Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 229 | Agosto 2000



Beginning of the End for the PRI? Will Fox Deliver?

The votes cast by the Mexican people have begun dismantling the PRI, but it will take time to wrest away all the privileges accumulated over many decades. Fox will take office laden with a number of important commitments, but only steady social pressure will ensure that he delivers.

Jorge Alonso

On July 2, 2000, the first step was taken towards dismantling one the longest-ruling state parties in world history. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), corroded by corruption, made numerous efforts to cling to presidential power, scandalously managing the country’s resources, protecting fraudulent financiers to ensure their complicity and making lavish use of public resources to buy, coerce and condition votes. It even organized an expensive dirty campaign against Vicente Fox, presidential candidate of the Alliance for Change, made up of the National Action Party (PAN) and the Green Party. But it was all to naught.

Despite fraud documented by observers from Mexico’s Civic Alliance as well as Global Exchange and other international organizations, the youth vote was strong enough to hand Fox the victory. A large number of Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) sympathizers also chose to cast what many described as a "practical vote," which contributed to his triumph. One tendency within the PRD actively encouraged the idea of a split ticket: a vote for Fox on the presidential ballot to oust the PRI while voting for PRD candidate López Obrador in Mexico City’s municipal elections. All these factors combined to make the July 2 elections a referendum on the ruling state party that finally defeated it after more than seven decades in power.

PRI on the way down, PAN on the rise

The PRI vote has been steadily declining over the years. In the 1982 presidential elections, the party attracted 70.9% of the total votes, and high levels of fraud in 1988 gave it a purported 50.4%. Although it milked the fear factor in 1994 to pull 50.2% of the vote, its support dropped to 36% in this year’s elections.

This downward trend is also true of support for Cuautémoc Cárdenas and his PRD. In 1988, he challenged the system and won the elections, but his victory was never recognized. After the government fiddled the figures, he was assigned 30.9% of the vote.
Six years later he ran for President again, this time attracting just 17.1% of the vote. In this year’s elections, Cárdenas rejected the alliance with the PAN that many people were calling for, joining instead with a group of small parties to form the Alliance for Mexico. It won just 16.6% of the vote.

The PAN’s share of the vote, on the other hand, has been steadily increasing. In 1982, it pulled 15.6% of the vote, a figure that rose to 17% in 1988 and 26.7% in 1994. This year, in alliance with the Green Party, it won 42.5% of the vote. Estimates are that Fox attracted nearly 1,800,000 "practical votes," representing 11% of his total.

Separating state from party will not be easy

The electorate took the first step towards dismantling the state-party apparatus on July 2 by throwing the PRI out of the presidential office. But PRI governors will still rule 21 of the 32 state governments and the party holds the majority of the country’s municipal governments.

The PRI’s current composition as a state party is the result of a process that began when it was created as a mechanism for settling conflicts between armed regional chiefs. It has since involved the structuring of the state into different corporative sectors (workers, peasant farmers, urban poor and an anonymous sector consisting of big business leaders), centralized decision-making in the presidency and a whole network of relations and complicity with the country’s most prominent economic forces, including financiers and the media. It has been a complex process that has gone on for decades.

By losing the presidency in the 2000 elections, the PRI lost the most important component of its state-party apparatus and the basis of its cohesion and its authoritarianism. It has yet to stop usurping the national colors and letting its state governors use public resources to benefit the party, however. The sectors of society traditionally organized by the party must become fully free and autonomous so as to put an end to the corporatism, which still has the clout to block any significant changes.
For all that, the dismantling of the state party has now begun, raising the possibility that the PRI will become just another party without all the special privileges it has enjoyed in the past. This will take time and will not happen without strong resistance.

A very pluralist scene

In the legislative elections, the Alliance for Change won 38.2% of the votes (compared to the PAN’s 26% three years ago), the PRI attracted 36.9% (a 2.2% drop since the last elections) and the PRD fell from 25.7% to 18.8%. So, while the elections handed the presidency to Fox, they left him little room for maneuver. With the elections over, the two coalition alliances dissolved and the previously arranged pacts to share out posts had to be honored. The initial election figures, confirmed in August by the Electoral Tribunal, gave the following results in the House of Representatives: the PRI, which ran alone and therefore did not have to share posts with other parties, won 210 seats; the PAN 207; the PRD 52; the Green Party 15; the Labor Party 8; the Nationalist Society 3; the Democratic Convergence 3 and the PAS 2. The PRD came out the worst, as its Alliance for Mexico implied sharing out a large number of seats without bringing in any increase in votes. In the new Senate, the PRI will have 60 seats, the PAN 46, the PRD 15, the Green Party 5, and the Labor Party and Democratic Convergence 1 each. The PRD held onto the Mexico City government.

