IERC: International Education and Research Center

Changing Mexico: The Role of Non-Revolutionary Thought

A Historical Review of Mexico’s 2000 elections
Food for Thought Beyond 2006

Susanne A. Wagner (Bio)

It is speculated that Cuauhtemoc Cardenas running as the presidential candidate for the Partido Revolucionario Democratico (PRD - Democratic Revolutionary Party) actually won the 1988 elections in Mexico. Nevertheless, he did not officially become the president. Carlos Salinas de Gortari, candidate for the long-standing Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI -- Institutional Revolutionary Party) was the one to be seated on the presidential throne on December 1, 1988.

There is no doubt that Mexico's electoral system and Mexico's political system began its most dramatic changes and transformations as of 1986. For the first time in over fifty years, the Mexican ruling party - the PRI - was being challenged from various sides. Internally, the PRI was facing factionalism as Cuauhtemoc Cardenas and Porfirio Muñoz Ledo among others, left the PRI's ranks forming their own party. Many other PRI militants were leaving the party and joining other political forces. Some, moving toward a more conservative view of government became members of the Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN - the National Action Party). Although this internal trend continued through to the 2000 elections, the years between 1986 and 1994 saw the most dramatic changes within the PRI itself.

Mexico was not unique in dealing with newly arising popular demands and in confronting new global realities. The 1980's in Latin America have been described as years in which the pendulum between democracy and dictatorship was once again swinging significantly toward the democratic side. In Chile, Augusto Pinochet held elections to determine whether popular demand would keep him in power or not. He lost his bet and was ousted from the Chilean presidency in 1989 thanks to popular demand. In Argentina, civilian rule had once again replaced military dictatorships. Brazil was well on its path toward democratically elected governments with continuity. The Nicaraguan Sandinista revolution was facing seemingly insurmountable problems and democratic elections were being called for. In Central American nations in general, a new view on how to deal with guerrillas and how to incorporate them into democratic governments were being developed and implemented. In Peru, despite a rise in Shining Path activities, Alan García was democratically elected followed by the surprise victory of Alberto Fujimori. The latter was elected as president although all predictions indicated that the more conservative and elitist Mario Vargas Llosa was definitely going to win. Despite these predictions, democracy and popular demand prevailed and Fujimori initiated his first of many presidential terms.

Human Rights organizations by the 1980's and 1990's had a much greater international reach. The increased speed of telecommunications allowed Human Rights organizations to publicize their reports to more people and at a faster pace. Furthermore, due to the fact of an ever-increasing globalized world, nations were finding themselves in the headlines of many news reports. Mexico, which under Salinas de Gortari was moving steadfastly in the direction of international actor and was beginning to form an elaborate trade alliance with the United States and Canada could not afford to be seen negatively in the world's view. As a result, the Mexican Human Rights Commission was formed, and the Mexican president preached ever-greater openness within the Mexican political arena. Although these initially represented small steps toward a more democratic and "aware" nation they, nevertheless, initiated a process that would eventually snowball and lead to the PRI's demise. The Human Rights Commission, for example, began as a government entity, the head of which was appointed by the Mexican President. Despite this fact, however, members who worked in the Human Rights Commission would take their jobs seriously and would often mention human rights realities to their international colleagues - some of this information was naturally not very flattering to the Mexican government. Thus, despite its limitations, people turned toward the Human Rights Commission for help and support and their cases began to be publicized and as such had to be dealt with in a more serious and realistic fashion.

With the creation of Proceso, Mexico also saw an increase in the independence of its media, particularly its print media. Suddenly, articles opposing the government were published in various news sources. Although some of these definitely had a slant toward the left, frequently it was the pro-PAN conservative news elements that became increasingly vociferous in their complaints and criticisms of the ruling party. This enabled more opposition parties to launch candidates for governor of various Mexican states successfully -- a trend that continued throughout the presidency of Ernesto Zedillo. Despite a more open press, television - the most far-reaching news medium - continued to be highly skewed in favor of the ruling party. This tendency would continue until 1999, when upcoming presidential elections elicited a fairer and non-partisan coverage.

Both due to international and domestic pressures, the PRI began internal reforms and brought about significant changes within Mexico's political and electoral processes. Where previously members of opposition parties had to truly fear for their lives, they were now openly opposing the regime. Where unfavorable press coverage could lead to a reporter’s disappearance, critical analysts were now being invited to highly publicized round-table discussions. After the debacle of 1988, it was believed that the PRI had only two options: to open up the system and allow greater popular participation and criticism or to become highly repressive. The latter does not seem to have been an option, probably because of Mexico's international positioning.

