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date: 26 April 2017

Democratizing Mexican Politics, 1982–2012

Summary and Keywords

Mexico’s democratic transition provides a revealing case study of a semi-authoritarian political model evolving incrementally into an electoral democracy over two decades. One of the special features of that transition was its slow progress compared to its peers in Latin America, especially given its proximity to the United States, the most influential democracy in the last half of the 20th century. The first attempt to introduce fair, competitive elections occurred under the leadership of Miguel de la Madrid in 1983, but he reversed direction when he was opposed by leading politicians from his own party. His successor, Carlos Salinas (1988–1994), chose to pursue economic liberalization, opening up Mexico to greater competition globally, and negotiating an agreement with Canada and the United States (North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA), while maintaining an authoritarian presidency. During this era, proactive actors that fomented significant political change came from numerous sources. The following were particularly noteworthy in explaining Mexico’s shift to a democratic model: dissident elites who pushed for democracy inside the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI); dissident elites who left PRI to form the most successful opposition parties in the 20th century, including the founding of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in 1989; social and civic movements originating from government incompetence in addressing the results of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, the widespread fraud during the 1988 presidential election, and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation uprising in 1994; the altered composition of political leadership from the establishment and the opposition characterized by stronger backgrounds in local, elective offices, party leadership, and nonpolitical careers; new electoral laws reinforcing independent decision-making regarding electoral practices and outcomes in the 1990s; and the introduction of new political actors supportive of democratic change, such as the Catholic Church.

Keywords: Mexico, democracy, transition, political development, elections, opposition, authoritarianism

If one examines the most notable transitions from one-party rule since the 1980s, the broadest and most significant feature, and a major component of the theoretical discussion of such transitions, is whether or not a democratic political transition takes place before or after an economic transition from a statist, capitalist, or socialist economy to one dominated by the private sector. Gabriel Almond, in an address in 1991, suggested multiple variations of this controversial argument.1 The simplest version asks, Is political liberalism (democracy) essential for economic liberalism (capitalism), or does economic capitalism produce political democracy? The modified version asks, Does political democracy help facilitate economic capitalism, or does capitalism help facilitate democracy?2 If we look at the Mexican case, it clearly reflects an initial path of economic globalization, that is, domestic and global capitalism came first, followed after many years by electoral democracy. Thus, as far as this broader set of hypotheses is concerned, Mexico provides a valuable and sometimes unique example of the latter pattern. Its pursuit of a more intensive capitalist model does suggest that these economic changes and international relationships contributed to its political development, but does not provide adequate evidence that it was essential.

Mexico, however, is also a notable case among democratic transitions for three major reasons. First, it can be described as having been a semi-authoritarian, one-party political model for seventy-one years (1929–2000), the longest tenure of any single-party government in the 20th century. That description is indisputable. Mexico’s model was unique in that it created a political system which highlighted the leadership of a group of elites to the detriment of individual elites. There exist few, if any, cases of a stable authoritarian or semi-authoritarian model, consisting of a collective leadership or a single dominant figure, that has imposed a legal, constitutional requirement on itself, obeyed for most of the 20th century, which effectively limited every president to a single, six-year term of office. Such was the case in Mexico from 1929 until the year 2000.

This is a fundamental concept that must be understood about the Mexican context, and goes a long way toward explaining the stability of the one-party system under the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) aegis, as well as peculiar developments which have ensued since the transition in 2000. It also needs to be made clear that power did not reside in the hands of the party itself, but rather in a circulating political and––in the earlier stages––military elite which controlled the federal bureaucracy. In other words, it could be described as a controlled, executive branch autocracy, with fixed six-year tenures in the presidency. Surprisingly, even one of the major students of Mexican politics, Robert E. Scott, in his early work Mexican Government in Transition, mistakenly likened Mexico to the Soviet model, arguing that the party itself controlled the political and policy-making process.3

How did the importance of constitutionalism come about? It should be noted that although Mexico before and after the transition to electoral democracy can be described accurately as a state without a strong culture of law, certain constitutional articles, clearly emerging from the country’s major revolution from 1910 to 1920, became engrained symbolically and pragmatically in the minds of most ordinary citizens as well as most political leaders. Constitutionalism’s presence in the popular culture is illustrated by the fact that prominent articles in the document are widely incorporated in Mexican street signs, similar to Constitutional Avenue in Washington, D.C.4 The only president of Mexico since 1920 who tried to evade the principle of “no reelection,” which became the motto, along with “effective suffrage,” of Francisco Madero’s presidential campaign against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz in 1910, was General Alvaro Obregón, who served as president from 1920 to 1924, and used his political influence to alter the Constitution of 1917 allowing him to run again for the office in 1928. He was assassinated after winning the presidential election of 1928, but before taking office. After his death, Mexico’s political elites, led by former president Plutarco Elías Calles (1924–1928), restored the Constitutional article to its original prohibition.5 Obregón’s tragic mistake in violating the principle was reinforced in every letter I personally received from any federal government office, which included the motto “Effective Suffrage and No Reelection” prominently displayed after the letter writer’s signature, in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.6

The second feature which distinguishes the Mexican case is the length of the democratic transition. The transition in Mexico, unlike that of Russia, was incremental, spread out over nearly twenty years from 1982 until 2000, when for the first time since 1929, an opposition party, the National Action Party (PAN), captured the presidency. Intuitively, given its close proximity to the United States, the most influential democracy of the 20th century, one would have expected Mexico to make this transition more quickly, similar to many of the former authoritarian countries in South America. However, a convincing counterargument can be made that its proximity to the United States contributed to the slowness of its transition by giving greater credibility and legitimacy to its unique, one-party model, as an appropriate and stalwart vehicle for reinforcing Mexican independence and nationalism from a historic enemy.

