa-Cruz is Associate Professor in the Department of Pacific Studies and Director of the Center for North American Studies, University of Guadalajara, Mexico. His books include Mexico-United States Relations: The Semantics of Sovereignty (Routledge, 2012), International Election Monitoring, Sovereignty, and the Western Hemisphere: The Emergence of an International Norm (Routledge, 2005), and Un debate teórico empíricamente ilustrado: La construcción de la soberanía japonesa, 1853-1902 (Universidad de Guadalajara, 2000).


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