When Cuauhtemoc Cardenas once again ran for the presidency in the 1994 elections, still for the PRD, many thought that this would lead to his moment of glory. Popular support for the PRD was high, as Mexico's masses were increasingly faced with less purchasing power and higher prices as a result of Mexico’s neo-liberal economic policies. The Mexican political and economic elites were worried. Cardenas' slogans, which called for a limit to foreign investment and Mexico’s lesser participation in the global economic community; his demand for domestic economic restructuring in an effort to bring about an effective redistribution of wealth - which naturally carried with it a revision of the Mexican fiscal system; and a call for a less divided and more united Mexico worried both domestic and international interests. Nevertheless, approximately seventy percent of the Mexican population did not belong to the economic and political elite and in the democratic process they could easily gain the upper hand over more conservative elements.

There are various factors that led to Zedillo's victory in 1994 rather than Cardenas’. In the first place, the international community was definitely throwing its vote behind the “official" candidate. This did not only comfort the Mexican elite, it also persuaded many medium-sized business people to reconsider their political views. After all, if Mexico could maintain good relations with the US, these business people may gain access to the US market and to US goods. Alienating the US, in the minds of many, would only lead Mexico on a regressive developmental path. Had not Salinas de Gortari done everything possible to formalize and improve trade and economic relations with the US? And had his efforts not paid off, in the increasing availability of US products in Mexico and a growth in Mexico's infrastructure?

The PAN -- possibly emboldened by the supposed victory of Cardenas in 1988, possibly due to a gentleman's agreement with the official party - became more aggressive in vying for presidential power. Aligning its supporters, the PAN could count on a large number of votes from the conservative segment of Mexico's population. The PAN had the vote of many women, since the PAN also relied on a tacit affiliation with the Catholic Church. Many, who were looking toward the future and felt slighted by the PRI's seemingly eternal power went with the PAN. Their speculation was that they would like to see a change, but not a radical one. They wanted a change in which the basic structure of government and the country’s economic and social realities would remain largely untouched. Thus, by gaining votes, the PAN was in essence taking away votes from the PRD.

Almost miraculously and overnight a highly intelligent and charismatic woman rose as a presidential candidate in 1994. Cecilia Soto, who had never been heard off, became the presidential candidate of the Partido del Trabajo (PT- Workers' Party). Cecilia Soto espoused concern for the poor, for workers and workers' rights, discussed greater redistribution of wealth and overall presented a left-of-center view. She came as a great surprise to Mexico's electoral public. It has been speculated that she was a puppet of the PRI and that the PRI had sought her out and sponsored her campaign in an effort to reduce popular votes for Cardenas. Whether or not such a ploy really existed is irrelevant, because at the end of the electoral process Cecilia Soto had gained 6 invaluable percentages of the vote that would otherwise most likely have gone to Cardenas. After all, she appealed to less wealthy and less elitist women, to some rural sectors, and the vote of many urban poor - generally the same type of people who would have joined Cardenas’ forces.

The 1994 elections ran smoothly. Ernesto Zedillo won with a majority of votes, although not with an absolute majority. For the first time in Mexico's independent history, the PRI 's power in congress and in the senate could be challenged if opposition parties formed a united front through alliances. For the first time, the PRI was not seen as all-powerful.

Ernesto Zedillo, who had been the PRI's second choice for the presidency after Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated in March 1994, was seen as a weak and spineless president, who bowed to the demands of the old guard of the PRI - known as the dinosaurs. Nevertheless, Zedillo continued to push for electoral reforms that would make the electoral process even more transparent. He refrained from intervening in electoral processes throughout the country, even when opposition candidates won important positions - frequently it was the PAN candidates that gained greater political power. In 1996, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas won the elections for governor/mayor of Mexico City - still under the PRD banner. Although at first everybody speculated that the PRI would pull all plugs to ensure a PRI victory for this position, it was later rumored that the PRI "had let Cardenas win". In the ocean of conspiracy theories and political gossip that predated and followed the Mexico City elections, one concept kept coming up: the PRI had allowed Cardenas to win the governorship of Mexico City so that he could fail in bringing about all the changes he had promised during his campaign, which in the end would discredit him in the following presidential campaign should he decide to contend again. If this speculation holds any truth, then it seems as though the PRI was right. Cardenas' legitimacy and appeal definitely declined during his years as Mexico City's governor and had it not been for the efforts of Rosario Robles - who took over from Cardenas when he resigned to run for the presidency - Mexico City would most likely not be in the hands of the PRD today.