Although one can point to antecedent events, such as the 1968 student movement, the democratic transition truly begins in 1982, during the presidency of Miguel de la Madrid, who could be described as a political technocrat.7 He became the first president to encourage stronger, global economic ties with other countries, after signing the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) in 1986, the forerunner of the World Trade Organization in 1995. Unlike his predecessors, de la Madrid became the first president to attempt to introduce electoral integrity in local elections in 1983. The elimination of electoral fraud initially led to many victories by opposition parties, notably the PAN, and its lesson was not lost on the PRI.8 This significant attempt at political liberalization backfired.9 Strong elements within the political elite opposed the president’s efforts, and given de la Madrid’s other, serious policy problems, most significantly mounting debt and wild rates of inflation, he quickly reversed his course on political liberalization, devoting his efforts to tough macroeconomic issues having the potential to generate widespread dissatisfaction among ordinary Mexicans as well as progressive politicians who favored a return to greater state intervention in economic matters.

Beyond the signing of GATT, however, de la Madrid paved the way for Mexico’s economic liberalization and globalization while significantly delaying its political development. He contributed to the continuation of this hybrid pattern in two significant ways. When his administration came to an end in 1988, he selected Carlos Salinas, also a technocrat with experience in the programming and budgeting agency, to succeed him, but with no extensive political or electoral experience, instead he was a typical product of bureaucratic politics. Salinas became the first economist to achieve the presidency, and the first with a Ph.D. (from Harvard). But Salinas, who was not the most popular choice within the political leadership, unlike his predecessor, showed little interest in political liberalization, confirmed by the fact that representatives of the governing elite used widespread electoral fraud in the 1988 election to assure that their candidate became president. Salinas’s selection as the PRI candidate produced a serious schism in their leadership, which generated the most powerful opposition in the 1988 election, as well as members of PRI who remained proactively in favor of democratization. In other words, elite dissension is often a significant component of democratic transitions in authoritarian regimes, and deserves equal if not greater attention.10 Most scholars emphasize the grassroots movements that began to flower during the late 1980s in support of the democratic transition, but more attention needs to be paid to important divisions in the party, which I witnessed in person at the 14th National Assembly of the PRI September 1–3, 1990, under the leadership of Luis Donaldo Colosio, early in Salinas’s presidency. John Bailey and I witnessed numerous panels, many of which consisted of pro-democracy PRI delegates on the panel or in the audience, who raised numerous, challenging issues about democratizing the party.11 The delegates ultimately approved a number of principles which represented the introduction of a new basis for democratic principles.12 Two prominent former members of PRI, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, the latter a former PRI party president, founded the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Without the involvement of dissident elites, that party would never have emerged in 1989. Ernesto Zedillo represents that same thread, but he accomplished his contributions within his own presidency (1994–2000).

Second, Salinas became the key figure in the transition during the years 1988 to 1994, primarily because he decisively made the choice between political and economic liberalization, and proactively pursued a capitalist, global economic strategy. Salinas accomplished economic liberalization by pursuing two policies. First, he reversed a highly controversial decision by de la Madrid’s predecessor, José López Portillo (1976–1982), who nationalized all of Mexico’s banks in the last months of his administration, resulting in more than 80 percent of the economy being controlled and or directly managed by the state. De la Madrid attempted to placate the private sector after he took office, but as he told me personally in an interview in 1984, he believed he couldn’t return those assets to the owners without a major political rift in his own party’s leadership.13 Salinas, in order to cement the support of entrepreneurial capitalists, decided to sell major banking chains back to the private sector, but not to the original owners, a process critics suggested was fraught with favoritism toward specific buyers. On the other hand, he earned the loyalty of those new Mexican owners. Second, he decided to strengthen Mexico’s economic position and increased growth by attempting to persuade the European Union to accept Mexican participation with the possibility of eventual membership. When the EU declined exploratory entreaties, largely because it was in the process of absorbing the Eastern European economies, he sought out a new arrangement with the United States and Canada, believing that regional, economic blocs would determine Mexico’s future economic success.

These economic decisions are critical to the path of democratic political transition in Mexico. It is critical to point out that Salinas did not pursue this strategy solely because of a theoretical, ideological preference, but because while he believed this approach would increase Mexico’s economic growth, it also would sustain his own preference for authoritarian leadership, which he illustrated repeatedly during his term. In other words, he wanted to benefit his own political stature, and that of his party, by currying favor with the Mexican population. He also believed political reform would risk the success of his economic strategy, concluding that: “If you are at the same time introducing additional drastic political reform, you may end up with no reform at all. And we want to have is reform, not a disintegrated country.”14

Interestingly, Salinas and his closest advisors seemed to have been unaware of the scholarly literature as early as 1970, in an article by Barry Ames, and my own work examining elections as far back as 1946, which clearly showed that the higher the level of economic development where the balloting occurs, even with state-perpetrated fraud, the less the support for PRI.15 Ironically, the higher the voter’s income and education, the more likely the person would vote for the opposition parties. For example, in 1982, PRI received 82 percent of the vote in low-income states, compared to only 55 percent in high-income states; six years later, the figures were 75 percent to only 37 percent.16 This fact explains why well into the mid-2000s, PRI was still doing relatively well in poorer, rural communities. To achieve passage of NAFTA, Salinas used disciplinary measures against his own party and censorship against information he thought was contrary to support for globalization. I participated with other scholars in a conference based on survey research of Mexico at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM) in Mexico City, before NAFTA was signed. Shortly before our presentation took place, the president of the university was pressured by the Secretary of Government to cancel the event, based on their supposition that our findings would clearly demonstrate that most Mexicans were opposed to such an agreement. We were able to exert enough pressure ourselves to prevent it from being canceled, but all the advance advertising for the conference was withdrawn. The irony was that the surveys clearly demonstrated that Mexicans were strongly inclined in favor of such an agreement, especially if it would improve Mexico’s economic growth. As Miguel Basáñez reported on the polling results, 62 percent favored the proposed free trade agreement in September 1991, compared to only 15 percent opposed to it. All categories of Mexicans favored the agreement, regardless of income, age, or profession.17

However, Salinas purposely initiated one surprising political change which clearly falls under the category of promoting a democratic transition. He single-handedly reformed most of the restrictive constitutional prohibitions against the Catholic Church in 1992, opposed by most of his fellow party members and his two predecessors (who privately were in favor but didn’t believe the time was right).18 Mexico was actually violating the human rights agreement it had signed with the United Nations in its treatment of priests and nuns. However, the Catholic Church itself did not lobby for these changes. The constitutional reforms contributed to a new environment for all religious organizations in Mexico. Even though the Church could not and did not advocate partisan political preferences in its masses and official documents, it did help educate its parishioners in their civic responsibilities in a democratic setting. Prior to the 1994 presidential election, it proactively encouraged Mexicans to vote, specifically warning citizens that it was a sin not to exercise their right to vote.19

During the Salinas and de la Madrid administrations, from 1982 through 1994, three influential events stand out which also played a critical role in encouraging democratic, political change in spite of little intentional support from those two presidents. Indeed, most observers, including myself, believe these events were critical in fomenting and accentuating the political need for such a democratic transition. Each of these political events weakened the legitimacy of the PRI and the stability of the system it represented. The first of these three events was a natural disaster, a major earthquake in Mexico City in 1985. Given the president’s cautious response to the earthquake, and the treatment of those who lost their homes in the aftermath, it produced a spontaneous reaction and a flood of popular movements. As one scholar argued: “. . . a coalition of urban organizations successfully forced the Mexican government and the World Bank to alter housing relief plans, accelerate the process of reconstruction, and reverse several fundamental urban policies. The coalition achieved this by uniting scores of neighborhood organizations. Hundreds of thousands of earthquake victims joined other urban poor to wrest concession through deft media manipulation and political bartering.”20 The long-term impact of this event, particularly on the middle-classes, has been well-documented in Louise Walker’s revealing work.21

The second event marked the extent to which the PRI and Salinas used electoral fraud to defeat the opposition candidacy of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas in his own 1988 presidential contest. I personally witnessed an example of such fraud at a conference in Los Angeles shortly after the election, where a representative of PAN brought three-dozen official ballots, all marked the same in black grease pencil for the PRI, that were discovered in a roadside ditch in Baja California.22

The election is critical to the evolution of Mexico’s democratic political transition for several reasons.23 First, and foremost, Cárdenas’s level of electoral success demonstrated to the Mexican people that opposition parties had the potential to provide leaders who could actually defeat the PRI candidate for president. Such a view created a much more fertile field for opposition parties to strengthen their role and ultimately defeat the PRI in 2000. Second, the strength of the opposition parties, the leftist coalition behind Cárdenas and the long-time opposition centered in the National Action Party, in the legislative branch, where they obtained 240 out of 500 seats, demonstrated an increasingly important shift away from the PRI’s ability to control the legislative branch, and specifically its inability, given a legal requirement, to pass constitutional legislation, requiring two-thirds of the vote. Third, the competitiveness of the opposition parties in the election strongly moved the party system away from the prevailing one-party dominant model, to that which exists today, a multiparty system. This end was reflected in the immediate establishment of the PRD, which exercised a critical role in subsequent elections, but especially those of 2006 and 2012, where it achieved the second largest number of votes for the presidency. Fourth, and finally, the 1988 election fraud forced the PRI to negotiate new electoral laws with the opposition parties. The changes in these laws, for the first time in Mexican political history, produced a largely fraud-free presidential election in 1994.24

The third and final events of this era are the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in January 1994, closely followed by the assassination of the PRI candidate for president just seven weeks later. These combined events produced several influential consequences. The guerrilla movement in Chiapas, led by the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), emerged, in part, as an organic, indigenous movement on the inaugural date of NAFTA, January 1, 1994. It took Mexican and world public opinion by surprise, and conveyed an image of Mexico as politically unstable at a time when the Salinas administration had worked assiduously to craft just the opposite picture. The group’s opposition to many economic policies of the administration, and their appeal in the media, similar to the 1985 earthquake, reverberated favorably on the expansion of other social movements and civic organizations. As Shannan Mattiace persuasively argued, “The EZLN’s public emergence exposed serious fault lines in the system. Underneath all the official hype that accompanied Mexico’s signing of NAFTA was a vulnerable rural sector, with thousands migrating each year to the United States to bridge the gap between their aspirations and the reality of the Mexican job market. Not only did the EZLN expose these gaps between the haves and the have-nots, but the movement mobilized thousands of Mexicans, channeling citizen frustration with the semi-authoritarian political system and years of foot-dragging.”25

The assassination of the PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in March 1994 decidedly impacted the presidential race, affecting the candidates and voting behavior. Colosio, unlike his two predecessors, was a highly experienced politician and former president of the PRI. His death forced president Salinas, by law, to choose someone who was not holding a government office. The only recent cabinet officer in his administration who met this requirement, Ernesto Zedillo, had resigned to become Colosio’s campaign manager, thus making him eligible. Zedillo, as I will argue, made serious contributions to the democratic transformation during his presidency. Second, both events were out of sync with the steadfast image of stability promoted by the PRI’s long tenure, and therefore, a sizable minority of voters who might have supported an opposition candidate in 1994 instead decided to vote for the PRI candidate, in what was aptly labeled in Mexico as the “fear vote.”26 Interestingly, the 1994 election attracted the largest voter turnout in Mexican history, which can be attributed, in part, to the Catholic Church’s frequent admonition that individuals should exercise their civic responsibilities, including voting. Indeed, some bishops went so far as early as the late 1970s to say that the failure to exercise the right to vote was a sin.27

Zedillo, unlike his predecessor, was committed to reinforcing democratic changes and respecting opposition electoral victories. I learned this in person when he invited me to Mexico in the summer of 1994 to have a conversation after he won the election, but before he took office. Throughout the campaign, he had made references to the importance of the culture of law, an essential component of a functioning democracy and critical to electoral reforms. He emphasized this issue strongly as part of his general philosophy toward democratic governance. The fact that he was thinking about broad, theoretical issues linked to democracy is indicated by the fact that he even raised the concept of a parliamentary system.

