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The Turning Point of the PRI: An Analysis of the 1988 Presidential Election in Mexico

by Louie Matrisciano

The erosion of the political powerbase of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) occurred because of the combination of lost opportunities and a rise of public admission for democratic reform.  If the PRI had been the status quo of the past, the election of 1988 was the turning point in Mexican history.  With this election came a change in the attitude of handling politics-as-usual in Mexico.  The facts leading up to the election which embarked the erosion of party loyalty and then what occurred after the election of President Salinas will be discussed in this text.  This change in the PRI was not overnight, but a gradual culmination of miscalculations, mismanaged politics and an effort by the people to motivate themselves to bring democracy to the country of Mexico.  By examining the history, powerbase, and longevity of the PRI, one can see the election of 1988 and its outcomes were part of the country's movement towards democratic reforms ultimately removing the PRI, which had been dominate since 1929, from controlling the Presidential Palace in the 2000 Presidential election.

    Born from the ideas of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20, the PRI was formed in 1929 to uphold the nationalist constitution of 1917.  The constitution had broad ideals of land reform, labor rights and economic independence for Mexico.  However, most of these aims went unrealized as the years past. The PRI evolved into a corporatist structure which subordinated to the ruling elite all major sectors of Mexican society-- peasant associations, trade unions, the civil service, nationalized industries and the military itself.  Under these political conditions, the PRI was viewed as a stabilizing factor by its northern Imperials.  Since 1934, the process of presidential succession has been determined by the outgoing president, not by electoral democracy.  After a series of private consultations with the power brokers of the PRI, the president designate would be awarded the presidency by the PRI after a rubber-stamped election had occurred.  In the 1988 election, the PRI would chose the pre-determined PRI winner, and even the vote count.  The ballot box was a formality of little consequence under the PRI (Nebbia & Martin).

    Like the Soviet Communist Party, the PRI penetrated (and still penetrates) everything.  But its genius has been to cultivate loyalty and sing repression only as a last resort.  It defused political dissent by permitting and even financing it.  Instead of rigging elections, it co-opted support so that fraud was often unnecessary.  Land redistribution, for instance, became a superb (and not undemocratic) political tool, since it gave parcels of land to millions of grateful farmers.  During the years of statism, this system worked well.  But economic mismanagement and the collapse in the price of oil (the government's chief source of revenue then and still about one third of it now) prompted an economic opening in the 1980s.  Meanwhile, some policies were seen to be bankrupt.  Land distribution, for example, split the land into tiny and barren plots farmed by people who were too poor to invest in modern techniques (The Economist).

    Under the PRI, Mexico had a policy of economic nationalism, whereby the country protected its national industries.  However, in the wake of the financial crisis of the 1980s, Mexico made a sharp break from its long standing policy of protection in favor of opening up its economy to the world market.  When Mexico came close to defaulting on its foreign debt, the PRI, under President Miguel de la Madrid (1982-88), lost much of of its popularity due to his economic policies that led to a steep decline in the standard of living of the ordinary Mexican (Nebbia and Martin) (Camp). These policies were due in part to the stock market collapse, two weeks before the New York stock market crashed.  Dollars again began leaving, first to pay private debts and then simply to seek safe haven.  To staunch the flow of the dollar, the peso was devalued from 1,600 to the dollar in mid-November to 2,200, a move that sent consumer prices skyward.  The specifics of the economic plan, first, dealt with the devaluation of the peso rate used for trade and debt by 18 percent.  By making exports more competitive and dollars more costly, the devaluation would help Mexico retain its large trade surplus and record $15 billion in foreign receivers.  Simultaneous, De la Madrid halved Mexico's import duties to a maximum 20 percent.  Secondly, De la Madrid's plan called for a 85 percent price hike in most government goods and services, which ranged from air fares, cane sugar and gasoline to electricity and telephone service.  "The idea {was} to take a big hit in inflation now and then start bringing it down once the deficit {was} under control," said a US government expert (Orme).  In 1988, historian John Womack of Harvard University commented that the successes of opposition candidates (including victories in gubernatorial races) had not changed the basic issues in Mexican politics.  "The substance of political conflict in Mexico remains the same as it has been since 1982: the ungodly cost of the inevitable reconstruction of Mexican capitalism in a period of global economic transformation," wrote Womack (Reuss).  Further analysis of Mexico's debt repayment by Professor Womack concluded "that the Mexican government and many government-owned companies were deeply in debt to American banks.  To repay this debt required drastic reduction of funds otherwise available for domestic expenditures, in Salinas's plans (hypothetical or preparatory until he actually too office) primarily for social programs" (Womack).