The reforms implemented by Zedillo definitely had an impact. The fact that he was seen as weak, in the end may have been what has earned him a place in history. His perceived weakness allowed opposition parties to express themselves, to make their ideas and notions heard and allowed them to criticize the government in a relatively open fashion. Additionally, the people of Mexico were increasingly fed up with the ruling party and its government, and were dying to hear all and everything negative that could be said about the PRI and its members. Although macroeconomic indicators improved substantially throughout the Zedillo years, despite the fact that he had to confront one of Mexico's worst economic crises, neo-liberal economic policies were but benefiting a few. In 1998 and 1999 various reports indicated that Mexico's poverty had increased over the last years to an extent where the purchasing power of the working class was at the same level of the 1960's. Other analyses showed that the number of poor people had increased significantly. Lastly, as a consequence of the unresolved assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio; the death of the PRI's party president Ruiz Massieu; the incompetence of the Attorney General’s Office; the imprisonment of Carlos Salinas Gortari's brother on charges of fraud and embezzlement, destroyed any vestiges of government legitimacy in public opinion. Thus, by 1999 and definitely by 2000 popular frustration and anger toward the PRI was at an all-time high. Such emotions combined with the existence of real opposition parties were fatal to the PRI and its rule.

The PAN's Vicente Fox was the perfect agent of change. He was different from any PRI candidates who had been launched. He was bold, foul-mouthed, appeared to be honest and sincere with his open criticisms of the PRI, had a past that he was not willing to hide, and represented almost limitless change within the bounds of existing structures. Although he promised to resolve issues of poverty, indigenous rights, women's rights and many other problems faced by Mexico, he did so within a conservative, populist, neo-liberal economic policy framework. While holding up the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the one hand -- an icon of Mexican Catholic religiosity -- he also proclaimed religious freedom by sending letters of understanding and tolerance to non-Catholic groups. While he showed empathy for the disenfranchised and impoverished, he simultaneously promised to run government as a business. While he told women that their equal rights were at the top of his priority list, he promised to place an office dealing with indigenous affairs right next to his own office -- implying that indigenous rights were his priority. While he talked about redistributing wealth through economic reforms, he also promised an annual economic growth of 7 percent based on big business and international import/export activities. Basically, Fox was truly a man of the people who knew how to speak to business people, bankers and workers. All believed that he was addressing only them, and rarely was a worker at the business function that Fox attended or vice-a-versa.

The bottom line is that Vicente Fox appealed to a cross-segment of the Mexican public. Young educated people came out in droves to support him. Conservative, wealthy women who liked his ties to the Catholic Church formed an essential part of the “Friends of Fox". Bankers were convinced that he knew his economics and international finances - in other words, he would strengthen current economic trends and not alienate foreign investors. Bureaucrats despairing with PRI inefficiencies and its ineffectiveness were convinced that Fox would serve the country well by bringing business-like efficiency into government. The international press was awed by his presence during the many international meetings he held outside of Mexico and tacitly speculated publicly, many months before the actual elections that he may become the next president of Mexico. The Catholic Church hierarchy, although prohibited by law from eliciting the support for a specific candidate from its constituents during sermons or public meetings, commented on the fact that it may not be opposed to a certain change in government. When pre-electoral polls showed Fox in the lead over the official candidate, the military also acknowledged that it would not be opposed to change.

So it was that Vicente Fox won the Mexican presidential elections on July 2, 2000. President Ernesto Zedillo and the PRI's presidential candidate Francisco Labastida, immediately came out to recognize Fox's victory. Fox was stunned by his own feat and surprised at the PRI's rapid acceptance of his victory, spoke of his collaboration with the PRI to make the transition to a new government as transparent and easy as possible. The candidate, who had insisted that electoral fraud was likely, had been chosen as the president with a much larger majority of the vote than anybody had predicted.

The two questions that arise from this scenario are: a) why did the PRI accept Fox's victory with such speed - long even before the final official results were in; and b) why was Fox able to become the agent of change and not other candidates who also ran in the 2000 elections and/or who had participated in previous elections?

It is rumored and it seems likely that the PRI was petrified of potentially unleashing a revolutionary momentum should it have proclaimed electoral victory. This is made blatantly obvious by the post-electoral events that transpired in a small municipality, in the State of Mexico. Election results showed the victory of the PRI candidate. PRD and PAN followers launched a physical attack against PRI supporters with rocks and bats, destroying busses and other public property. Although the impact was minimal, since this was only a small municipality, the truth is that had the PRI's presidential candidate Labastida been announced as the victor, similar uprisings and attacks would likely have taken place in Mexico City and potentially throughout the country.