Viewed by traditionalists in his own party as a weak president, Zedillo played a critical role in opening up Mexico to political liberalization, while continuing the economic liberalization of his two predecessors. The Mexican experience, therefore, can be categorized as an incremental path toward democracy preceded by, and built upon, an increasingly expanding economy characterized by foreign investment and global linkages. The most significant policy change affecting the democratic transition during his administration was the 1996 Electoral Reform, passed by a PRI controlled Chamber of Deputies. For the first time in electoral politics, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), composed of nine individuals, became completely independent of government control. Party representatives could no longer vote. Equally important, the government increased the allocation of public funds assigned to parties participating in the elections, dividing 30 percent equally among all parties, large and small, and 70 percent proportionately, based on how many votes they received in the previous, national election. The IFE also assigned advertising budgets to the parties using the same formula. Given significant demographic shifts within Mexico in the previous two decades, congressional districts were reallocated to different states.28 Zedillo personally participated in the electoral outcome in 2000 by publicly recognizing Vicente Fox’s election victory before all the ballots were counted officially, thus preventing any attempt by members of his party to defeat Fox through fraud.

In 2000, Mexico had clearly evolved into a three party system.29 The electoral results then, and in the two succeeding elections, clearly reveal that no party dominates the political process, with the winning candidate only able to capture a plurality of the votes, with 43 percent in 2000, 36 percent in 2006, and 39 percent in 2012. In those three elections, PRD came in second place twice and the PRI once. The victory of the National Action Party (PAN), which brought Vicente Fox into the presidency, was the ultimate test of an electoral democracy by allowing an opposition party to defeat the incumbent party. The PAN repeated this success in 2006, but as noted, with a much smaller plurality of the votes.30 Six years later, the PRI made a dramatic comeback, and their candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, was victorious, defeating the PRD.31

Mexico’s transition to democracy occurred with relatively little violence, but its success to date can be described as limited to that of an electoral democracy. When measured by most traditional qualities of a consolidated democracy, including the culture of law, transparency, accountability, human rights, and so forth, Mexico has not achieved those goals. Thus, an important question which emerges from the Mexican experience is: Why hasn’t an electoral democracy been adequate in bringing about more substantial and deeper political changes? I believe the answer is that Mexico, similar to many countries which have made this transition through electoral democracy, typically the product of legislation focused on institutional changes in the governance structure, has paid far too little attention to qualitative, or informal, aspects of democratic change.

Another way to express this is: Can democratic structures function effectively without changes in behavior, or, as I believe to be the case in Mexico, do non-democratic behaviors undermine the effectiveness of democratic politics?32 The answer in Mexico is yes. Unfortunately, since 2001, Mexico has been challenged by an overwhelming social problem, extensive criminal activity and violence, the product of major drug cartels operating within its borders, which now can be more accurately described as organized crime, involved in a multitude of criminal activities.33

Vicente Fox dramatically raised the expectations of ordinary Mexicans, as well as the expectations of what a democratic model might accomplish for Mexicans. On the other hand, the achievement of pragmatic goals which would reinforce the democratic transition beyond electoral processes has been limited. One of the most important achievements of his administration which specifically reinforces a democratic model, was the introduction of a transparency law in June 2003, requiring all federal government agencies to answer queries from the public or media regarding all procedural and policy aspects of their functions with the exception of limitations such as information affecting national security and confidential personnel files. The system is much more user friendly, internet based, and prompt, requiring answers within a six week period, than the cumbersome U.S. Freedom of Information legislation. It allows individuals to search all previous requests, by agency, on line, thus making a wealth of information available.34 While not perfect in its implementation and access, it nevertheless represents a sea change in the sharing of information relative to Mexico’s governance process, while strengthening the role of an investigative media.

In terms of major policy achievements, however, the three-party system which has emerged in Mexico, in which no party typically has a simple majority of votes in the Chamber of Deputies, has produced large amounts of legislative bills, but rarely laws which can be described as major reforms politically or economically, despite the fact that Fox was elected largely on the issue of change.35 Critics have suggested that the president, who maintained a strong, positive link with the public, neglected his administrative tasks, in particular his relationship with the legislative branch.36 The public’s disappointment with Fox’s performance, related especially to economic issues as well as personal security conditions, led to the closest election in Mexican political history in 2006. His successor, Felipe Calderón, also from the National Action Party, barely defeated his strongest opponent, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the PRD candidate, and former governor of the Federal District, by only a half percentage of the vote, in a hotly contested campaign. López Obrador challenged the election, claiming fraud, and his charges were examined by Mexico’s Federal Electoral Court, a special body responsible for settling such disputes. The court ruled against López Obrador, finding a small percentage of errors in the balloting process, but distributed among votes cast for all of the parties. Electoral democracy benefitted once again from the fact that the majority of citizens accepted the results, thus reinforcing the legitimacy of the new electoral institutions.

Analysts believed that Felipe Calderón, who had experience in Fox’s cabinet, as well as a PAN legislative leader in the Chamber of Deputies, would be a more astute and effective chief executive in his relationship with the legislative branch. Unfortunately, he was not significantly more effective than his predecessor, and instead, his aggressive, policy of pursuing drug cartels dominated his presidency, and public perception of his administration.37 Relying on a traditional interdiction policy, with stronger cooperation with United States security agencies, he dramatically increased the armed forces responsibility in the drug enforcement mission. Battalions of troops often were posted to drug-related hotspots. After 2008, the number of drug-related homicides increased to its highest recorded levels. Ordinary Mexicans responded by becoming increasingly concerned with their own personal security, with large numbers reporting in survey after survey that they or their family had been a victim of a crime or bribery, as public perception of safety decreased to new lows. During these latter years, on some occasions, the importance of personal security issues replaced economic issues, in the minds of ordinary Mexicans.