    The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) caused most of its political troubles with a series of political mishandling.  Notwithstanding the poor economic policies of the De la Madrid presidency, other factors contributed to the decline of the PRI in the 1980s, leading to the fraudulent and disputed election of 1988.  Miguel de la Madrid returned to the presidency that of the Liberal era of Mexico's past.  His attitude of the old liberal perception involved a view of the State as an imperfect human creation, steering clear of any fascination with either vast Hegelian necessity or divinely ordained Thomasic structure.  In his campaign for President, De la Madrid spoke of democracy, and a litany of old Liberal Values: representation, the republic, federalism, the strengthening of the legislative and judicial powers.  The people had responded; they had actually come out to vote on July 6, 1982, in numbers not seen since the days of Almazán and Vasconcelos, who had of course both been opposition candidates.  There was something in the air perhaps, in this desire to vote (68% percent for De la Madrid).  It was not the love of the ruling party, either that swelled the voting centers, most PRI legislative candidates received far smaller votes. The people choose De la Madrid to display their allegiance for his "moral renovation of society," which they saw as a declaration of war against corruption.  In this Presidential election of 1982, the act of voting appeared to be taking on a new significance in the minds of the electorate, poised perhaps at the verge of becoming something truly meaningful (Krauze 762-763).  The PRI was poised to govern with a mandate from the people.  The direction was chartered and the election was determined, but what was to follow surely fueled opposition to the ruling party.

    The cumulative experiences of the last decade and a half, with the devastating climax of economic collapse, had begun to grow a new harvest of opposition.  Many Mexicans had had enough.  If you went into many towns and villages through the south and center of the country, the heart of the "Old Mexico," radical slogans would be found on the walls and equally intense opinions.  In the southeast, some committed bishops were quietly spreading the left-wing gospel of Liberation Theology.  The renaissance of the National Action Party (PAN) showed a challenge to authority was growing in the north with increasingly intense campaigns and popular support against the PRI, a growing independence in the regional press, and a critical attitude on the part of the Church and even of elements in the business community (Krauze 765).  Although Mexico has long been dominated by one political party, the PRI, opposition parties have existed for many decades.  In the 1960s, the existence of the parties was encouraged by electoral reforms which allocated some legislative seats to parties on the basis of the national vote, rather than their ability to win individual legislative districts.  The two main opposition parties are the National Action Party (PAN) and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).  PAN was founded in 1939 by dissident leaders from the PRI.  It occupies the center right of the political spectrum in Mexico, favoring rapid political reform and integrity in government.  The party also calls for privatizing state-owned industries and resources and decreasing government spending on social services such as health care.  The PRD will be discussed later in this text (Camp).

    On September 19, 1985, the worst earthquake in the history of the country struck Mexico City.  The government, stunned, unprepared, reacted slowly and clumsily. As another sign of how the system had frozen down to its very heart, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs proudly announced that "under absolutely no conditions" would they request aid, least of all from the United States.  The public was not only willing to accept aid; they were begging for it.  The disaster was in every way immense;  close to twenty thousand people were killed.  Despite the profound inadequacy of the government's response to the disaster, the PRI could have seized it as an opportunity to rebuild by decentralizing the organization of the country. A fifth of the population lived in the capital, consuming half of the country's imports.  The national debt was in large part the debt of the capital.  Food, housing, transportation, services--all of them were subsidized in the Distrito Federal.  It could have been the moment to begin the process of dismantling the pyramid and returning resources and political autonomy to the states and cities.  Yet, it came to pass, and the government failed to achieve what the people called for in the 1982 election.  This event represents another opportunity lost to mismanagement by the PRI (Krauze 767).

    At this stage in the events leading up to the 1988 election, it should be noted that the newspapers and journalists were now more willing to take a stand and intellectual circles were beginning to openly criticize the government.  The stories published were openly critical of the PRI's handling of economic policies, the nationalization of the banks and handling domestic unrest.  The wave of democracy grew out from the rhetoric of De la Madrid in 1982 campaign. It was a mandate from the people and now tired and disillusioned, grew impatient and eager for the chance to make the political system more democratic.  The international community was embracing more democratic ideals that traditionally had been closed to such Western ideologies.  Gorbachev's perestroika was seen as a great hope for the Soviet Union and its Satellite nations; the Solidarity movement in Poland had ended the dogma of the Communist workers paradise and opposition parties on the left and right of the government were more willing to embrace the call of democracy in Mexico.  The timing was right for Mexico to shift and change its history away from the static PRI, but it wasn't to be.  It was a formidable chance lost to the business as usual mentality of the PRI.  They did not see the need to reduce its own political influence for the cause of democracy to exist in Mexico (Krauze 768).

In 1987, the PRI underwent the first major split in its history.  A so-called "Democratic Current" within the PRI feared that multiparty democracy could not be delayed and pushed for reform from inside the party.  The selection of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a Harvard educated technocrat, as the PRI candidate in 1988 further divided the party.  Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solorzano, a dissident PRI member and the son of the popular former president Lázaro Cárdenas, challenged the PRI in the election.  Cárdenas attacked the International Monetary Funds (IMF) imposed austerity programs, which had sped the decline in the standard of living for most Mexicans, and called for a moratorium on interest payments to foreign creditors.  When Cárdenas announced his candidacy for the PRI's 1988 presidential election, he was expelled form the party.  Cárdenas ran as a candidate of his own leftist coalition, the National Democratic Front, and the campaign saw the growth of unprecedented opposition to the ruling PRI (MacLachlan).  Official returns from Mexico's 1988 presidential election showed the ruling party winning just over 50 percent of the vote, compared to about 30 percent for the leftist National Democracy Front. While the PRI claimed victory, the PRD leader Cárdenas claimed the election had been stolen.  Reports of ballot box stuffing, frauds of ballot manipulation and manufactured computer glitches to throw the election to the PRI candidate Salinas by the opposition parties were hurled at the PRI when Salinas declared victory with 51 percent of the votes (Reuss).  Cárdenas and many international election observers claimed that he had won, but the election was plagued by widespread corruption.  The opposition parties did gain 240 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, ending the PRI's 60 year reign of unchangeable one-party-rule (Camp).