These figures reveal a very pluralist scene. No party has a majority in either house and therefore none can unilaterally pass a law, let alone push through any constitutional changes. Dialogues and agreements will be the order of the day.

Electoral agreements

During the election campaign, Fox proposed a "government of concord" and promised to form a transitional government. He also announced that after July 2 he would invite all political forces to the Pact of Chapultepec, a major agreement he compared to the Pact of La Moncloa, which played a key role in the post-Franco transition to democracy in Spain. Fox presented ten basic agenda points for the first thousand days of his administration, which had been worked out with other political forces. The PRI and the PRD both refused to sign the pact, however.

The electoral defeat has led to increasing internal conflicts within both of these parties. In the PRI, certain tendencies are looking to take over party leadership, which is still controlled by incumbent President Ernesto Zedillo, and there are threats of breakaway movements and the creation of parties with a regional base. There has also been discontent in the PRD, generated by the reduction of posts and public funding as a result of the fewer votes received and the fact that currents within the party have become increasingly caught up in their own disputes instead of beginning a self-critical analysis.
Another factor shaping Fox’s presidency is a set of agreements signed with various political forces, especially the center-left. These agreements were crucial in winning their support, as many on the left have been concerned that Fox’s own conservative religious beliefs would influence his government’s public policies. In a formal ceremony attended by representatives of the former Communist Party and other leftist tendencies, Fox promised to maintain the secular nature of the Mexican state and of public education, promote legal and constitutional reforms that limit the President’s powers, and guarantee the autonomy and balance of the state branches. He also promised to respect the freedom, diversity and plurality of Mexican society and never to use state power to impose particular lifestyles, religious beliefs or codes of behavior. Furthermore, he accepted the challenge of creating conditions to bring about the peaceful solution of the Chiapas conflict, disarming the country’s armed groups and substantially increasing resources for public education. He also agreed not to privatize the state-run petroleum company and electricity services. In exchange, Fox’s new allies promised to promote the "practical vote" for Fox in order to defeat the PRI, and signed agreements for a transitional government. They stressed that the platform for that transition was viable because the majority of the population was behind it.

The alliance that didn’t happen and the one that did

During the campaign, some said that a joint PAN-PRD coalition would be unable to rule the country. Months before, however, eight opposition parties led by the PAN and the PRD had managed to establish a program of common government. It called for peaceful, structural changes based on public policies and new political, social and economic power relations in Mexican society that would generate opportunities for those who had none. It particularly stressed that handouts are no solution to the problem of poverty. It guaranteed that public education will be free and secular, and promised that the government that emerged from the alliance would use all means possible to improve the quality of education. It also agreed that women would be given preferential treatment to help them overcome the inequality and exclusion they have suffered, and that young people would be offered better employment, education and recreation opportunities in an atmosphere of freedom and security.

Furthermore, the alliance that never happened pledged to break with the exclusivity, corporatism, "political bossism" and system of personal contacts that had made it possible to manipulate poverty for political ends. This would represent a first step forward in the area of justice, so that everyone would have access to the law. The parties agreed to rebuild and democratize the institutions responsible for supporting rural development, education, health and community welfare programs so that the communities could make decisions aimed at promoting their own development. They also agreed to fight corruption decisively and efficiently, starting at the highest levels of public service, by establishing an effective system of accountability, eliminating impunity and complicity among public officials and making public administration transparent by monitoring the results of public expenditure. Finally, the PAN and the PRD agreed to guarantee the right to information so that any citizen could find out how public affairs were being conducted within the framework of a system of rendering accounts.

The snag that ruined that alliance was neither ideological nor programmatic. It was rather a PAN-PRD disagreement over the mechanism for electing the presidential candidate.

PAN’s new allies in the Alliance for Change resurrected this original platform, adding several points, and asked Fox to sign it when he became their candidate. Among the added commitments for the new government was respect for the freedom of all individuals and social and ethnic groups, mainly regarding customs and ways of life. Another was adoption of a development model recognizing nature as a national asset and the right of all Mexicans to a healthy environment, and ensuring that natural resource use and management would guarantee current and future generations access to nature’s capital to satisfy their needs. A third was backing for a free, pluralistic union sector, taking a stand against corporatism, introducing a national wage improvement program and implementing labor and productive reforms. Fox signed the aborted PAN-PRD agreements along with all of these additional points.