Such conditions not only tested the level of political sovereignty of the government, measured by its ability to control criminal violence in numerous communities and regions, but reduced the effectiveness and the democratic model’s legitimacy. Surveys also reinforce the view that many Mexicans, when asked to evaluate democratic and authoritarian governance models, saw them as equally preferable, or authoritarian models as preferable to a democratic model. Indeed, it became clear that large numbers of Mexicans would be willing to switch to an authoritarian model if it would reduce the violence and increase their real or perceived level of personal security. The most relevant political change introduced by the Calderón administration that would impact on democratic institutions was a broad and deep alteration in the current legal system, reforming the Napoleonic system where the accused is guilty until proven innocent, and trying the accused in oral trials, where evidence other than a confession is the norm. These reforms are being instituted on a state by state basis, and therefore each state is at a different stage in this process, which is supposed to be completed by 2015.38

Another product of the democratic transition, in which the characteristic of competitive electoral politics has altered the country, is its impact on leadership qualities and credentials. A detailed analysis of national and state leadership, on the basis of pre-transitional characteristics, transitional characteristics, and post-transition characteristics, clearly suggest significant alterations in the credentials of leading politicians. Briefly, as Table 1 demonstrates, the competitive environment at the state and local levels, as well as at the national level, produced more individuals than previously boasting the following qualities: non-professional politicians who have not made public service a life-time career; larger numbers of political figures who came from successful business backgrounds; an increase in the percentage of women who were involved in national politics; a dramatic increase in politicians who were prominent leaders within their respective parties at the state and national levels; notable numbers of politicians whose careers represented an increase in local, elective experiences as mayors and state legislators; and an overwhelming number of presidential nominees from the three leading parties with experience as state governors.39

The single-most important obstacle to achieving a consolidated democracy is very likely the degree to which deeply engrained corruption coupled with high levels of criminal violence has become widespread in Mexico, adversely affecting the political world as well as economic behavior. There exists no evidence to suggest that all governments since 2000 have produced any measurable success in reducing the levels of corruption or in limiting organized crime. The PRI government since 2013 has attempted to moderate some of these unfavorable conditions by negotiating a Pact for Mexico with the two major opposition parties, a document which attempted to address the long term, underlying causes of Mexican economic, political, and social ills. This agreement is unique in concept and content, and may have the potential for moving Mexico away from its current path. From the perspective of political change, the most influential reforms, involving constitutional changes, has been new legislation regarding the long-standing concept of consecutive “no-reelection,” which has been reversed for the federal legislative branch. Members of the lower chamber may now serve four consecutive terms (twelve years), while senators may serve two consecutive terms (twelve years). Furthermore, on the local level, mayors, whose terms are three years, may be reelected once. Immediate application of these changes will notably strengthen the balance of power between the executive and legislative branch, as well as allowing legislators to develop stronger relationships with their constituencies, as well as developing expertise in policy areas in their respective, assigned committees. While the reforms it proposes are necessary for Mexico to transform itself into a consolidated democracy and a more productive and expanding economy, most, if properly implemented, will produce consequences in the medium to long term.

Table 1. Impact of the Democratic Transition on Mexican Political Leadership

Pre-Democratic Era

Democratic Transition





Percentages Who Were

Former Mayors




Former State Legislators




Party Militants




From the Working Class








Source: Mexican Political Biographies Project, 2009, based on an examination of 3,000 politicians from 1935 through 2009. For details, see Roderic Ai Camp, The Metamorphosis of Leadership in a Democratic Mexico (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Discussion of the Literature

Unlike most topics which explore Mexican politics in detail, works on the country’s transition to democratic politics are numerous, covering every administration since 1982, and more commonly, specific aspects of the transition. Of all the topics which contributed significantly to this evolution, none have received more attention than the electoral process generally and presidential elections specifically. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, this emphasis is reflected in the timely publications of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), led by the late Delal Baer, which published numerous election series, including off-year congressional elections. Her efforts were continued by Armand Peschard. CSIS discontinued its major focus on Mexico, and the Mexico Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Smithsonian Institution, founded in 2003, replaced it as the preeminent source of article-length essays and books, most of which are downloadable for free from its website. Its publications focus on a wide range of topics, including security, border affairs, and U.S.-Mexican relations, all of which affect Mexico’s political development. In the last decade, the Trans-Border Institute, at the University of San Diego, founded by David Shirk, has complemented the literature on recent developments since the tenure of Vicente Fox, producing monthly reports on violence, security issues, and legal reforms. Similar to the Mexico Institute, many of its papers are also available from its website. Finally, researchers who wish to have a comprehensive picture of the shifting trends in the political literature on Mexico would do well to read the introductory essay, for each chapter on “Mexican Government and Politics” in the Handbook of Latin America Studies, Social Sciences, beginning with Volume 45.40 The chapters, and the annotated literature, from Volume 50 on can be searched online.

To obtain a clearer understanding of pre-democratic Mexico before 1982, it is worthwhile to examine selections from the critical literature published in the 1970s. An author who presents a comprehensive and critical account of the government in that period is Kenneth F. Johnson’s Mexican Democracy: A Critical View.41His work, based on extensive field research, effectively captures the beginnings of organized and civic opposition to authoritarian politics. The Mexican government found his criticisms so offensive that security agents threatened to toss him out the window of his hotel room in Mexico City.

One of the few sources to examine Miguel de la Madrid’s administration is Stephen D. Morris, who is better known as a leading expert on political corruption. Political Reformism in Mexico provides valuable insights into the transition between de la Madrid’s and Carlos Salinas’s administration, as well as a comparative perspective of its democratic transition. Most administrations, beginning with de la Madrid, have been examined broadly, within the context of democratization, in edited collections. Two such works combine insights of leading Mexican and American political scientists on the 1980s: Mexican Politics in Transition42 and Mexico’s Political Stability: The Next Five Years.43 A similar work evaluating Carlos Salinas’s administration, while simultaneously identifying reforms which his successor would need to pursue, represents mostly Mexican scholarship.44 An examination of the electoral reforms, the revision in the constitutional articles regarding religion in 1992, and institutional reforms more broadly during the Salinas era, complementary to the previous book, can be found in an edited volume by Riordan Roett, who sponsored a number of conferences and volumes at the School for Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins during the 1990s, all of which provide useful insights into political and economic changes.45

To gain the most comprehensive understanding of the various forces which promoted democratic transition in the 1990s, through the end of the Ernesto Zedillo administration, is a single-authored monograph by Vikram K. Chand, one of the first authors to give greater importance to the influence of the Catholic Church on political opposition and elections.46 By far the most comprehensive work which is focused specifically on the democratic transition in the late 1990s through 2010, is the Oxford Handbook of Mexican Politics, consisting of thirty-one chapters covering political development, institutions as transformational actors, changing roles, new actors, electoral politics and the changing political landscape, demographics and political attitudes, and politics and policy issues.47

The most comprehensive electoral studies, which view the impact of the presidential elections in broader terms, assessing what it meant for the democratic transition, are three edited collections respectively on the 1988, 2000, and 2006 presidential elections. The latter two works are notable because they were based on original, panel survey data supported by the National Science Foundation, which were completed during each campaign cycle. A third volume will follow on the 2012 election. In all three cases, Mexican and American scholars contributed to these volumes.48

Two other topics deserve mention in this brief literature survey, literature on opposition parties and governments, in particular a series of manuscripts which Victoria Rodríguez and Peter Ward produced from conferences at the University of Texas, often including the personal insights of Mexican political actors.49 Other scholars have analyzed party opposition and its impact on the democratic transformation.50 Finally, for an understanding of the evolution of popular groups and how they impacted grassroots efforts on democracy, a number of scholars have focused on specific movements as well as a broad picture of multiple actors.51

Primary Sources

A focused and comprehensive collection of materials on Mexico’s democratic transition from 1982 to 2012 does not exist, to my knowledge, in any collection. The Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Library at the University of Texas, Austin, provides one of the most outstanding collections on Latin America, with special strength on Mexico. That collection has reached nearly a million books, as well as fifty thousand posters, tapes, and memorabilia. Beyond these materials generally, two specific, special collections provide relevant primary materials. They are the José Revueltas Papers, 1906–2010, a wide-ranging collection of a precursor activist and intellectual who participated in the 1968 student movement and was imprisoned by the government. The second collection, Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional Collection, 1996–2001, includes pamphlets, posters, and brochures. For their own publications as far back as 2011, see their website. This group was one of the most influential movements in the final transition process after 1994. Two additional, prestigious, free-standing libraries, where print materials may be found, are the Bancroft Library at the University of California–Berkeley, and the Latin American Library of the Howard Tilton Memorial Library at Tulane University. The latter library has a collection of the journal DIC (Información e Documentación Católica) published by the Comisión Episcopal de Comunicación Social of the Mexican Episcopate, the most important publication containing numerous pastoral letters and documents referring to bishops’ statements on the democratic transition from 1985 to 1995. The Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress includes a special collection of election materials from Mexico for 2000, 2006, and 2012. One of the most important document collections on elections, civil rights, and religion in Mexico can be found in the Latin American Ephemera Collection at Princeton University, which is beautifully indexed by country and subject matter. The election materials for Mexico are particularly strong from the 1980s and 1990s. Four Mexican collections deserve mention: Politics in Mexico, II, 1968–2008; Politics in Mexico, 1993–1999; Mexican Elections 1997; and Mexican Political Parties, Elections, and Electoral Reform, 1980s–1994, which alone contains 441 items. Other university libraries with strong Mexican collections include Yale, Indiana, UCSD, Harvard, UCLA, and the New York Public Library. The Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut in Berlin maintains the largest Ibero-American collection in Europe.

Relevant primary sources from the Mexican government are also available. The best single source for the legislative branch is the Mexican equivalent of the Congressional Record, available online for all the sessions of the Chamber of Deputies from 1917 through 2005, under the tab for Diario de los Debates. The complete record for all approved legislation and regulations can be found in Mexico’s Diario Oficial de la Federación, which can be searched online, and a complete PDF file of the content and index are also available. Recent, significant legislation, organized by cabinet-level agencies, is available on the home page. Any scholar wanting to examine the numerous constitutional changes involving the democratization process, including such categories as parties and elections, must examine Carlos Armando Biebrich Torres’s and Alejandro Spíndola Yánez’s Diccionario de la Constitución Mexicana, a monumental guide based on decades of research, in their 1,260-page foray into the constitution.52

A primary source which allows those scholars who are interested in analyzing changes in national political leadership during the pre-democratic, the democratic transition, and the post democratic eras is available in a CD-ROM, with a built-in software program in Microsoft Access analyzing biographical data on nearly three thousand individuals from 1935 through 2009. The information is also available in two PDF files, consisting of all the biographies as well as several hundred pages of national and gubernatorial officeholders by position and date in office, which can be easily searched.53

The National Security Archive at George Washington University provides extensive documentation of U.S. perceptions and involvement in Mexican political affairs, most notably on the 1968 student movement and the dirty war in the 1970s. Nevertheless, some relevant documentation focuses on the Zapatista uprising in 1994, interpretations of Mexican elections preceding the democratic transition, and human rights, much of which has been provided through Kate Doyle’s research. Some materials can also be found in the U.S. Congressional Record, especially in sessions involving the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the Salinas administration, whose chair took a special interest in electoral democracy and fraud in Mexico.

