In December 2010, at the end of a study abroad semester in Puebla, some students and I organized a student expression project. Hundreds of students wrote complaints or ideas for their university, state, or country. Despite discouraging looks, I posted these note cards in a busy pathway at my public university the week that the campus was celebrating the centennial of the Mexican revolution.
It just so happened that Manuel Bartlett Díaz, a former secretary of the interior and ex-governor of Puebla, spoke on campus this same day. Unaware of accusations that he had helped cover up fraud in the 1988 presidential election, I approached Bartlett after his speech and asked him to view the project. My fellow students were perplexed at my offer and even more surprised that he came to see my project along with a university dean.
Earlier that week the dean gave us permission to conduct the project, but suggested we not post the results while Bartlett was there. I did not ask why. As I viewed the project with Bartlett and the dean, however, I sensed their uneasiness, as if everyone knew something I did not. Journalists and students took photos of the interaction, but both the dean and Bartlett avoided direct comment on the overwhelming anger of the students’ written statements and activism.
As an American college student with a budding interest in Mexican history and politics, I couldn’t understand the anxiety about this project. Unlike my classmates, I didn’t have strong memories of the Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI), its role in corrupting Mexican politics, or what PRI functionaries like Bartlett had done to keep the country in a one-party dictatorship for seven decades. At the time, even though the PRI had been dislodged from power, it still cast a long shadow over public attitudes. Until recently, however, Mexicans thought that Mexico was “on its way” to democracy.
But now the PRI is back. The suave and youthful priista Enrique Peña Nieto (EPN), former governor of the donut-shaped state of Mexico that surrounds Mexico City, is Mexico’s president-elect. His victory is by no means overwhelming. Capturing the presidency with only 38 percent of the national vote, EPN will encounter frequent hurdles, including a strong movement in public and in Congress against him and the party he represents. Megamarches throughout Mexico’s capital cities (as well as U.S. cities like Houston and Los Angeles) express this defiance, where millions claim electoral fraud and refuse to recognize EPN as president.
The allegations of fraud, however, do not all echo typical cases of ballot box misconduct. Rather, the opposition challenges the election as a whole, primarily pointing to wrongdoing before votes were even cast. Accusations of campaign manipulation -- through monopolized media, rigged polls, and vote buying -- lie at the heart of the social upheaval. The mobilizations show that Mexicans yearn to flee the swindles that have come to signify their politics.
Understanding the PRI’s legacy and its role in erecting this massive machine is importantisímo in understanding EPN’s strong opposition.
The Perfect Dictatorship
In 2000, the PRI lost the presidency to the PAN, Mexico’s conservative National Action Party. Only near the end of its run in 1989 did the PRI even lose a governorship. The PRI legacy was associated with corruption and authoritarianism, and its loss to the PAN yielded hopes for democracy. The thought of a priista back in the presidency has encountered considerable opposition, and for good reason.
The PRI ruled for so long because it included a role for everyone and maintained the flexibility necessary to respond to public dynamics. The party was born out of the Mexican revolution (1910-1920) after appointed leaders kept killing one another for power. President Plutarco Elías Calles created the forerunner of the party in an attempt to manage the fighting factions. In the early years, the PRI represented bureaucrats, campesinos, workers, entrepreneurs, the media, the Church, and even the army for a brief period. A “pendulum effect” in the party allowed it to produce both leftist and conservative presidents over the decades.
The PRI party machine ruled much like an imperial court. The president always chose his successor by the dedazo, literally handpicking the candidate, and the rest of the party accepted the choice as if it were their idea, too. Based on loyalties, cliques, unspoken rules, vote-buying, shady deals, and strong party unity, the machine came to be seen as “the perfect dictatorship” and Mexico as a “one-party democracy.” Elections, however superficial, were the only thing that made the country in any sense a “democracy.” The system was the envy of many Latin American countries, which struggled to hold elections and avoid military coups. The PRI truly institutionalized revolution. The implementation of revolutionary ideals such as effective suffrage and land reform, however, was up for debate, and had become a minority position within the party by 1988.
Economic difficulties in the early 1960s led to workers’ protests and minor skirmishes that evoked harsh government responses. A student movement for democratic representation snowballed into a national force against the PRI. In the first blatant demonstration of PRI power, the government suppressed a massive, peaceful student meeting on October 2, 1968 in the Tlatelolco district of Mexico City, killing thousands but only officially admitting to around 40 deaths.
Increased student calls for democratic pluralism, high inflation in the 1980s, a destructive Mexico City earthquake in 1985 when the government appeared absent, the murder of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994, and the peso crisis of 1995 all contributed to the PRI’s fall in 2000. The PRI “earned its defeat,” as Alan Riding wrote. Vicente Fox of the PAN won the presidency that year, leading many to proclaim the end of the PRI and the beginning of democracy in Mexico.
The PAN won the presidency again in 2006 under Felipe Calderón. His sexenio was marked by a sharp escalation in the war on drugs, which has taken around 60,000 lives since Calderón turned to the military to crack down on the drug cartels shortly after taking office. The violence skyrocketed further as Calderón partnered more closely with the United States and the Mérida Initiative. Violence not only plagues border cities like Ciudad Juarez but has spread to Acapulco, Guadalajara, and Veracruz.
Unsurprisingly, security was a salient issue this election, and the PRI emphasized order at whatever cost. But the PRI’s relationship with the drug trade has historically been more complicated. Drugs have always gone from South America through Mexico, and the PRI was known for taking payoffs from drug cartels in exchange for their protection.
EPN pledges to focus on violence reduction rather than cartel eradication. He plans to create a 40,000-person gendarmerie to combat violence, particularly in rural areas. He also intends to consolidate the 31 state police forces, greatly increase the federal police ranks, and attack the country’s culture of official impunity. EPN says these measures will help wean Mexico off Calderon's dependence on the military.
A second issue was the economy. Economic growth in Mexico has been pitiable. Since 2000, per capita income has grown only 0.9 percent annually, less than half the rate of the region as a whole. More than half of Mexicans live in poverty, and millions more this year than last. More than 6 million young adults belong to the “nini generation” -- they neither work nor study -- while 500,000 belong to street gangs and over 30,000 opt for work in the drug trade. EPN promises poverty alleviation, economic growth, and further integration of the U.S. and Mexican economies through neoliberal policies like NAFTA.
But the PRI owes its return to the presidency not just to a public desire for greater order and prosperity. It also resurrected its time-tested tactics of vote-rigging. A report by #YoSoy132, a large anti-PRI movement, provides many accounts of vote buying. In the state of Mexico, for instance, citizens reported a carousel operated by the PRI and free breakfasts.
Each day more vote-rigging claims surface. “Sorianagate” arose from reports that the PRI gave out pre-paid grocery gift cards from Soriana before the election. On July 2, these citizens fled to the grocery store to use the gift cards -- stamped with the PRI logo -- upon hearing the PRI may cancel the cards. In another case, over 500 election observers from Alianza Cívica reported irregularities in more than half of the poll stations, including the use of halconcitos. Deriving from halcón, or falcon, these are children between the ages of 8 and 10 who accompany voters that promised to vote for a certain party. Mainly used in organized crime in Mexico, the halconcitos, for the first reported time in an election, worked for political parties to guarantee that voters kept their promise. Alianza Cívica reported that all parties used the halconcitos, but that the vast majority of them worked for the PRI.
The claims are endless. Less well-known cases include the murder of a poll station coordinator in Nuevo León and threats against an election observer who took pictures of a station operator mobilizing citizens to vote PRI.
Mexican authorities have vowed to investigate allegations of irregularities, and the judiciary will make a final decision on the election results in September.
The PRI may have won the presidency, but it failed to secure a total victory in the legislature -- the party will lead both houses, but without a majority, meaning the PRI will find it difficult to pass the structural reforms that EPN’s campaign promised. EPN outlined some of these in a letter to The New York Times, in which he promised to build on NAFTA as an engine for growth and to strengthen Mexico’s economic and political relationships with the Asia-Pacific region and Europe. Although he can expect pushback from congressional opponents, he has also suggested privatizing Pemex, the state-owned oil industry.
EPN also supports U.S.-Mexican cooperation in the drug war, but has called on the United States to do more to curtail drug demand. He has agreed to allow U.S. surveillance drones but has been clear that he will not support Colombia- or Honduras-style joint armed counternarcotics operations. “It is just as if I asked you: ‘Should our police operate on the other side of the border?’ No. That would not be allowed by U.S. law. Our situation is the same,” he said. Still, elements of ambiguity within his plans have prompted scholar Eric Olson to observe, “I'm more and more convinced that they don't really have a blueprint.”
Whatever the result on September 6, when Mexico’s judiciary will conclude its deliberations on election irregularities, EPN’s victory has ignited a nationwide reaction that will not subside as long as Mexico’s “politics as usual” continue. The PRI established a vast imperialistic bureaucracy but also the only democratic system Mexico really has ever known. While the PAN controlled the presidency since 2000, the PRI’s power structure remained and still governed in most of Mexico’s states.
Hopefully EPN will be a true reformer of the PRI, jumpstart the economy, reduce poverty, and abate the bloody drug war. His credibility as a reformer remains to be seen, although his tenure as governor of the state of Mexico -- which John Ackerman notes was characterized by elevated levels of violence, poverty, and corruption -- offers little in the way of encouragement.
My experience with Bartlett in Puebla revealed the deeply ingrained legacy of PRI politics -- and its almost cursed connection to Mexican democracy. In EPN’s letter to The New York Times, he writes that Mexico missed many opportunities since 2000. With a lot of luck, EPN could help break the curse by seizing the opportunity and making a “PRI 180.” But with major protests in every capital even before EPN’s inauguration, it is doubtful.
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Originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus