Mexico’s PRI: Repeating History or Looking Forward?

The article below is a product of the Harvard Political Review. Review articles and viewpoints expressed are written and edited exclusively by Review undergraduate students, not the staff of Harvard's Institute of Politics.

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Taylor Morris

The article below is a product of the Harvard Political Review.  Review articles and viewpoints expressed are written and edited exclusively by Review undergraduate students, not the staff of Harvard's Institute of Politics.



71 years.  Since the PRI recaptured the presidency earlier this summer, news media outlets have reminded observers of the 71 years (1929-2000) that el tricolor dominated the Mexican political landscape through vote-buying and rigged elections.  While understanding those 71 years is crucial to contextualizing Mexico’s contemporary politics, remembering the last twelve years, the years when a priísta did not hold Mexico’s highest office, is just as important to grasping today’s political climate in Mexico.

In a broad sense, those twelve years mark the beginning of a new era in Mexican politics.  PRI dominance is out, and a competitive multi-party system is in.  However, it would be naïve to suggest that Vicente Fox and subsequently Felipe Calderon winning the presidency swept away the controversy and shady dealings of the past for good.  On the contrary, Calderon’s razor-thin victory in 2006 brought allegations of fraud and weeks of protests from supporters of the PRD candidate Andrés Manuel Obrador, who, as a repeat nominee of the PRD, is contesting this year’s presidential results as well.   

Mexicans also still lack faith in their elected officials.  Gallup reports that this year, only 33% of Mexicans have confidence in the national government.  Gallup conducted their poll annually from 2007 to 2012, with the highest ratings of confidence in the national government coming in 2009 at a paltry 45%.  Pew Research Center also reports that 65% of Mexicans still list corruption as a “very big problem” in their country.

And, of course, the PRI still maintains a somewhat notorious reputation.  Obrador’s aforementioned objections to the 2012 election result stem from more allegations of vote-buying when the PRI was accused of handing out prepaid gift cards for Soriana, a Mexican grocery store chain, to voters.  The Washington Post reports that under Mexican law, giving gifts to voters is not illegal, and that “all three major parties of the country [the PRI, PAN and PRD] do so, in national, state, and municipal elections.”  However, the Washington Post also notes that while giving gifts to voters is technically legal, expressly using gifts to buy votes is not.  Emilio Loyoza, president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto’s director of international affairs, flatly rejects that the prepaid cards had anything to do with the election, instead claiming the cards are part of a social program in Peña Nieto’s home state of Mexico.  Nevertheless, the same Washington Post piece also reports claims that the PRI used child monitors at polling places to see to it that voters who were paid off checked the appropriate boxes on their ballots, an accusation Loyoza says the party denies.  The PRI has also had to deal with accusations, notably from leftist student movement #YoSoy132, that the Mexican television network Televisa not only over covered Peña Nieto during the campaign, but also showered him with positive coverage.  Peña Nieto is married to Angélica Rivera, who has been a soap opera star on Televisa.

With this seeming dearth of change from the old days and keeping in mind that the PRI only won a plurality (38%) of votes for the presidency, some, including Time Magazine writer Tim Padgett, suggest that Mexico “may need to create a second-round runoff election” to further legitimize electoral results.  Padgett reported that, in response to the respective left-wing and right-wing bents of the PRD and PAN, the PRI, under leadership of Luis Donald Colosio, decided to give itself a more centrist brand as early as the 1990s.  Colosio, in order to keep the party viable, wanted to move the PRI away from a party with catch-all appeal based on its corruption to a party with catch-all appeal based on a more catch-all ideology.  Unfortunately, the far-sighted Colosio was assassinated in 1994, but, to an extent, his political strategy has won out with the PRI.  Though still (along with the PRD) a member of Socialist International, the PRI has moved more toward the ideological middle in Mexico.  For example, Peña Nieto plans to allow private investment to revamp Pemex, Mexico’s nationalized oil monopoly, as part of his economic strategy.  Such a plan would have been unheard of among the PRI’s more left-wing old guard.

With this ideological shift in mind, it might not be such a great idea to have a second-round runoff election like Padgett suggests.  With PRI one-party rule only a dozen years in the past, the party has adapted to the new Mexican political landscape by filling an ideological void and becoming a participant in a multi-party process.  Since the PRI occupies the center ground in Mexico, a runoff would give the party lynchpin status in determining electoral outcomes.  Realistically, only the PRI, PRD, or PAN stands a chance at winning a presidential election in today’s Mexico.  If the PRI ended up in a runoff with, say, the PRD, it would be unlikely that many PAN voters would break for the PRD, considering the two parties are ideological opposites.  Instead, logic would dictate that most right-wing PAN voters would turn to a centrist, rather than left-wing alternative.  The same would be true if the PRD did not make it to the runoff, meaning the PRI would be in a position to win many elections, not because of graft, but because of a system balanced in its favor.  Even if the PAN and PRD went head-to-head, the votes that would put either party’s candidate over the top would mostly come from former PRI supporters, meaning the PAN and PRD may have to pander to loyal PRI voters and tailor their policy positions with that runoff in mind.

All things considered, it appears that the PRI seems to be somewhat self-adjusting to this relatively new and competitive system.  The New York Times reports that Peña Nieto, instead of taking the old PRI route of turning a blind eye to drug trafficking to ensure peace, “has not outlined a plan [on drugs] drastically different from Mr. Calderón’s,” which involved sending the military to combat cartels, a concept supported by over 8 in 10 Mexicans in 2011, according to Pew Research.  The PRI appears to be ready to start responding to popular wishes and be part of a more democratic Mexico. This does not mean the PRI can be trusted as a steward of stable Mexican democracy just yet.  But it is worth bearing in mind that competitive, multiparty elections have only been around for 12 years: Mexicans don’t yet consider their democracy to be ideal, and expect that it will be years until the system has reached a steady equilibrium. But in the context of competitive progress and new standards of responsiveness, it’s safe to say that the PRI’s progress in the last 12 years will tell observers more about Mexico’s future than will the party’s 71 years of past rule.

Photo Credit: The Chron.