The PRI’s Election Victory: A New Political Era in Mexico

Back to the past — and with a landslide.  The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which for 70 years, from 1928 to 2000, ruled Mexico as a one-party state won a decisive victory in the mid-term elections on July 5.  The PRI’s victory represented a defeat both for the conservative economic and social policies of President Felipe Calderón and his National Action Party (PAN) and for the bitterly divided left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).  The PRI emerges as Mexico’s dominant party once again, but does this mean that the system that Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa called a “perfect dictatorship” has been restored?

No.  What we are seeing emerge is a Mexican two-party system not unlike that in the United States, even if decorated with a number of minor parties.  Mexico’s powerful economic elite — the owners of its mines, manufacturing companies, electronic media, and the heads of the Catholic Church — will now run the country through the peaceful alternation of power between two capitalist parties, one more closely identified with big business and religion (the PAN), the other more secular and linked by patronage to workers and the poor (the PRI).  Those two parties have now demonstrated that they are prepared to accept this notion of the loyal opposition — loyal to capital, of course.1

The Election Results

The landslide has practically buried the other parties.  With Mexico suffering its worst economic crisis since 1994 and with no clear winner in the two-and-a-half year drug wars that have claimed almost 11,000 lives, voters turned against the president Calderón and the governing PAN.  The PRI won 37 percent of the vote, the PAN 28 percent, and the PRD, with just 12 percent, suffered by far the worst defeat in the race.

In terms of total votes cast, the PRI received over 12.5 million, the PAN over 9.5 million, and the PRD just a little over 4 million.  The PRD stands in danger of being virtually eliminated from Mexican politics in the 2012 elections, while the PRI foresees winning the presidency in three years.

PRI Commands the Legislature

The PRI will now dominate the Mexican legislature.  In the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, the PRI will now command 48 percent of the vote, adding some 135 legislators to the 106 it possessed before the election, giving it a total now of 241 of the 500 deputies.  The PAN lost 59 of its former 206 deputies, leaving it with only 147 or 29.4 percent of the lower house.  The PRD, which had 126 deputies, lost 54, leaving it with just 72 deputies or 14.4 percent.  While the PRI remains a few votes short of a majority, it should easily pick those up from minor parties, such as its satellite the Mexican Green Environmental Party (PVEM).

Similarly, the PRI now controls more than half of the states and governs about two-thirds of all Mexicans.  The PRI also won most of the gubernatorial elections that were being contested and now runs 16 of Mexico’s 32 entities (31 states plus the Federal District).  The PRI also governs another 4 through the PVEM.  The PAN now governs eight states, while the PRD holds power in only 4, though the PRD’s control of the Federal District means that it remains a political factor.

López Obrador, the PT, and Convergencia

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the PRD presidential candidate in the 2006 election who claimed to have won and proclaimed himself the “Legitimate President of Mexico,” broke with his former party in this election, supporting instead the candidates of two small left-of-center parties, Workers Party (PT) and Convergence.  Those parties received only 3.7 and 2.5 percent of the vote, respectively.  The PT won one seat in the Chamber of Deputies; the PT-PRD-Convergencia coalition won 3.

In the Federal District’s Legislative Assembly, which governs Mexico’s City’s ten million inhabitants, the PRD, which had had 14 seats, fell to 12.  The PAN, which already held two seats, won another in the Cuajimalpa borough.  López Obrador threw all of his effort into supporting the PT in the Iztapalapa borough of the DF, where he won — virtually the only victory for the left in the election.  The PRD still maintains its hold Mexico City, though now not as firmly as before.

The Independent Unions and the Far Left

Independent and far-left groups took various positions on the election.  The National Coordinating Committee which leads the rank-and-file movement in the Mexican Teachers Union (la CNTE), for example, called upon its members to give “No vote to the PRI, the PAN, or the PRD.”  The Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT), a small left group, and others on the far left called on voters to reject the PRI and the PAN and to cast a “differentiated vote” for progressive candidates running in the PRD, the PT, or Convergencia.

