The Electoral Process and Political Dynamics

Mexico Table of Contents

Article 41 of the constitution of 1917 and subsequent amendments regulate electoral politics in Mexico. Suffrage is universal for all citizens eighteen or older, and voting is compulsory, although this provision is rarely enforced. The Mexican constitution enshrines the principle of direct election by popular vote of the president and most other elected officials. Executive officeholders may not be reelected, and legislators may not serve consecutive terms. Ordinary elections are held every six years for president and members of the Senate, and every three years for deputies. Since 1986 midterm elections have renewed one-half of the Senate, in addition to the entire Chamber of Deputies. Gubernatorial elections are evenly distributed throughout a sexenio , so that ordinarily no more than six governorships are contested in any given year.

Although holding multicandidate elections in which the electorate makes the final choice is one of the basic principles of the Mexican Revolution, the electoral process in Mexico has historically fallen short of this liberal ideal. During the sixty-year period of single-party hegemony that followed the consolidation of the revolutionary regime, regular elections became an important symbol of stability and of the regime's self-ascribed democratic character. Beyond fulfilling an ambiguous plebiscitary function, however, elections were not intended as a means of selecting new leaders, nor were they usually relevant to the public policy process. Instead, leadership turnover was centrally controlled by the president, while most significant interaction between public officials and the citizenry took place within the context of day-to-day corporatist bargaining and informal clientelist relationships.

As the beneficiary of a noncompetitive electoral process, the official party has historically enjoyed a near monopoly of all levels of public office. For almost six decades, the principal political battles in Mexico were fought among elite factions and interest groups within the PRI party structure, with little or no meaningful participation by independent organizations or opposition parties. During this prolonged period of one-party hegemony, several modest electoral reforms were implemented by the government in order to maintain the appearance of electoral democracy and undercut the appeal of latent opposition movements. Electoral reforms enacted during the 1970s included the allotment of a minimum number of congressional seats to both legitimate and "satellite" opposition parties. Additional steps toward greater political pluralism were taken during the early 1980s, when President de la Madrid embarked on a campaign to make local-level politics more competitive.

By the mid-1980s, the electoral arena had been liberalized and the political space for opposition had expanded to such an extent that the PRI found itself increasingly challenged at the ballot box. In 1985 the landslide victories of PRI candidates in gubernatorial and municipal elections in the northern state of Chihuahua led to widespread allegations of electoral fraud by the opposition PAN, which had expected major wins in one of its traditional strongholds. In an unprecedented series of public protests, a variety of civic groups, with support from the Roman Catholic Church, staged massive demonstrations denouncing the official tallies.

Responding to increasing popular pressure for democratization, the de la Madrid administration in 1986 introduced an electoral reform package that expanded opportunities for an opposition presence in the congress. The 1986 Electoral Reform Law enlarged the Chamber of Deputies from 400 to 500 seats and doubled the number of congressional seats filled by proportional representation to 200. Of the 500 deputyships, one each is allocated to 300 electoral districts, elected by simple plurality in single-member districts comparable to those in the United States. The remaining 200 seats are assigned by proportional representation based on a party's share of the national vote tally. The proportional seats give opposition parties an opportunity to be represented in the congress even if they lose all of the district races. The PRI assured, however, that the distribution of proportional seats would not become a means for a coalition of parties without a plurality of the overall vote to take control of the lower house. A clause in the electoral law provides that enough proportional seats in the Chamber of Deputies be assigned to the party winning an overall plurality in the election to give that party a majority in the Chamber of Deputies.

Theoretically, no party is barred from holding a single-member district seat, although in practice an overwhelming number of such seats have been held by the PRI. The increase in the number of proportional seats was a concession to the opposition, which relies heavily on proportional seating for its representation in the congress. The 1986 reform also introduced proportional representation in state legislatures as well as government funding for all registered political parties.

The 1988 Elections

The 1988 elections were a watershed in the history of Mexican politics, marking a radical shift in the country's political dynamics and providing the first test of the 1986 electoral reforms. The emergence of two nationally prominent opposition candidates afforded an unprecedented challenge to the PRI's electoral machine, which until that time had faced mostly obscure and poorly financed adversaries.

Assailed by a partisan rupture over the nomination of Salinas, which ultimately led to the defection of much of the PRI's populist wing to the leftist opposition, the PRI party apparatus was under intense pressure to produce a victory or face disintegration. Within the context of a national economic crisis, an intraparty split, and a hotly contested presidential race, many observers expected the PRI to resort to fraud to secure a decisive win.

Although the PRI maintained control of the presidency and preserved its congressional majority in the July 1988 balloting, the elections were a blow to the PRI's preeminent position in Mexican politics. The PRI suffered a dramatic erosion of 18 percent in its share of the presidential vote from the previous election and surrendered an unprecedented 48 percent of seats in the Chamber of Deputies to the opposition. The official tally, which showed Salinas winning a bare majority of 50.7 percent of the vote, was questioned by an unexpected week-long delay in the computerized tally and widespread reports of vote fraud and irregularities. As a result, the new administration began its term in office as one of the most unpopular in recent Mexican history.

The Salinas Presidency: Reform and Retrenchment

Upon assuming office in December 1988, Salinas faced grave challenges to his authority as president. Among his most pressing concerns was the need to defuse political tensions that had arisen in the highly polarized climate of the election. The defection of many former PRI stalwarts and the threat of further erosion of the party ranks also placed enormous pressure on Salinas to relax the economic austerity measures put in place by his predecessor. Compounding the new government's problems was the fact that, for the first time in its history, the PRI did not command the two-thirds majority in the Chamber of Deputies required to amend the constitution. To continue liberalizing the economy, the government would need to negotiate with the 101 delegates of the "moderate" opposition (the center-right PAN) to remove the remaining constitutional barriers to reform.

