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Mexico’s Silent Revolution

(A shorter version of this post was published at the Washington Post's Monkey Cage Blog on June 30)

Mexico is poised to begin a radical transformation on July 1, and one that has gone almost completely unnoticed. This is because the most important outcome of that day’s elections will not be who wins, but who loses. Leftist reformer Andrés Manuel López Obrador is almost certain to capture the presidency, but it is the impending collapse of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that will have the greatest impact. After nearly 90 years as the country’s dominant party, the PRI seems almost certain to suffer a truly historic defeat, and its collapse will dramatically remake the Mexican political landscape.

The PRI has been a fixture of Mexican politics since the first decades of the twentieth century. It provided structured support for the country’s authoritarian regime, with PRI candidates routinely winning landslide victories in fraudulent elections. It was Mexico’s omnipresent political institution, its green, white, and red logo that mirrored the colors of the national flag appeared everywhere, and it was within the PRI that most of the country’s modern political practices (and politicians) developed. It also proved remarkably resilient as competitive elections became the norm over the past twenty years. Even after losing the presidency in 2000, it retained significant influence, and recaptured both the executive and legislative branches of government in 2012.

Yet the coming elections may well mark the end of the PRI as we know it. Not only is the party set to lose the presidency, but also approximately 70% of its congressional seats and possibly two governorships. This dramatic and rapid decomposition will have profound implications for the future of Mexican politics. What happened? What comes next? Is the dinosaur truly dead?

1. Collapse

The PRI’s obituary has been written before. Resounding defeats in 2000 and 2006 seemed to augur the end, yet the party endured and rebuilt. This time seems to be different. The party’s breakdown in 2018 is extensive and far-reaching, combining overwhelming popular repudiation of the party’s brand and the deterioration of its internal machinery.

The most obvious factor for the PRI’s rapid decline is a generalized rejection of the party. Current president Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration has been nothing short of a disaster, a repetitious saga of spectacular corruption scandals combined with ham-handed mismanagement that has left a staggering wave of violence in its wake. Unsurprisingly, polls have found nearly 70% of Mexicans think the most important issue in the 2018 campaign is defeating the PRI and only 17% think the PRI should continue to govern the country.

Facing these headwinds, the party’s presidential candidate was almost inevitably a sacrificial lamb. Indeed, in selecting José Antonio Meade, a blandly competent bureaucrat, the party chose a “citizen candidate” who would not bring further scandal in defeat. Meade has campaigned gamely, if not effectively, and his candidacy has served the purpose of channeling resources to local campaigns through rallies and handouts.

Such an approach suggests that the party, perhaps fairly, sees the current moment as a transient public relations problem. However, the Meade campaign’s struggles reveal a greater problem, and one that does not have an obvious remedy. As the party’s machinery has deteriorated, the foundations of PRI resilience after democratization have weakened substantially. The inability to control votes on the local level could be a terminal crisis for a party that no longer has mass appeal. Simply put, there may no longer be the base for a resurgence.

This second cause for the PRI’s collapse is more complicated, then. At its heart is the decline of the voto duro, the “hard vote” of PRI loyalists who, due to a combination of coercion, conviction, and cooptation, reliably supported the party. The classic PRI relied on leaders of unions, neighborhood organizations, and occupational syndicates who dangled a variety of incentives in exchange for the loyalty of their groups’ members. Functionaries who owed their job to the party were pushed to ensure that the government workers they supervised turned out in support of the PRI, often along with their families. Such practices have long ensured the PRI’s dominance in the Estado de México, for example, where it controls just under 70% of the municipalities. Nationwide, it still controls 57% of city halls.

There is ample evidence that the voto duro is faltering. While the Meade campaign has been disorganized and dysfunctional, the consistently poor turnout at rallies is less the result of an uninspiring candidate than it is the product of crumbling party machinery. An event in Cancún was attended by only 20 supporters, leading to viral drone images of the empty plaza. A reporter filming a half-filled tent in Puebla was reportedly threatened by members of the campaign. Neither are those who show up all that enthusiastic, and in some instances those who are obliged to be there are in open rebellion, marking hats and signs in support of López Obrador.

The party has also suffered an epidemic of defection over the past year as low-level operators bolted. In one case, Jesús Pastor Martín Medina, the leader of taxi drivers in Playa del Carmen, openly resigned the party in January and announced that his organization was willing to support other parties. In another, Nicolás Pérez, the leader of an association of lower-class neighborhoods in Mazatlán, jumped from the PRI to support the PAN-PRD coalition candidate, claiming that he took with him between 4,500 and 5,000 votes.

Why has the party’s local control collapsed? Transparency and anti-corruption efforts, if largely ineffective at reducing large-scale malfeasance, have weakened patronage structures that supported traditional PRI leaders. Similarly, changes to social policy have restricted local operators’ access to discretionary resources used for electoral ends. Voters have also become more willing to trust the integrity of the blind vote and break implicit party “commitments.” The rise of citizen journalism, too, has made outright attempts at vote buying more difficult.