Other small left groups, such as Worker and Socialist Unity (UNIOS), argued that political developments had proven that Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) had been correct in issuing their Sixth Declaration of the Lancandon jungle rejecting partisan politics and calling for the “Other Campaign” against capitalism.  However, there was no “Other Campaign” in this election as there had been in 2006, and so the group simply endorsed abstention (the voto nulo) and called for building social movements.

The Campaign for Abstention

The campaign for abstention in the election proved to be personally satisfying for those unhappy with the political alternatives available, relatively successful and ultimately politically irrelevant.  Mexico, with a population of 111 million, has 71.3 million eligible voters.  Polls which had predicted a record low voter turnout of 30 percent proved wrong as 43.7 percent of voters turned out to cast ballots, higher than in the 2003 mid-term election.  Still, an estimated record of 1,800,000 voters went to the polls and voided their ballots, a protest against all parties, programs, and candidates, though that represented a relatively insignificant number of voters as a whole.

The president of the National Action Party, Germán Martínez, resigned in the wake of his party’s disastrous showing at the polls.  Within the Party of the Democratic Revolution, calls went up for the resignation of Jesús Ortega, the man who led the fight to take the party away from López Obrador and in the process, the election suggests, apparently destroyed it.  He and his supporters said he had no intention of giving up his position even though his party has been reduced to a shadow of its former self.

Implications for Labor and Workers

The PRI’s victory was also a victory for its labor organization, the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), headed by Joaquín Gamboa Pascoe.  The CTM will hold seven of the 12 congressional seats now occupied by labor union officials.  A union spokesperson said that the CTM had more than doubled it representation.  In addition to the CTM representatives there are also representatives of other unions.  Victor Flores, head of the railroad workers, and Isaías González, general secretary of the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants (CROC), both members of the Congress of Labor (CT), were also elected to the Mexican legislature.

All of these organizations are known as “official” unions, that is to say unions which have historically formed part of the PRI and its pervasive one-party state.  Their election to congress will strengthen these unions and the union officials who now double as representatives.  These unions, cooperating with the state and often colluding with employers, have historically opposed Mexico’s independent and democratic unions and movements.  All of this will create difficult obstacles for workers in Mexico who seek democracy in their unions, power in their workplaces, and social justice in their nation.

The Short History of the Perfect Dictatorship

While many Mexicans voted for the party, many others fear this could lead to a return to the authoritarian system of patronage, corruption, and political repression which dominated Mexican life for decades.  What was this thing called the PRI, which only ten years ago still ruled Mexico, and what might result with its return to power?

The PRI has its roots in the defeat of the plebeian left wing of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1940).  In 1917, Venustiano Carranza, self-proclaimed Jefe Máximo of the revolution, called a Constitutional Assembly which laid the basis for the modern Mexican state.  The Constitution, written under the pressure of revolutionary armies, called for the distribution of land to the peasants (Article 27) and for the right of workers to organize unions (Article 123), as well as ending the Catholic monopoly on education.  Forced by circumstances to grant those concessions to the country’s working people, Carranza’s real objective was the creation of a modern state which could develop Mexico along capitalist lines.

Carranza sent his friend the painter Gerardo Murrillo (Dr. Atl) to talk with anarchists of the House of the World Worker (Casa del Obrero Mundial) and win their support.  A faction of the Casa agreed to support the new state and to provide Red Battalions to fight on its behalf — while another faction went off to join Emiliano Zapata, leader of the army of southern peasants.  Carranza then turned against the radical Conventionists, Francisco “Pancho” Villa and Zapata, the leaders of the revolution’s plebeian forces, southern peasants, and northern miners and railroad workers.  Carranza’s General Pablo González assassinated Zapata (and several years later others killed Villa).  Obregón himself, however, turned on Carranza who was in turn assassinated in 1920.  Obregon became president.

The Sonoran Dynasty

Obregón, leader of the victorious forces, and his co-thinker Plutarco Elías Calles, both from Sonora, then founded the modern Mexican state in 1920.  Observing that no general can withstand a barrage of $100,000 pesos, Obregón bought off the various generals who had headed the revolutionary armies and they retired to manage the estates they had confiscated from the ancien régime.  Obregón served as president the first four years, Calles the second, the presidents of the so-called Sonoran dynasty.