Perhaps the most formidable political challenge faced by the new Salinas administration was mistrust of the official party's leadership and its lack of credibility among a likely majority of the electorate in light of the questionable results of the 1988 presidential vote. In the aftermath of the narrow PRI presidential victory and facing widespread charges of electoral fraud, President Salinas sought limited reforms of the electoral process without disavowing the PRI's many legal and financial advantages in the political system.

Seeking to restore the government's credibility and to pacify the opposition, Salinas increased the opportunities for opposition politicians to take office at the state and local levels. This strategy benefited mainly the PAN, whose free-market economic policies closely resembled those of the modernizing técnico wing of the PRI. Whereas previous PRI administrations had been willing to concede some municipalities to the PAN, the growth of opposition strength after the 1988 elections compelled the PRI to begin surrendering state governments as well.

The first test of Salinas's commitment to cleaner gubernatorial elections came in 1989, when the PRI conceded its first governorship to an opposition party by accepting a PAN victory in Baja California Norte. In 1991 PRI victories in the gubernatorial elections in Guanajuato and San Luis Potosí sparked widespread allegations of fraud. In both cases, the president intervened by forcing the local PRI candidate to step down. Whereas in San Luis Potosí another PRI leader was installed as interim governor, in Guanajuato the interim governorship was handed to the PAN candidate.

The 1992 gubernatorial elections in Chihuahua and Michoacán illustrated the Salinas administration's ambivalent approach toward the opposition in general. Although the PAN candidate won and was allowed to take office in Chihuahua, the PRI spent vast amounts of party and government funds to defeat the PRD in its regional stronghold of Michoacán. Following months of strident PRD protests over the official results, Salinas faced the prospect of a massive protest march on Mexico City. The president was finally compelled to intervene and replace the sitting governor with a more suitable PRI substitute.

Although President Salinas's rejection of overt electoral fraud was by no means novel or systematic, his admonitions concerning fraud in state and local elections did help curb some of the more conspicuous abuses. In addition, the president's moves against individuals associated with corruption served as a powerful weapon in his reformist struggles against the most recalcitrant factions of the PRI old guard. Many members of the PRI's político wing opposed the president's economic policies and resented central government interference in state and local politics.

Contradicting his moves on behalf of more transparent and competitive elections, Salinas took some measures that made it more difficult for the opposition to contest the PRI's public policy initiatives. In the name of preserving "governability," Salinas resorted frequently to his executive prerogatives in pushing legislation through the Congress with a minimum of public debate. Although the 1990 electoral reform created institutions and a legal framework to fight electoral fraud and abuses, it also contained a new formula for legislative seating that made it more difficult for the opposition to gain seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Under the 1990 electoral code, the threshold for obtaining an automatic majority of seats in the chamber was reduced to 35 percent of the national vote. This threshold practically ensured that any future PRI administration could count on a PRI-controlled Chamber of Deputies to pass its legislative initiatives. This highly unpopular electoral law was rescinded in 1994 during the reforms leading to the August elections.

One of the key features of the 1990 electoral code was the abolition of the discredited Federal Electoral Commission and its replacement with a new Federal Electoral Institute (Instituto Federal Electoral--IFE). The IFE is a semiautononomous organization, consisting of representatives from government and the major political parties. It supervises elections and investigates complaints of irregularities. The IFE also administers the entire electoral process at the federal, state, and local levels. During the early 1990s, reforms of the IFE strengthened its capacity to serve as a nonpartisan electoral commission. These reforms included the introduction of majority nonpartisan representation (six out of eleven seats) in the IFE governing board, a legal framework for Mexican and foreign observers to monitor the elections, and an independent audit of the national voter list. Other electoral rules implemented during the Salinas sexenio included the compilation of a new and more accurate national electoral roll, and the issue of new voter registration cards bearing voter photographs and fingerprints.

The Salinas government reform program was twofold. It focused on economic growth and the replacement of wide-ranging subsidies to the middle class by a welfare program targeted at the poorest sectors of Mexican society. In a coordinated effort to stimulate economic growth and restructure the economy, Salinas promoted the privatization of state firms that brought more than US$10 billion to the Mexican government. The administration also launched an active campaign to increase foreign investment in Mexico. A second approach involved the massive National Solidarity Program (Programa Nacional de Solidaridad--Pronasol), which was to help the poor and attract political support (see Social Spending, ch. 2). Pronasol distributed several billion dollars, derived from privatization funds, aimed at delivering public works projects to poor areas within the country. Heavy government spending on social projects (schools, health clinics, and roads, among others) contributed to PRI victories in the 1991 midterm elections.

Two important events in 1994 led to dramatic political reforms. First came the Chiapas rebellion on New Year's Day, in which an army of some 2,000 peasants led by the masked Subcommander Marcos demanded social justice and democratization of the Mexican political system (see President Salinas, ch. 1). Two months later, PRI presidential candidate Colosio was assassinated while campaigning in Tijuana.

Despite the rhetoric calling for political reform and democratization, President Salinas actually strengthened the traditional pattern of centralized authority in the decision-making process. A clear example of the continuation of the dedazo was the tight control and secrecy around the unveiling of the second PRI presidential candidate, Zedillo, soon after Colosio's assassination. Critics charged that much of the effort to curb voting fraud stemmed not from a change in institutions but from the personal intervention of President Salinas. Electoral reform was also inhibited by a lack of meaningful political participation by women (who did not attain voting rights until 1954) and by ethnic minorities. Despite the glorification of Mexico's indigenous history in popular art and literature, Mexico's indigenous peoples have been largely marginalized in national politics.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress