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PRI Victory? [1994]

George Baker Alfonso Galindo*

The term "PRI victory" is generally misused in both the Mexican and international media. The history of the PRI in Mexico is not one of a monolithic state party; on the contrary, from 1929-1987 the party was a spectrum of political and philosophical views. It would, therefore, be more accurate to call the PRI a coalition of competing, centrist forces, than to think of it as a single party with a narrowly defined ideological framework. During this period, the PRI coalition was made up mainly of three political forces, which may be referred to as the Left, Center, and Right, or PRI(L), PRI(C) and PRI(R). The competition between these forces was analogous to the competition between the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States.

From 1929-34, the coalition was led by the PRI(R), with Plutarco Elías Calles at its head. The next period, from 1934-40, saw the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas of the PRI(L). The war years were ones in which the policies of the PRI(C), with Manuel Avila Camacho as president, prevailed. The post-war period of 1946-52 again saw the rule of the PRI(R), this time with Miguel Alemán as president. The PRI(C) governed during the period 1952-58 (Adolfo Ruiz Cortines), followed by a second PRI(L) government (Adolfo L.pez Mateos). The rule of the left wing of the coalition was interrupted for six years (1964-70) by the PRI(R) government of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. Again in power, the PRI(L) government of Luis Echeverría ruled from 1970-1976, during the time of the world economic crisis caused by the First Oil Shock of 1973-74 (This crisis eventually led in 1976 to the first devaluation of Mexican currency in twenty-two years). The government of Echeverría was replaced by a President, José Lopez Portillo, whose first three years in office (1976-79) were ones in which PRI(C) policies were enforced. The last three years of his administration, in contrast, were ones in which Mexico's economy was rocked by the Second Oil Shock and the peaking and unexpected decline on the international price of crude oil. These three years were noted for a switch to PRI(L) policies. The last president of the PRI coalition was Miguel de la Madrid from the PRI(R), who led the coalition from 1982-87.

In 1987 the PRI coalition came to an end. In this year there occurred the historic splitting off of the PRI(L). The leaders of this movement, then and now, have been Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas and Porfirio Muñoz Ledo. Cárdenas is the son of former President Lázaro Cárdenas (PRI(L)) and is a former PRI senator and state governor. Muñoz Ledo was labor minister, as well as President of the PRI coalition itself, during the PRI(L) government of Luis Echeverría.

For the presidential elections of 1988, the PRI(L) joined forces with previously existing socialist and labor parties of the extreme left. They formed the National Democratic Front (FDN) with Cárdenas as its powerful presidential candidate. During this election the traditional extreme right (which, in recent years, had modified its proposals toward a more centrist orientation), was ably represented by the late Manuel Clouthier, the candidate of the PAN.

In the elections of 1994 the main elements of the former FDN coalition, still under the leadership of Cárdenas and Muñoz Ledo, have evolved into the populist party known as the PRD. The PAN, led by its candidate, Diego Fernandez, and its party president, Carlos Castillo, has put forth a political and economic program that in major respects resembles that of the PRI(R).

These two parties will compete against the PRI coalition of the PRI(R) and PRI(C). This coalition has been rebuilt by Ernesto Zedillo, a self-made career public official from the U.S.-Mexico border region. Zedillo was called on in late March of this year to continue the campaign of the late Luis Donaldo Colosio, who tragically lost his life by assassin's bullets on March 23rd.

The term "PRI victory," therefore, has never meant only one thing. During the period 1929-87 there was a dynamic fluidity of power within the old PRI coalition. Looking back, Mexico has been governed by the PRI(R) of the reduced PRI coalition since 1987, a period of roughly seven years. Should Ernesto Zedillo carry his party to victory in the August 21 elections, it will extend the rule of the PRI(R) to a total of thirteen years (1987-2000). (By comparison, in the United States the Republican Party--to which the new PRI(R) most closely approximates--has been in the White House for twenty of the past twenty-six years: 1968-76, 1980-1992.)

What, then, of the argument that the PRI has governed Mexico uninterruptedly for sixty-five years? That argument, as this discussion suggests, is a mistaken one; it is one that rests more on labels than on political facts.

Our argument is that a PRI coalition governed Mexico from 1929 to 1987, a coalition that kept competing political parties within a framework of generally accepted rules and values. Governments of the different ideological currents of the old PRI coalition brought Mexico nearly six decades (1929-1987) of social and political stability--in sharp contrast to the pattern of instability found elsewhere in Latin America. This period, which ended in 1987, gave rise to new conditions of political competition in Mexico, with rules not yet fully formulated (as dramatically illustrated by the current conflict in Chiapas). A PRI victory in 1994 would mean the continuation in office of a political current that has held power since 1987--not one that has held power since 1929.

The outlook for democratic competition among the reconstituted political actors in Mexico is positive, as the majority of the presidential candidates have agreed. The present uncertainties in the political landscape should be taken as indications that Mexico's civic culture is moving towards a strengthened democratic framework --with or without a PRI victory.

Contact Information:

George Baker
6448 Community Drive
Houston, TX 77005
Telephone: (713) 255-0000
Fax: (713) 627-9391

* George Baker, based in Hoston, Texas, is a writer and speaker on Mexico.
Alfonso Galindo is coordinator of UCLA- Mexico programs. He can be reached at 310-903-2044.