Mexico’s next presidential election in 1976 will have something in common with the first one in 1519: the outcome will be a foregone conclusion. The tradition of anticlimactic elections has been firmly established in Mexico since a band of adventurers led by Hernán Cortés vowed to add Montezuma’s Aztec kingdom to the personal possessions of King Charles V of Spain. Cortés promptly arranged for himself to be elected Chief Justice and Captain General, setting a precedent which has been followed ever since—at least when Mexicans were permitted to vote. (For the next three centuries, until the independence of Mexico in 1821, the colony was ruled by viceroys appointed by the Spanish crown and elections were virtually unknown.) The next election may not be as rigged as the first one, but the fact remains that selection of a candidate for public office—from president of the nation to mayor of a remote village—by the dominant Partido Revolucionario Institucional ( PRI) is a near-certain guarantee of election.
The PRI, or Party of Institutionalized Revolution, was organized under a slightly different name by strong man Plutarco Elías Calles (president, 1924-1928), one of the military leaders of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Like his predecessor Alvaro Obregón (1920-1924), Calles exercised power ruthlessly, not hesitating to use the army or imprison, exile, or execute potential opponents. The political party Calles created after his formal retirement was designed to prolong his hold on the country, but it outlived him to become the basis for Mexican democracy—not democracy as the term is used by the English-speaking peoples, perhaps, but nevertheless, a significant step forward for a country then only a decade removed from a bloody revolution.
The present Mexican political system is a blend of party democracy and one-man rule which is uniquely Mexican. The chief executive has autocratic powers, yet he is constitutionally barred from seeking reelection, and the immense power and prestige of PRI insure an orderly turnover of government. A Mexican president tells the Congress what laws to pass and expects the courts to support him; in effect he can do anything he wants—except succeed himself. The president is, for all practical purposes, a dictator with a six-year term, and it is PRI, rather than the legislative or judicial branch, which provides the checks and balances so essential to political stability.
There are other parties besides PRI—the conservative National Action Party, the Popular Socialist Party, and a group called the Authentic Party of the Mexican Revolution—but PRI is the only one with real significance. Occasionally one of the minor parties can elect a mayor or even a member of Congress, but effective opposition is nonexistent. (It is inconceivable, for example, that PRI could lose a presidential election or a congressional majority.) PRI allows another party to win only to preserve the appearance of a multiparty democracy, but in fact the real political dynamics of Mexico take place between and within the three functional sectors of PRI: the rural peasantry ( campesinos), laborers ( trabajadores), and the middle class ( populares). The party’s organizational scheme was the brainchild of popular president Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940) and has continued virtually unchanged for four decades.
Of the three sectors, the middle class is the most significant and the peasantry the least. Mexico is becoming more and more an urban nation, and the government focuses most of its attention on the cities. In many ways the campesinos are no better off today than they were at the time of the Revolution, and they have less political clout to force changes. They don’t even speak for themselves within PRI; traditionally the leaders of the peasantry wing of the party have been intellectuals rather than peasants. The middle-class sector is by far the most powerful, and the real struggle for leadership in Mexico occurs between the left, center, and right factions of the populares. The result has been something of a pendulum effect: one president leans to the left, the next to the right, then the left, and so on. Incumbent President Luis Echeverría was supposed to break the pattern by being even more right-leaning than his predecessor, presumably because as interior minister he made the decision to send the army to control unruly students prior to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Scores were killed (the exact number has never been determined) and several hundreds injured in the ensuing riots. But once he became president in 1970, Echeverría swung sharply to the left, proving himself to be a social and economic activist.
Sometime later this year PRI’s selection for Echeverría’s successor will be revealed. The selection of the official party candidate, although later ratified in a national caucus of the PRI, is determined by the outgoing president. He usually consults with important members of his party and administration, including living ex-presidents (there are three), but in the final analysis the choice is his. Not surprisingly, each newly chosen president has been a close associate of the outgoing chief executive, and Echeverría’s successor will be no exception. Of the seven candidates the president has named as potential successors, six are members of his cabinet and the seventh is the head of a major autonomous agency. One will soon become El Tapado, the hooded one, the person who is in fact chosen but whose name will be kept under wraps for a time to protect the incumbent’s lame duck status.