When Obregón contemplated a second term, he was assassinated by a militant Catholic opponent of the government.  The assassination of Obregón threatened to return the nation to civil war.  To meet the crisis, Calles convened the leaders of the various revolutionary factions each of which controlled a different state or region of the country.  Out of that meeting came the National Revolutionary Party (PNR), a party which would be made up of government officials and employees.  The state had created a party to manage its affairs, a party that won office through fraud, held it through patronage, and benefited from it through corruption.  Calles, while never again holding office as president, remained the power behind the throne while others held the presidency.

Lázaro Cárdenas and the Crisis of the 1930s

The world economic crisis of the 1930s also brought economic depression and social upheaval to Mexico, a situation complicated by the revolutionary government’s war against the Catholic Church in western Mexico.  In 1934, Calles, with the intention of continuing his game as political puppeteer, decided to put forward another man for the presidency, his Secretary of War, Lázaro Cárdenas.  Cárdenas, however, already popular with the army, also won the support of labor unions and peasant leagues, and soon drove Calles out of Mexico.  Under the new six-year presidential term, Cárdenas would serve until 1940, channeling the widespread discontent in Mexico — workers strikes, peasant land seizures, and political discontent — into the official party.

A left nationalist and a political genius, Lázaro Cárdenas took advantage of the economic crisis to end the hacienda system which had dominated the Mexican economy for four-hundred years.  He distributed forty million acres of land from the economically failing haciendas to villages of peasants and Indians in the form of ejidos, state-owned lands given in perpetuity to those communities as long as it was farmed.  Cárdenas also recognized and supported the labor unions.  Most important, in 1938 Cárdenas nationalized the oil companies owned by Royal Dutch Shell and Standard Oil Company.  During those years Cárdenas changed the state party’s name to the Party of the Mexican Revolution (PRM) with the slogan “For a Socialist Mexico.”

The Reorganization of the State Party

Cárdenas reorganized the state-party on the basis of three pillars: the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), the National Confederation of Peasants (CNC), and the National Confederation of Popular Organizations (CNOP).  When a worker was hired into a factory, he automatically became a member of the CTM, and, as a member of the CTM, also a member of the ruling party.  Cárdenas’ profound social reforms provided the still authoritarian state-party with a new social base of support.  While working people had little control over those organizations or over the party, the party was capable of using those organizations to support its political campaigns.

When in 1940 Cárdenas left office, he was succeeded by Manuel Ávila Camacho who turned the party to the right once again, and changed its name in 1946 to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).  The PRI-government, a one-party state, oversaw an economy based on a mixed economy of nationalized industries (oil, telephone, railroads, electrical power), foreign-owned corporations heavily invested, for example, in mining, and Mexican-owned companies of all sizes from great corporations such as the brewing and glass companies of Monterrey to the many family businesses found throughout the country.  Throughout this period from the 1940s to the 1960s, the PRI oversaw what was called the “Mexican miracle,” the economic expansion paid for by the low wages of workers and peasants.

The Cold War, Anti-Communism, and the Crushing of Popular Movement

With the coming of the Cold War starting in the late 1940s, both for its own reasons and to comply with the wishes of the U.S. State Department, the Mexican government carried out its own anti-Communist campaigns similar to McCarthyism in the United States, only more brutal.  The Communists and other radicals were driven out of the PRI and out of its Confederation of Mexican Workers.  When the industrial unions of railroad workers, miners, and oil workers showed signs of independence, the PRI sent the army, police and sometimes gangsters to remove union leaders and replace them with PRI-loyalists.  The violently imposed union bureaucrats were called charros, or “dudes,” after one of them who liked to dress up in cowboy clothes.