More promises to the center-left

A week before the elections, another center-left group issued a statement declaring that the alternation of power in the presidency could be achieved through the ballot box, thus completing the transition toward democracy begun several years ago. This group recalled the failed attempt to consolidate an opposition alliance at end of 1999 despite great popular support for the idea, and concluded that the presidency would only change hands if support were consolidated behind one opposition candidate. The group therefore called on the population to vote for Fox in order to ensure the long-awaited alternation of power.
This declaration did not come out of the blue. The group had previously asked Fox to sign a series of promises with it: establishment of a plural and inclusive government; the naming of progressive Mexicans to portfolios such as SEDECOL (to fight poverty) and PEMEX (the petroleum company); tolerance of diversity and the guarantee of absolute respect for all minorities; development of a state that promotes an economy supporting small businesspeople and channels massive resources to the poorest regions to be administrated by the communities; recognition of the autonomy of indigenous peoples and immediate adoption of the San Andrés Accords; and respect for the gains achieved by women, including the ratification of international agreements on women’s rights.

Then, with only four days before the elections, a network of civic organizations known as Civic Power released a leaflet calling on citizens to exercise their free vote. It included a brief history of the grouping, which had emerged out of a number of regional forums held between August and October 1999 that were used to build consensus around a National Civil Society Agenda containing 24 points. A movement of over 600 civil and social organizations was subsequently formed under the name Civic Power. In March 2000, five of the six candidates, with the sole exception of the PRI, accepted an invitation to receive the agenda and state their position on it. On June 2, the five candidates signed their commitments and responsibilities with Civic Power. Three accepted the whole agenda. Cárdenas took the point on the peace process in Chiapas a step further by promising to send the bill drafted by the legislature’s Commission on Harmony and Pacification (COCOPA) to Congress immediately, while Fox accepted 12 points of the Agenda and amended the other 12. Civic Power then called on the candidates to honor what they had signed after the elections.
Finally, just before the elections, the Alliance for Change also published a commitment from Fox to the indigenous peoples of Mexico. In it he promised to create a National Council for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, dedicate official media time to promoting indigenous culture and traditions, create regional development programs with investment for and participation by indigenous communities, turn the COCOPA document into an executive initiative and send it to Congress his first day in office, immediately start disarming the paramilitary groups, resume talks with the EZLN on pending issues and name a commissioner recognized by the EZLN and the independent indigenous organizations.

Thus, before being elected, Fox made many commitments. In synthesis, he stressed that he would establish a plural and inclusive government of democratic transition that would respect the free, secular nature of public education; improve the public health system; promote Mexican culture and values; guarantee tolerance and diversity and full union freedom; recognize the autonomy of indigenous peoples; immediately adopt the San Andrés Accords; promote full respect for women’s gains and unconditionally guarantee freedom of expression. But civil society groups should not lower their guard if this important and broad set of promises is to be honored.

PRI’s objectives in Chiapas

Chiapas is still a central issue in Mexican politics. At least 15 armed civilian groups are operating there, 10 of which are clearly paramilitary, made up of PRI supporters and financed by the government. Meanwhile, the army has increased its efforts to suffocate the indigenous communities.
At the end of May, several civil organizations demanded that the presidential candidates pledge to pull the Federal Police and the army out of Chiapas, pointing out that the situation is becoming increasingly hostile there. In June, a national conference of civil society for peace and against militarization was held. Comandante David and Subcomandante Marcos sent a statement describing its participants as a rainbow of all that is best about Mexico. They stressed that the government is still waging a war against indigenous peoples in Chiapas, even if the issue was pushed offstage by the electoral process.

During the months of the electoral campaign, the Mexican state machinery was mobilized in Chiapas with two aims: to ensure the imposition of PRI candidate Francisco Labastida, the new "warlord," and to set everything in place for a major political and military operation against the EZLN. In contrast, Bishop Samuel Ruiz, no longer in his pastoral post in San Cristóbal, declared on June 16 that there is need for a new diagnosis of the conflict in Chiapas, new mediation efforts and another round of negotiations.

Marcos and the elections

Subcomandante Marcos released a communiqué days before the elections warning that the voices of the media were replacing citizens as voters. He denounced the indiscriminate use of flimsy opinion polls as one more campaign strategy rather than a means of providing reliable information. The media’s aim was to make citizens focus on what they were shown and thus prevent them from basing their decision on the different political options on offer. This expression of "modernity" was also more a way of generating large profits for the media moguls than of guaranteeing the transition to democracy. Marcos pointed out that information was not being equitably disseminated since the PRI was dominating the prime-time spots; the media had opted for scandal; the candidates had chosen insults, infamy and gossip; and journalists themselves had assumed the role of judges over what they reported. The Zapatistas demanded the right to information.

In the document Marcos stated that, despite the government’s scandalous support for the PRI, civic discontent was increasingly eloquent and predicted that the PRI would lose the presidency. He also reminded Zapatistas of all the misfortunes that had befallen them under successive PRI governments but did not come out in favor of the "practical vote," arguing that politics should be a "question of principles."
The message Marcos sent to the new government, of whatever political stripe it turned out to be, was that if it opted for low-intensity violence, sham and deceit, it would only generate contempt and distrust among Zapatistas, but if it wanted real dialogue, the Zapatistas were willing to sit down and talk.

When presenting his transitional team, President-elect Fox stressed that Chiapas will be one of his government’s priorities. The Zapatista municipalities remained skeptical, fearing that he would pursue the neoliberal model under other guises. In an open letter to the new government referring to Fox’s promise that he would end the Chiapas conflict in fifteen minutes, the Nobel laureate in literature José Saramago said it could in fact be resolved in five. All it would take would be an order to withdraw the army from the zone, disarm the paramilitary groups and approve the San Andrés Accords.

Peace in Chiapas?

Following Fox’s electoral victory, his team announced that it would double public spending to combat poverty and that the main area of its social policy would be a public, secular, value-based, free education. Around the same time, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú met with Fox and announced that he had promised to work for peace in Chiapas. Meanwhile, the President-elect put the PAN’s Luis Alvarez, who had done a good job on the COCOPA initiative, in charge of establishing contact with Subcomandante Marcos and drawing up an agenda with the EZLN.

The state elections will be held on august 20, and the fact that Chiapas was the state showing the most fraud during the federal elections is a worrying precedent. If the PRI retains the governership there, it will complicate the task of resolving the conflict, because even with the withdrawal of the army and the adoption of the San Andrés Accords, local forces will continue to harass the Zapatistas through their paramilitary groups. To win the state elections away from the PRI, eight parties—the PAN, PRD, Green Party, Labor Party, PCD, PSN, PAS, PT and Convergence for Democracy—have formed an alliance. At the end of July, opinion polls put their alliance 17 points ahead of the PRI.

Two of the outcomes of the June 2 federal elections particularly favor the forces promoting peace. The first was that the PRI lost the presidency and the second that the Social Democratic Party, a para-state party supported by the Government Secretariat, attracted so few votes that it lost its legal status and consequently ceased to exist. It was led by Salinas supporters and its candidates in Chiapas included activists of a paramilitary group denounced by the Zapatistas.

What will happen? A broad debate

Before the elections, a number of Mexican and foreign academics participated in a broad debate in the national press. Pablo González Casanova supported the PRD and came out against the "practical vote," while Emmanuel Wallerstein and Noam Chomsky stated that alternating power was more an illusion than a real democratic step forward because a business dictatorship continued to make decisions behind the scenes. They accepted the idea that if the alternation of power succeeded in opening up room to debate real political options, it could lead to change, but warned that the real power structures, those of the business dictatorship, could remain hidden and intact.

Fox’s victory has loosed an avalanche of analyses and polemical statements about the real meaning of the PRI’s defeat. Several commentators feel that there will not be a transition so much as a simple change of the party in power, while others believe that the PRI’s defeat really will lead to a regime change. There is also a debate going on among NGOs. Some see the new government as a danger and accuse it of viewing citizens as clients and working with a business conception based on the idea of "total quality," which will not lead to the resolution of the problems of the poor and marginalized. Other groups feel that the PRI’s defeat represents an important opportunity.

Both the PRI and the PRD announced that they will not allow any of their members to join Fox’s Cabinet, but the PRD as well as the PAN did declare their willingness to discuss a national agenda, following an initially negative response from Cárdenas’ party. The PRD proposed creating a "clean hands" commission to clear up the financial scandals that have affected the country, while Fox continues to search for minimum governability agreements.

Relief and hope predominate

The transition from the PRI to the PAN has been going smoothly, with no real surprises so far. The new government is under a lot of pressure, particularly to stick with the neoliberal model. But the PAN cannot rule alone, and just as it built bridges to win the elections, it will have to hammer out a lot of agreements in order to govern. This opens possibilities for the center-left groups that agreed on such a wide range of measures with Fox when he was still just a presidential candidate. Left to his own devices, the new President will not honor these agreements, so there is clearly a need for social pressure, vigilance and social and political action from grassroots forces. This pressure is especially important in ensuring that the new government formulates a firm, visible social policy, since without one the transition to democracy will remain incomplete.

Despite all the limitations and uncertainty, the structures and practices of the state party undeniably represented a terrible burden on the political, economic and social life of most Mexicans. Thus the victory of an opposition candidate has opened the way for a civic, pluralistic convergence and mobilization that could bring about more changes and finish the task of dismantling all that remains of the state party. Meanwhile, the challenges of reducing the country’s poverty and building a participatory and deliberative democracy remain, but the way forward will now be clearer. The whole of Mexico is currently experiencing a massive feeling of relief and newfound hope.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


The Air is Thick With Electoral Fraud

Masaya Trembles: The Lessons of a Disaster

Beginning of the End for the PRI? Will Fox Deliver?

Fiscal Pact a Major Achievement, Tax Reform Next in Line

The Option of Abortion: Urgent Reflections

Development Aid In Crisis: Donor Fatigue

Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development