Democracy, Mexican Style

September 1975By Comments

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.

In the past, one of the three sectors of PRI was allowed to reveal the name of the chosen one at the appropriate time; there is growing speculation, however, that Echeverría may name his own successor publicly. Once the official candidate is destapado, or uncovered, he will receive an overwhelming wave of endorsements from the other elements of PRI as they scramble to get on the bandwagon. If he follows custom, the candidate will carry on an arduous campaign—Echeverria logged more than 35,000 miles—before the nominal elec­tion on July 4, 1976.

Other than naming the seven candi­dates, Echeverria has given no hint who his successor will be, except to say that the next government should be even more radical than his own. But the two leading contenders are generally ac­knowledged to be Secretary of Interior Mario Moya Palencia and Secretary of Labor Porfirio Muñoz Ledo. Moya Pa­lencia is probably the favorite—most of Mexico’s recent presidents have stepped up from the important interior ministry, including Echeverría himself—but Mu­ñoz Ledo is a young, dynamic figure, the type of personality Echeverría likes, with an impressive record in his present position. He is also regarded as being well to the left of Moya Palencia, who is considered the most conservative of the seven tapados. No matter who Echeverría chooses, history has proved that past performance and ideology mean little once a man has become pres­ident. Calles learned that to his sorrow when he attempted to control his succes­sors from behind the scenes. He suc­ceeded for a while, but Cardenas proved more than he could handle: Calles soon found himself on an airplane headed for exile across the border into the U.S.

Little happens by chance in Mexican politics. Just as the next president is chosen by the current one, so are all politicians of the future picked by those of today. No one decides to enter poli­tics on his own in Mexico; one can only hope to be recruited. The usual route is to achieve political prominence in one of Mexico’s highly politicized univer­sities. Before long a PRI organizer will come around with a tempting offer of choice administrative position. Later, perhaps, the recruit will be named to run for the state or national legislature. The PRI organization envelops the entire government, and promising talents are shuffled back and forth. The princi­ple of no reelection applies to Congress too, preventing anyone from getting too entrenched and building up an indepen­dent power base like Southern Demo­cratic senators in the United States. To the Anglo-American mind, it may seem like a curious way to run a country, but the fact remains that Mexico has en­joyed more than 40 years of uninter­rupted stability—not a bad record for a country that had two emperors, several dozen presidents, and a number of pro­visional governments during the first half-century of its independence from Spain.

Still, Mexico is not without its share of problems. Despite the existence of a stable and growing middle class, well over half of the country is desperately poor. Conditions are especially grim in the rural areas, where health care is abysmal. Land reform, first carried out under Cardenas in 1938, succeeded in breaking up the huge haciendas, but banks and the more successful farmers and ranchers continue to amass large holdings. Last year Mexico suffered from a food shortage and had to buy corn from the United States. Shortages can only grow worse unless agricultural production increases, and here Mexico confronts an overwhelming obstacle: the country has virtually run out of produc­tive land for cultivation.

The cities are rapidly becoming over­crowded as campesinos migrate into the large urban areas. Mexico City is burst­ing at the seams, and the national birth­rate of 43.8 per thousand (U.S. rate: 14.3) is only making matters worse. De­spite severe constitutional restrictions on its political activities, the Catholic church still wields considerable influence in Mexico, and nowhere is that influence felt more than in the area of birth control. As recently as 1970, Echeverría in his inaugural speech promised that there would never be any official government program of birth control; within three years he had to reverse his position. The government has now started a low-key attempt at convincing families to prac­tice birth control, but so far it has had little impact. Latest figures show that 192,000 Mexican women used some form of birth control in 1973, or .019 per cent of the females with child-bear­ing potential. Current estimates put the figure closer to one million but even that optimistic guess accounts for only 10 per cent of Mexican women between the ages of 15 and 44. The birthrate is one reason that the government, despite intense commitments in areas like edu­cation and health care, is making only slow progress.

If the birthrate is the major problem among the lower classes, inflation is the issue that most concerns the middle class. Mexico’s rate of inflation has been about 20 per cent for the last two years—as bad as Great Britain’s and far worse than the United States’. Like other western nations, Mexico has been hit hard by the energy crisis; electric rates recently jumped 300 per cent in Baja California, for example. The middle class can’t stand too many more shocks like these.

Inflation is only one aspect of the Mexican middle-class dilemma. A more fundamental question is what role the middle class should have in a political system which professes to be based upon a continuing Revolution. There are many in Mexico who believe that the Revolution has failed, that it has bene­fited the middle class while neglecting the poverty-stricken masses. Indeed, there are statistics to support this posi­tion: the income gap between middle class and poor is widening rather than narrowing. That is hardly revolutionary, and yet there is ample evidence in the history of Latin America that the devel­opment of a large middle class is a nec­essary condition for political stability.

In theory the middle class participates in politics only through the populares sector of the PRI; the private sector has no formal role in the political process. The government itself is not dependent upon private enterprise, for the state operates more than 500 firms and indus­tries ranging from oil and steel to home building and transportation. Some in­dustries like oil are totally nationalized; in others the government competes with the private sector. Mexican businessmen have traditionally maintained an ap­pearance of remaining aloof from poli­tics, although some occasionally express open hostility toward policies like redis­tribution of wealth, increased social serv­ices, higher salaries for workers, increased supports for farm prices, and government ownership or control of the means of production. Yet administrative decisions are often favorable to busi­ness, and high-ranking Mexican poli­ticians often retire from public life as rich men—two facts which have led cynics to suggest that the quickest route to becoming one of the world’s richest men is to be elected president of Mex­ico. One former president (1946-1952), Acapulco landowner Miguel Alemán, appears well on his way. If so, it is just another tradition of the Mexican presi­dency which can be traced back to Cor­tés. The first thing the new Captain General and Chief Justice demanded after his election was one-fifth of all the gold.

Related Content