By the 1950s, the Mexican state-party had come to rule with a heavy hand.  When workers fought for higher wages, as in the great railroad strike of 1959, the PRI-government turned out the army to smash the strike and sent the strike leaders to prison for long terms.  When students marched for democracy and in support of Cuba at Tlatelolco (the Plaza of the Three Cultures) in 1968, President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, head of the PRI-government, sent the army to crush the movement; officially 40 were killed though most believe that hundreds died.  Similarly in 1976 the PRI-government sent in the army and gangsters to break the electrical workers and the Democratic Tendency, a union coalition they had created.

The PRI and the Challenge of the 1960s and 1970s

During the 1960s and the 1970s, students moved to the left, and some joined guerrilla groups determined to overthrow the PRI government by force.  Other young activists joined leftist organizations which worked with workers and peasants to build a social force capable of overthrowing the government through an upheaval from below.  These years saw a wave of labor protests and strikes known as the insurgencia obrera, the worker insurgency.  The government’s response to the upsurge was repression, a dirty war — kidnappings, torture, and murder by police and military — that left 500 dead.  But a political response was also necessary and to tame the movement the PRI-government decided to encourage the left to enter politics.

Politics now became more complicated.  A right-wing party, the National Action Party (PAN) founded by bankers and Catholic activists, had existed since 1939.  Now there would also be left parties, three major ones: a left nationalist Mexican Workers Party (PMT) led by Heberto Castillo, a Communist Party whose name would change over the years to the Unified Social Party of Mexico (PSUM), and a Trotskyist Revolutionary Workers Party whose candidate Rosario Ibarra de Piedra would make history as the first woman to run for president.  Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s the right and left parties would each generally win about 10 to 15 percent of the vote, while the PRI won virtually all of the elections.

The Mexican earthquake of 1985 represented an important turning point in the development of a new movement called “civil society,” that is non-governmental organizations and social movements.  The September earthquake devastated Mexico City, killings thousands as buildings throughout the central city collapsed.  When the PRI-government failed to respond to the disaster, citizens groups, often led by local leftists, undertook the search and rescue operations.  While the earthquake took 10,000 lives, it revived a sense of self-confidence at the grassroots of Mexican society.  The Mexican people emerged from the crisis prepared to change the government.

The Debt Crisis, the Split in the PRI, Cárdenas, and the PRD

Mexico, an oil-rich nation, in the late twentieth century found even more oil and used it as collateral on billions of dollars in loans — eventually about 100 billion.  When in the mid-1980s the price of oil fell, Mexico was essentially bankrupt.  The U.S. banks and the U.S.-dominated international financial institutions forced Mexico to change its nationalist economy.  The PRI-government began to split into two factions: a technocratic faction which both under international pressure and for its own reasons wished to end the nationalist economy and enter into the global markets and a nationalist faction which hesitated to break with the past.

As the technocratic faction began to strengthen its hold on the party, the nationalists formed the Democratic Current to fight to control the PRI.  When by 1988 it had become clear that they could not do so, its leader, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, son of the former president, led his group out of the PRI and ran for president against the PRI government.  Most observers believe that Cárdenas won the 1988 election, but President Miguel de la Madrid and the PRI-government announced that their candidate, Carlos Salinas, had won and he became president.

After being cheated out of the election, Cárdenas and his group from the PRI joined with others from the PSUM and other leftists to create the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).  The PRD militants fought throughout the country to defend their local electoral victories in the period from 1988 to 1994, with over 600 PRD members killed in the attempt and many others seriously injured.

The Neoliberal PRI of the 1980s

President Salinas, having taken the presidency, now began to transform Mexico.  With the exception of oil and electric power, Mexico’s nationalized industries such as telephone and railroad were sold off to private investors, often foreign investors.  Salinas approached the U.S. and Canadian presidents about the creation of a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), first working with Brian Mulroney of Canada and George H.W. Bush of the United States and later with U.S. President Bill Clinton.  In preparation for the NAFTA negotiations, Salinas pushed through Congress the revision of Article 27 which had given land to Mexican peasants.  Under the revised articles, the communities and owners could sell the land.  Salinas also used his power to break the power of the PRI’s own labor unions, sending the Mexican Army to occupy the Cananea copper mine on the eve of its sale to private investors and sending police to arrest the leaders of the Petroleum Workers Union on trumped-up charges.

Under Salinas and his neoliberal government, the PRI-government lost many of its traditional sources of political support.  The nationalized industries which had been a source of patronage had been sold.  The labor unions which got out the vote on election day had been weakened and alienated.  The traditional peasant communities had been weakened by the revisions to Article 27, undermining another traditional base of support.  At the same time, Salinas created new government poverty programs to keep poor people under party control.

Challenges from the Left and from a New Right in the 1990s

Meanwhile, the PRI-government, Salinas and his successor Ernesto Zedillo, faced new challenges as well from new social movements, most importantly the Chiapas Uprising of 1994 led by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN).  The uprising by Mayan people in the south of Mexico inspired the growing “civil society” movement which demanded human rights and civil liberties.  The middle-class feminist movement played an important role among civil society activists, while working-class women in the urban slums continued as they had since the 1960s to lead local urban popular movements.  The combination of the EZLN led by Subcomandante Marcos, the PRD led by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, and the growth of civil society — together with many other grassroots movements of environmentalists, women, and labor — seemed to represent the forces that could bring democracy and social justice to Mexico.  But other forces arose on the right as well.

During the 1980s and the 1990s, the National Action Party underwent a transformation as it continued advocating conservative free-market policies; it decided to adopt the political action model taken from Ghandi, Corozón Aquino, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  The driving force behind the new PAN was COPARMEX, the conservative Mexican Association of Employers.  During the 1980s PAN members began to engage in civil disobedience to challenge the PRI’s corrupt electoral system, for example, blocking the bridges and crossing points at the U.S.-Mexico border.  At times, PAN leaders even sought alliances with parties of the left against the government’s oppressive policies.  PAN’s new found activism galvanized its younger members, and the party’s image improved as its influence spread.

The Fall of the PRI — and Its Rise Again

Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas ran for president again in 1994, winning 17 percent of the vote and, coming in third.  However, in 1997 he was elected mayor of Mexico City, putting him in a position to run for president again in the year 2000.  By then, many Mexicans of all political persuasions had come to two conclusions.  First, it was necessary to end the rule of the PRI.  Second, the PRI — by fair means or foul, or by force — would never permit a party to its left to win the presidency.  Therefore, many (although not all) on the left concluded that one had to cast a voto útil, a useful vote, a vote that could end the PRI dictatorship.  The way to do this it appeared would be to vote for Vicente Fox, the rancher, boot manufacturer, representative for Latin American of the Coca Cola company, and governor of Guanajuato, who had become PAN candidate for president.  In 2000, Fox won a plurality of 43 percent of the vote, defeating the PRI candidate Francisco Labastida who gained 36% and Cárdenas 17 percent.

The election of Fox in 2000, succeeded by Felipe Calderón in 2006, together with the contempt and disdain in which the PRI was held by many Mexicans, seemed to have assured that its era had ended, perhaps forever.  Now, just nine years later, it appears that the PRI is back, positioned to become once again the ruling party of Mexico.  Many things have changed since the era of the PRI’s one-party state: Mexico’s economy has been integrated and subordinated to that of the United States; nationalized industries were sold off; the constitution was amended to permit the sale of the ejido lands.  All of these things mean that the old state cannot be rebuilt on the same basis.  Whether or not it can reestablish its one-party state remains an open question, and highly doubtful, but that it has become the Mexican elite’s political alternative seems clear.  After having experienced the alternation of political parties, and after a twelve-year hiatus in the PRI’s power, the PRI in power in the 21st century will not be the PRI in power in the 20th.  But, if different, if might turn out to be equally disastrous for the Mexican people.


1  Arnaldo Córdova makes this analysis in his article “Después de las elecciones. El bloque en el poder,” La Jornada, July 12, 2009.

Dan La Botz is a Cincinnati-based teacher, writer and activist.  Contact him through his home page: <>.   A version of this article appeared in Mexican Labor News and Analysis, July 2009.