Given the recent developments in the “Fast and Furious” controversy, Americans may be curious to know how the Mexican drug cartels came to be so powerful that U.S. officials went to such extreme lengths to track them. Part of the answer lies in the seven-decade period of Mexican history as a one-party state. The coming July 1 presidential elections may come to show that that period is not quite dead.
From 1929 to 2000, the Mexican government was controlled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI maintained its power largely through political patronage but also through violence and fraud. Presidential elections were farcically undemocratic; the outgoing president would hand-pick his successor with what was called the dedazo (“finger tap”). Also, PRI politicians often looked the other way when it came to drug smuggling. A notorious example of the latter is the case of Arturo Durazo, Mexico City police chief involved in drugs, racketeering, and extortion, who was protected by PRI President Jose López Portillo.
In the late twentieth century several factors came together to bring about the fall of the PRI from power. In the 1970s government mismanagement tanked the economy; the government’s feeble and self-serving response to disasters such as the 1985 Mexico City earthquake demonstrated the regime’s corruption and ineffectiveness; increasing movements in favor of democratization were met with hostility, most infamously at Tlatelolco in 1968 where government agents opened fired and killed several hundred peaceful demonstrators. The public began to seriously question the legitimacy of elections, such as in 1988 where it was widely believed the PRI stole the election from opposition candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. It was not until 2000, however, that the PRI lost the presidency. Vicente Fox Quesada of the center-right National Action Party (PAN) defeated the PRI candidate, to great rejoicing. PAN’s Felipe Calderon won the presidency again in 2006.
Now the PRI, notwithstanding its history of corrupt, authoritarian governance, is poised to return. Every poll puts PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto in a comfortable lead over the other main candidates, PAN’s Josefina Vazquez Mota and Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD).
Many commentators have argued that Peña’s lead is the result of biased media coverage from Mexico’s two main television outlets, Televisa and TV Azteca. Gabriel Hinojosa Rivero, former mayor of the city of Puebla and founder of the Movement for Second Generation Government (G2G) said in an interview with DOUBLETHINK that Peña’s lead is “mostly a well orchestrated campaign from the two national TV networks created by the PRI and owned [by PRI allies]. The PRI candidate is mostly a media product—they even got him a soap opera pretty wife—and they have been projecting his image for five years as the British newspaper The Guardian just unveiled.”
One might suppose that a party with a reputation as terrible as the PRI’s would take steps to remedy its public image. This has not been the case with the PRI. After losing the presidency in 2000 and failing to retake it in 2006, PRI state governors have assumed more important roles in the party, and it’s business as usual in terms of their governing style. “PRI governors and mayors have not changed a bit, and I will say they have gotten worse without the total control that the PRI president used to exert over them in old days,” commented Hinojosa. “Now they have gone wild.”
The prospect of a PRI return to power gives the upcoming elections an air of novelty. “The idea of the Mexican transition [to democracy] was built upon the premise that if there was to be democracy in Mexico the PRI had to lose. And, furthermore, that the PRI and democracy were irreconcilable,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, political columnist for La Razon, in an interview with DOUBLETHINK. “Now, apparently, the experience of 12 years of PAN in the presidency has somehow changed the premises.”
The result of the election has important implications for US-Mexico relations. Some believe that the return of the PRI will mean the return of the disastrous policies of the later PRI years. If the PRI wins, said Hinojosa, “Mexico will go slowly back to economic disorder and debt, which in turn and probably in ten years time will lead to a Greece-like situation or a repeat of 1995, when Clinton and the US had no option but to lend 50,000 million dollars to save the Mexican economy.” If that were to happen, it would have enormous consequences for immigration and border control. “Mexican people will suffer the consequences, which at the same time will have an impact on greater migration to the US and a greater problem with organized crime which inevitably will infect the US.” It is not clear, however, that a PAN victory would necessarily be better, as it was current PAN president Calderón whose militarization of the drug war is widely held responsible for the escalation of violence.
There is also the possibility that the election will produce unrest in Mexico. “The real concern here is Lopez Obrador,” said Regidor. “If he loses and cries ‘fraud’, some of his voters, especially the most loyal, will follow him. He might create some disorder, especially in Mexico City.” Still, it is pretty clear that Peña is going to win, and the future of Mexico once again under the PRI is totally uncertain. “A PRI in power, with full democratic legitimacy, will be something completely new in Mexican history.”
Sullivan Maciag is a writer for Doublethink Magazine.