On the other hand, it has also been stated that the multiple divisions and splits within the PRI were reducing loyalty within PRI ranks. In an effort to boost the presidential candidate's appeal, dinosaurs were brought in and their support of the candidate publicized. This in turn antagonized many young militants of the PRI, who wished to give their party a new look and a new direction. Some believe that Zedillo too was convinced that the PRI needed a new direction and needed to distance itself from the old guard who were associated with all of the PRI' evils. As a joke, many have stated that Zedillo did not openly show the presidential ballot he filled out because he himself had voted for Fox. It is therefore believed that young PRI members wanted the PRI to lose these elections. Their logic was that six years with the government in the hands of another party would allow them to regroup and to gain strength as an opposition party with the possibility of returning to power in another six years. Had Labastida won, it was thought, that this would mean the permanent end of the PRI. With Fox's victory, they clearly envisioned the possibility of a future return to power, without carrying the dinosaurs on their backs.

What is even more interesting is the question why Fox and not another candidate won. By looking over the past twelve to fourteen years of Mexican political history, it is evident that Cuauhtemoc Cardenas played an essential role in challenging the power of the PRI. Nevertheless, rather than gaining greater presence or even the presidency in the 2000 elections, he lost ground and became largely discredited. Why was Cardenas not able to provoke the much sought after change to the Mexican PRI structure? Why, when in 1988, Cardenas seemed to have had the upper hand did the public in general accept his defeat and the PRI's victory? Why was a similar scenario in 2000 impossible?

Basically, it is Fox's affiliation with a conservative, right-of-center PAN which has brought about this change. Nothing else could have unified the most important actors within the Mexican presidential elections. These actors are: the Mexican business and economic elite; the international investors and financiers; the US public which still shies away from anything even tinged in light pink; women who represent 52 percent of the Mexican vote and who could identify with the PAN's association to the Catholic Church; the Catholic Church of Mexico which rightly felt that its presence in Mexico's political and economic arenas would be less challenged by the PAN; conservatives in general who worried about a potential take-over from the left; the mainstream concerned with the rebellion in Chiapas and the chaos caused by "extremist" National University students and which believed that someone had to approach these issues with firmness and strength to bring about the "right" solutions; the young educated, who by the very nature of their education worried about the "hordes" of others who could challenge their privileges under different circumstances; the small middle class that feared encroachment into its midst by "those masses of lower class people"; the indigenous because no-one else before Vicente Fox had actually met with them and talked to them; and some rural people who believed his campaign promises of alleviating their lot through redistribution of wealth.

Vicente Fox is a repetition of Mexican historic change. In 1821, Agustin Iturbide became the father of Mexican independence. Although eleven years earlier, Father Miguel Hidalgo had launched his cry for independence from Spain, he was unable to fulfill his dream. The fact that Hidalgo shielded himself with masses of indigenous people and the rural poor in his attack against the wealthy and elitist Spaniards and their offspring, caused consternation and fear amongst many sectors of the Mexican middle and upper classes. The Catholic Church was appalled by the fact that he opposed their unchallenged hold over Mexico's economic wellbeing. Conservative elements throughout Mexico suddenly became staunch supporters of the Spanish Crown - more so than they had even been before. Many Mexicans aspiring to a modicum of well-being and who wished to pertain to that prestigious group known as the “gente de razon" (the people of reason) opposed Hidalgo's visions of a unified, independent Mexico in which people would be treated as equals and in which the nation would clearly identify nationalist goals of development. Hidalgo and his disciples failed abysmally - Hidalgo was executed and his head placed in a cage for public viewing and humiliation.

The original fathers of Mexican independence brought about eleven years of war. Agustin Iturbide became the executor of independence in the end. His greatest appeal: he was a wealthy military man of European descent who promised to bring about transition but no substantial structural reforms. By proclaiming himself Emperor of Mexico, he placated conservative factions who saw a simple shift of power from Spain to Mexico. By ensuring that Mexico would continue to be a Catholic country, tolerating only the practice of Catholicism, he was able to placate the Church, which rightly believed that its economic and political power would be conserved. Through his appeal to guilds and to Mexican merchants and commercial agents, he ensured their support. By down-playing the importance of indigenous people and the poor, he assuaged any fears that Mexico would become a nation in which the privileged would lose all of their privileges. Furthermore, a conservative himself, Iturbide appealed to those who feared the liberal concepts that were being brought out in the Spanish liberal courts and which were providing greater “popular"' appeal and proposing to restrict the power of the Church. As a matter of fact, the independent Mexico created by Iturbide was for all intents and purposes no different than the colonial Mexico under Spanish rule. The only difference really was that domestic business people and economic power wielders could determine with greater independence where to further develop their economic enterprises. Much to their dismay, this was more of a formidable task than anyone had believed possible. After only two years in power, Agustin ltrubide was ousted and a Republican, less conservative constitutional government replaced his short-lived monarchy.

Like Iturbide, Fox was the only possibility for a peaceful transference of power. Fox was able to gain support from people from all segments of Mexican society. Most importantly, he could alleviate any fears of radical change that the Mexican and international economic and political elite feared the most. Fox, like Iturbide represented a cosmetic change. The basic structure of Mexican social and economic policies would not be modified under Vicente Fox - at least not according to the PAN's ideological convictions and to the programs delineated by Fox during his presidential campaign. Like Hidalgo's, Cardenas' policies and ideas were too inclusive in a society that has based its development and "progress" on exclusion and separation amongst its peoples. Just like conservative elements feared Hidalgo's revolutionary call for independence, Cardenas' convictions and cries for change were too revolutionary for many within Mexico's society. Had Cardenas insisted on his victory in 1988, he -- not unlike Hidalgo-- would probably have unleashed the forces of revolution and upheaval. This, in a modern world system in which the United States plays an essential role in Mexico's economic well-being, would have been tantamount to utter and total destruction of Mexico in the minds of many. Thus, conservatism and “reason"' prevailed in 1988 - the same principle that prevailed in 2000. Had Labastida insisted on a victory in the 2000 elections, probably the effects would have been similar to another historical figure - that of Porfirio Diaz. Like the northern caudillos of 1910, who initiated their struggle under the forces of Francisco I. Madero, Vicente Fox - possibly in conjunction with Cardenas - would have launched an all-out attack against the PRI and its government, supported by masses of people. The country may have been thrown into revolutionary fervor, which again would have led to its economic demise, just as took place from 1911 to 1917. Possibly through their awareness of history or perhaps thanks to serendipity, conservative elements -- agents of continuity rather than change -- sought the path of least resistance, the reasonable and reasoned path. They forged a unified force behind Vicente Fox.

If history and the above analysis are to be just though, a couple of factors must be underlined. Vicente Fox represents the culmination of an on-going struggle against the PRI system. The struggle particularly gained momentum with the challenges presented to the PRI by Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. His role in these events can not be forgotten. Furthermore, the roles played by other political activists and reporters who lost their lives in their battle for democracy can not be stressed enough. Agents of change, who have heightened our awareness of the PRI's idiosyncrasies and shortcomings, such as the Zapatista Revolutionary Army in Chiapas, students of the UNAM, and the many protest marchers, are not to be given historical short shrift. Pressures placed on Mexico through its increased global participation, pressures that ultimately have fostered the "need" for democratic change, have intertwined with domestic politics in a significant fashion -- although these same forces may prove to be more harmful than beneficial in the long term.

Vicente Fox may seem to have brought democracy to Mexico. Some will, however, argue that he was still a chapter of the PRI book which began to be written after the Mexican Revolution. We may not find ourselves closing that book until a few more years down the line, when the nation’s trajectory takes on a new venue - a venue with a unified vision.

Credit must be given where credit is due. Vicente Fox, the person, the candidate who used all marketing strategies available, the candidate who entered the presidential residence in a suit with cowboy boots, was a charismatic and capable figure. He alone had the potential to launch Mexico on a new path - especially because he was able to unite those conservative and not-so-conservative elements behind him. What would Mexico have been without an Agustin Iturbide? How much more bloodshed and destruction would Mexico have had to experience before achieving independence had it not been for Agustin Iturbide? How many more years would Mexico have remained the jewel of the Spanish Crown had Iturbide not acted as a unifying agent? The same questions could be asked today. How much longer would Mexico have had to endure the PRI regime had it not been for Vicente Fox - and what would the cost to Mexico and its people have been?

Vicente Fox can simultaneously be viewed an agent of change and continuity. He definitely can not be categorized as a revolutionary leader. Nevertheless, with historic insight, this may be the only change that Mexico can feasibly endure - a peaceful transition in which more things are likely to stay the same rather than change; a Mexico in which revolutionary processes of change are feared. However, such a transition has also led to the PRI's demise - at least for the moment - a significant historic event, just like Mexico's independence from Spain under Agustin Iturbide represented a significant historic event. The latter colored all of Mexico's future. The full impact of Vicente Fox's victory will have to be analyzed several years from now. For now, with the election of Félipe Calderón of the Partido de Acción Nacional to Mexico’s presidency in 2006 and the defeat of Andrés Manuel López Obrador from the Partido de la Revolución Democrática, it is evident that Mexico continues to shy away from dramatic transformations. Mexico epitomizes the dictum: The more things change, the more they stay the same. And it seems that the majority of Mexico’s voting public like it that way.