In the aftermath of the election, there are several determinants that have arisen from the corrupt election of Salinas in 1988 which should be examined to indicate where the country was heading.  The Party of the Democratic Revolution was organized by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas.  The Party of the Democratic Revolution was founded by dissident PRI and left of center leaders in 1989.  It dominated the center left.  The PROD also favors rapid political reform, but cooperates less with the PRI than does the PAN (Camp).  Cárdenas did a great social justice to the country of Mexico by sparing it a civil war, and instead organizing a party represented in the commitment of ideals in its name.  In 1988, Salinas reaffirmed "the indestructible historic pact" between the "Revolutionary government and the working class."  The PRI would be gradually reformed. Luis Donaldo Colosio, the new president of the party, would oversee this task.  His mission was to convert the PRI into a party of citizens, not sectors.  This was first accomplished in Baja California Norte with the approval of the first non-PRI governor the party ever permitted in election.  This decision gave the government a moral reinforcement; however, the PRI powers in Baja California would not forgive the regime, nor Colosio, for their humiliation. Salinas continued to put off democracy for his country.  His assumed danger from the left, even in the wake of 1989 when communism collapsed in Eastern Europe.  The cold war was ending and governments like Pinochet in Chile and Stroessner in Paraguay were being replaced by the vote. Only two other governments in Latin America, besides Mexico, would continue to close their minds to democracy, Haiti and Cuba.  The constitutional change to Article 130 made a final peace with the Catholic Church, in which the Church was given juridical personality and full internal autonomy.  All restrictions on the performance of religious rites were removed.  Priests were free to give their public opinions and to vote (Krauze 772-776).  As a remarkably resourceful politician, the Salinas administration asserted privatization efforts, selling off hundred of state-owned companies.  The president also allowed US oil companies to explore for oil in Mexico for the first time since the petroleum industry was nationalized in 1938.  Most significant perhaps were Salinas's efforts to stimulate foreign trade.  In 1991 he led the effort to establish a free trade agreement among central American countries.  He was instrumental in working out the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which promised economic development and prosperity for Mexico (MacLachlan).  In an interview with Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas by the Multinational Monitor, the PROD leader said, "The Mexican government {wanted} to sign a trade agreement as soon as possible because it {thought} that a trade agreement {would} make foreign investment come to Mexico.  This government {of Salinas} {was} desperately looking for investment and {was} implementing several measures in an attempt to attract this investment.  Privatization of state companies, privatization of the banks very recently and the announcement of this new trade agreement with the United States {were} all measures to attract foreign investment which {had not come} to Mexico.

This analysis exemplified the factors that led to the Institutional Revolutionary Party's gradual erosion of political power. Ultimately over time this led to the PRI's removal of the Presidency in 2000.  By having examined the factors, but not limited to these mentioned, the financial crisis of the early 1980s and lack of government support for basic necessities during this period, combined with Miguel de la Madrid's lack of awareness for democratic reform by speaking words he did not intend to follow-up on, harvested the growing resentment and wave of opposition groups.  It was during the earthquake that the people realized that civic accountability could replace the lack of governmental responsibilities.  Therefore, the organization of community leaders and student efforts aided in the current resentment of the PRI.  Yet, having the freedom of the mass media to openly criticize the PRI government made for an open forum of discussion for democratic change to exist.  Calling for democratic reform inside the PRI, however, cracked its impregnable shell when opposition candidate emerged for the 1988 election.  The rule of the PRI continue into the 21st century, but ended on July 2, 2000 when Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) was elected in an uncontested election by the PRI.


Work Cited:

Camp, R. Politics in Mexico: the Decline of Authoritarianism, and Crossing
    Sources: Politics and religion in Mexico. Mckenna College

Interviews trade, debt and plunder. (1991, January 8). Multinational Monitor.

Krauze, E. (1997). Mexico: A Biography of Power. New York: HarperPerennial.

MacLachlan, C. A History of Latin America, and Spain's Empire in the New World:
    The Role of Ideas in Institutional And Social Change. Tulane University.

Orme, W. (1987, December 20). Mexican president tackles stagflation with tough
    austerity plan. Washington Post, Special Section, pK04.

Nebbia, G. & Martin, P.

Reus, A. (2000, July 6). Where now for Mexico? The Progressive Media Project.

The beginning of the end of the longest ruling party (2000, June 24). The Economist.

Womack, J. Harvard University interview.