Mexico provides excellent access to election data in an atlas generated by the National Electoral Institute (which replaced the Federal Electoral Institute in 2013), allowing scholars to search all election data online from 1991 through 2012. It covers presidential and congressional elections, and can be analyzed by state or by district. I have found them to be helpful and prompt in answering questions and providing additional information. Documents from governmental agencies for all administrations from 1982 to 2006 can be found in Mexico’s Archivo General de la Nación (AGN). The presidency of Mexico maintains three websites for the presidencies of Zedillo, Fox, and Calderón. Each of these includes important presidential documents, for example, all of Zedillo’s speeches, including the talk he gave July 2, 2000, to reinforce the legitimacy of Fox’s electoral victory. There exist many valuable primary materials through survey research archives in the United States and Mexico covering hundreds of opinion polls on individual elections, attitudes toward democracy, changing views of democracy, and on electoral fraud. Scholars should see my essay on primary sources titled “Ordinary Opinions of Everyday Mexicans” in this volume. Two of Mexico’s presidents have written their own memoirs of their administrations. Miguel de la Madrid published Cambio de rumbo. Testimonio de una Presidencia, 1982–1988,54 which provides helpful insights including his frank thoughts about the 1988 election; and Carlos Salinas released a kindle edition of México, un paso dificil de la modernidad.55

Further Reading

Bruhn, Kathleen. Taking on Goliath: The Emergence of a New Left Party and the Struggle for Democracy in Mexico. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Butler, Edgar W., and Jorge A. Bustamante, eds. Sucesión Presidencial, The 1988 Mexican Presidential Election. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991.Find this resource:

Camp, Roderic Ai. The Metamorphosis of Leadership in a Democratic Mexico. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Camp, Roderic Ai, ed. Oxford Handbook of Mexican Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Chand, Vikram K. Mexico’s Political Awakening. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Domínguez, Jorge, Chappell Lawson, and Alejandro Moreno, eds. Mexico’s Choice: The 2006 Presidential Campaign in Comparative Perspective. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Gentleman, Judith, ed. Mexican Politics in Transition. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1987.Find this resource:

Lawson, Chappell, and Jorge Domínguez, eds. Mexico’s Pivotal Democratic Elections, Campaign Effects and the Presidential Race of 2000. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Morris, Stephen D. Political Reformism in Mexico: An Overview of Contemporary Mexican Politics. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner, 1995.Find this resource:

Rodríguez, Victoria E., and Peter M. Ward. Opposition Government in Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Velasco, José Luis. Insurgency, Authoritarianism, and Drug Trafficking in Mexico’s “Democratization.” New York: Routledge, 2005.Find this resource:


(1.) “Capitalism and Democracy,” PS: Political Science and Politics (September 1991), 467–474.

(2.) Peter H. Smith, “The Political Impact of Free Trade on Mexico,” Journal of Inter-American Studies and World Affairs, 34, no. 1 (Spring 1992), 1–25.

(3.) Robert E. Scott, Mexican Government in Transition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964).

(4.) Frank Brandenburg, The Making of Modern Mexico (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964), 68ff.

(5.) Article 83: “A citizen who has held the office of President of the Republic, by popular election or by appointment as ad interim, provisional, or substitute President, can in no case for no reason again hold that office.” Constitution of the United Mexican States, 1917 (Washington, D.C.: Pan American Union, 1964), 35.

(6.) This practice disappeared from correspondence I received in the 1980s.

(7.) For additional, relevant contributors, see Roderic Ai Camp, “Political Modernization in Mexico: Through a Looking Glass,” in Jaime E. Rodríguez O., ed., The Evolution of the Mexican Political System (Wilmington, DE: SR, 1993), 246ff.

(8.) Wayne A. Cornelius, “Mexico: Salinas and PRI at the Crossroads,” Journal of Democracy 1, no. 3 (Summer 1990), 61.

(9.) Some members of the National Executive Committee of PRI were interested in these issues, illustrated by an invitation I received to speak at a seminar they sponsored in this era: “Technocracy, Representation and Criticism: Mexico in the Next Six Years,” Seminar on Perspectives of The Mexican Political System, The National Executive Committee of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, Mexico City, 1982.

(10.) See revealing interviews with top opposition leaders of this era in Carlos B. Gil, Hope and Frustration: Interviews with Leaders of Mexico’s Political Opposition (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1992).

(11.) John Bailey, Denise Dresser, and Leopoldo Gómez, “Balance Preliminar, XIV Asamblea Nacional del PRI,” La Jornada, September 26, 1990, special supplement, pp. i–ii.

(12.) Luis Reyes García, “Los Estudios sobre el PRI en los últimos 20 años,” in Francisco Reveles Vázquez, ed., Partido Institucional Revolucionario: crisis y refundación (Mexico, D.F.: UNAM, 2003), 445.

(13.) Personal interview, Mexico City, July 20, 1984, in Roderic Ai Camp, “Attitudes and Images of the Mexican Entrepreneur: Political Consequences,” in Sylvia Maxfield and Ricardo Anzaldúa, Government and Private Sector in Contemporary Mexico (La Jolla, CA: Center for U.S. Mexican Studies, UCSD, 1987), 141.

(14.) Roderic Ai Camp, “Political Liberalization: The Last Key to Economic Modernization in Mexico?,” in Riordan Roett, ed., Political and Economic Liberalization in Mexico: At a Critical Juncture? (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1993), 18. This entire edited work provides numerous insights into these ongoing changes.

(15.) “Bases of Support for Mexico’s Dominant Party,” American Political Science Review 64, no. 1 (1970), 153–167.

(16.) Roderic Ai Camp, “Mexico’s 1988 Elections: A Turning Point for Its Political Development and Foreign Relations?,” in Edgar W. Butler and Jorge A. Bustamante, eds., Sucesión Presidencial, The 1988 Mexican Presidential Election (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991), 95–114.

(17.) “Is Mexico Headed Toward Its Fifth Crisis?,” in Riordan Roett, ed., Political and Economic Liberalization in Mexico, At a Critical Juncture? (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1993), 102.

(18.) Personal interviews with José López Portillo and Miguel de la Madrid.

(19.) Roderic Ai Camp, Crossing Swords: Religion and Politics in Mexico (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 62ff.

(20.) Sheldon Annis, “Giving Voice to the Poor,” Foreign Policy, no. 84 (Fall 1991): 100.