The steady loss of state governorships has reinforced the trend by restricting the patronage resources that could retain the loyalty of local operators. The tarnishing of the party’s brand through gubernatorial corruption scandals has also led to defections and the loss of local control: witness the 2017 municipal elections in Veracruz when, after the disgraced PRI governor fled the state to avoid prosecution, the party’s coalition went from governing 93 municipalities to only 39.

The combined picture is stark, and similar trends elsewhere suggest the depth of the problem. In recent election cycles the PRI lost 38% of its municipalities in Chihuahua, 35% in Tlaxcala, 60% in Tamaulipas, and 33% since 2010 in Oaxaca. To the extent that the PRI’s survival turns on the question of local influence, the collapse of the regional machinery is a disaster.

2. Repercussions

Competition over the wreckage of the PRI is likely to be fierce. Over the past three decades, numerous clientelist networks migrated from the PRI to opposition parties as leaders jockeyed for advantage during the democratization process. The 2018 election is likely to spark another wave of desertion, and with gubernatorial elections in nine PRI controlled states upcoming in 2021 and 2022, a dramatic realignment of regional politics could be in the offing.

The prevailing wisdom is that many PRI defectors will align with López Obrador’s Morena party. This is, in several ways, a sensible conclusion: Morena is poised to win big this year, and should have significant power moving forward. Former PRI operators have also been welcomed into Morena, and some elements of the party’s ideology align with historic principles of the PRI. It has also emphasized grassroots organization, and its leaders understand the value of local operators.

Yet Morena is unlikely to succeed in anything more than a partial salvage. López Obrador’s party currently holds no governorships, and at best could win five this July with victories in Mexico City and Morelos the most probable. Even if Morena wins Chiapas, Veracruz and Puebla, where it is locked in tight races, it will control few of the country’s statehouses and and have only a tenuous grip on them. As a result, even in states where Morena is forecast to win, it is not capturing all PRI defectors. The lack of a strong national organization also inhibits the party’s ability to capture a wave of PRI deserters. Although this is López Obrador’s third run for the presidency, Morena is only four years old and its rivals have more experienced and effective national and regional operations.

All told, Morena will undoubtedly experience the same challenges in retaining cadres as have other parties. The result is likely to be increased regional variegation as governors build state-level organizations that may have fewer ties to national party structures. A victory for Enrique Alfaro, candidate of the small Movimiento Ciudadano party in Jalisco, might be a harbinger of that trend. Competition over these clientelistic groups between multiple parties, however, will also produce internal schisms within them, meaning it is probable that no party will inherit the PRI’s former powerhouse.

3. Resurrection

In the short term, Morena will harvest the windfall from the collapse, capturing the presidency and a legislative majority on the strength of the anti-PRI vote. Yet while much attention has been given to shape and style of a López Obrador-led government, less has been paid to the ways in which this new political reality might remake the rest of the system. From a policy perspective, Morena could—and likely will—pursue programs that put pressure on the retrograde rump of the PRI. These might range from federal social spending strategies that undercut state-level patronage networks to transparency efforts that threaten party elites.

From a political perspective, the abrupt implosion from governing party to toothless opposition will inevitably strain the PRI’s party discipline. If Morena remains popular, it could become a dominant force that seduces PRI politicians. On the other hand, if the Morena moment fizzles, the PRI might survive as a minor player in a country with increasingly fragmented politics and ferociously held local fiefdoms.

Much of the future, then, turns on Morena’s success or failure. Regardless of whether López Obrador’s government proves transformational, however, it is difficult to see a path for the PRI’s revival following this election. The question, therefore, is whether the dinosaur’s DNA might be extracted: some observers have suggested that Morena will attempt to rebuild the PRI’s patronage networks and backroom politics to create a new era of single-party dominance. But López Obrador’s throwback campaign style and “big tent” approach to coalition building hardly equate to a resurrection of the PRI.

The politicians involved in building the PRI were deeply invested in creating institutions to structure political participation—institutions that went beyond the personalist vehicles of the past. Morena, on the other hand, is perhaps best understood as a movement. It has not yet institutionalized a set of practices, and centers around the figure of López Obrador to a degree that the PRI and its predecessors never hinged on a single personality. Its broad incorporation of former rivals weakens, rather than reinforces, party cohesion. Most importantly, the PRI has enjoyed significantly more resources than rival parties—both government and illicit support. Morena would not have such an advantage, making the rebuilding the PRI’s clientelist network a nearly impossible task.

The 2018 election will therefore mark a moment of transition, not from one version of the PRI to another, but from a relatively stable party system to a fragmented and fluid one. It is not entirely clear whether this will prove salutary for Mexico’s democracy. Competition over clientelist networks could, in the short term, increase incentives for corruption on the local level. Additionally, party fractiousness resulting in legislative stagnation would increase dissatisfaction with the political system in a country where support for democracy is flagging. This is not to say that the end of the PRI should be mourned: it is a party that institutionalized vote buying and coercion and ensured that elected officials would largely be unaccountable to constituents. But the death of the PRI is a transformational moment, and one that ushers in a decidedly uncertain future.


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