(21.) Waking from the Dream, Mexico’s Middle Classes After 1968 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013), 173–200.

(22.) “Mexico’s 1988 Elections: A Turning Point for Its Political Development and Foreign Relations,” Bi-National Reflections, UCMEXUS and the MacArthur Foundation, Los Angeles, 1988.

(23.) Edgar W. Butler, James B. Pick, and Glenda Jones, “An Examination of the Official Results of the 1988 Mexican Presidential Election,” in Butler and Bustamante, eds., Sucesión Presidencial, 13–44.

(24.) For an incisive but comprehensive view of changes in the electoral process from 1982 to 2011, see James A. McCann, “Changing Dimensions of National Elections in Mexico,” in Roderic Ai Camp, ed., Oxford Handbook of Mexican Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 497–522.

(25.) “Social and Indigenous Movements in Mexico’s Transition to Democracy,” in Camp, ed., Oxford Handbook of Mexican Politics, 404.

(26.) Renee G. Scherlen, “Lessons to Build On: The 1994 Mexican Presidential Election,” Journal of Inter-American Studies and World Affairs 40, no. 1 (September 1998), 30.

(27.) Conferencia del Episcopado Mexicano, “Compromiso cristiano ante las opciones sociales y política,” 1976, 10.

(28.) Joseph Klesner, “Electoral Reform in Mexico’s Hegemonic Party System: Perpetuation of Privilege or Democratic Advance?” Paper presented at the American Political Science Association, Washington, D.C., 1997; and Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, The 1997 Mexican Midterm Elections: Post-Election Report, Western Hemisphere Election Study Series (Washington, D.C.: CSIS, 1997), 6.

(29.) Chappell Lawson and Jorge Dominguez, eds. Mexico’s Pivotal Democratic Elections, Campaign Effects and the Presidential Race of 2000 (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).

(30.) Jorge Domínguez, Chappell Lawson, and Alejandro Moreno, eds., Mexico’s Choice: The 2006 Presidential Campaign in Comparative Perspective (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

(31.) Roderic Ai Camp, “The 2012 Presidential Election and What it Reveals about Mexican Voters,” Journal of Latin American Studies 45, no. 3 (August 2013), 451–481.

(32.) For evidence, see Andrew Selee, Decentralization, Democracy, and Informal Power in Mexico (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011).

(33.) John Bailey, The Politics of Crime in Mexico: Democratic Governance in a Security Trap (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2014).

(34.) For examples of the two most secretive agencies, Navy and National Defense, see Jordi Díez, “Civil-Military Relations in Mexico: The Unfinished Transition,” in Camp, ed., Oxford Handbook of Mexican Politics, 27; and Jonathan Fox and Libby Haight, “Transparency Reforms: Theory and Practice,” in Andrew Selee and Jacqueline Peschard, eds., Mexico’s Democratic Challenges, Politics, Government and Society (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center, 2010), 135–161.

(35.) Benito Nacif, “The Fall of the Dominant Presidency: Lawmaking under Divided Government in Mexico,” in Camp, ed., Oxford Handbook of Mexican Politics, 234–261.

(36.) Luis Rubio, “Democratic Politics in Mexico: New Complexities,” in Luis Rubio and Susan Kaufman Purcell, eds., Mexico under Fox (Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner, 2004), 5–34.

(37.) María Amparo Casar, “Executive-Legislative Relations: Continuity or Change?,” in Andrew Selee and Jacqueline Peschard, eds., Mexico’s Democratic Challenges, Politics, Government and Society (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center, 2010), 117–134.

(38.) David Shirk, Judicial Reforms in Mexico, Changes & Challenges in the Justice Sector (San Diego: Trans-Border Institute, University of San Diego, 2010).

(39.) Roderic Ai Camp, The Metamorphosis of Leadership in a Democratic Mexico (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

(40.) “Government and Politics: Mexico and Central America,” Handbook of Latin American Studies, Vol. 45, Social Sciences (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985), pp. 467–482.

(41.) Rev. ed. (New York: Praeger, 1978).

(42.) Judith Gentleman, ed., (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1987).

(43.) Roderic Ai Camp, ed., (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1986).

(44.) Mónica Serrano and Victor Bulmer-Thomas, Rebuilding the State: Mexico After Salinas (London: Institute of Latin American Studies, University of London, 1996).

(45.) The Challenge of Institutional Reform in Mexico (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1995).

(46.) Mexico’s Political Awakening (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001).

(47.) Roderic Ai Camp, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

(48.) Butler and Bustamante, eds., Sucesión Presidencial; Chappell Lawson and Jorge Dominguez, eds. Mexico’s Pivotal Democratic Elections, Campaign Effects and the Presidential Race of 2000 (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003); and Jorge Domínguez, Chappell Lawson, and Alejandro Moreno, eds., Mexico’s Choice: The 2006 Presidential Campaign in Comparative Perspective (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

(49.) For example, Victoria Rodríguez and Peter M. Ward, eds., Opposition Government in Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1995)

(50.) Yemile Mizrahi, From Martyrdom to Power: The Partido Acción Nacional (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003); David Shirk, Mexico’s New Politics: The PAN and Democratic Change (Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner, 2005); Kathleen Bruhn, Taking on Goliath: The Emergence of a New Left Party and the Struggle for Democracy in Mexico (University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 2005); and Steven Wuhs, Savage Democracy, Institutional Change and Party Development in Mexico (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008).

(51.) For several notable examples of the latter, see Joe Foweraker and Ann L. Craig, Popular Movements and Political Change in Mexico (Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner, 1990); and Paul Lawrence Haber, Power from Experience: Urban Movements in Late Twentieth-Century Mexico (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006).

(52.) (Mexico City: Porrúa, 2009)

(53.) Roderic Ai Camp, Mexican Political Biographies, 1935–2009 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011).

(54.) (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2004).

(55.) (Mexico City: Plaza Janés, 2013).