FOR MORE THAN THREE GENERATIONS, Mexicans have attributed the origins of their political system to the Revolution of 1910-20. They cite the constitution of 1917, a sweeping document that capped nearly a decade of civil war among rival regional militias, as the foundation of their modern political institutions and practices. Mexico's governing institutions and political culture also bear the imprint of three centuries of Spanish colonial rule. Mexicans' adherence to a highly codified civil law tradition, their acceptance of heavy state involvement in business and civic affairs, and the deference accorded the executive over other branches of government can be traced to the administrative and legal practices of the colonial period. Finally, the traumatic experiences of the nineteenth century, including foreign military occupations and the loss of half of the national territory to the United States, as well as the disillusion sown by a series of unconstitutional regimes, continue to have a profound impact on contemporary political culture.
During the 1920s, President Plutarco Elías Calles (1924-28) reorganized Mexican politics along corporatist (see Glossary) lines as a way to contain latent social conflicts. Calles expanded the government bureaucracy to enable it to mediate among rival constituencies and to dispense state funds to organizations supportive of the "official" party. Calles also created new umbrella organizations that lumped together disparate groups according to broad functional categories. The newly created interest groups depended heavily on the state for their financing and were required to maintain strong ties to the ruling party. By grafting corporatist institutions onto Mexico's historically fractious political system at a time when ideologies of the extreme left and right were gaining support throughout the world, Mexico's leaders avoided a return to the widespread violence that had engulfed their country during the 1910s and early 1920s. Subsequently, the relatively inclusive nature of Mexican corporatism and the firm foundations of civilian supremacy over the military prevented Mexico from following the pattern of alternating civilian and military regimes that characterized most other Latin American countries in the twentieth century.
One of Calles's successors, Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40), revived populism as a force in national politics by redistributing land to landless peasants under a state-sponsored reincarnation of communal farming known as the ejido (see Glossary) system. Cárdenas also emphasized nationalism as a force in Mexican politics by expropriating the holdings of foreign oil corporations and creating a new national oil company. Cardenas's reforms of the late 1930s bolstered the legitimacy of the government while further concentrating power in the president and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional--PRI), the "official" party of the Revolution. By the early 1940s, the political processes and institutions that would broadly define Mexican politics for the next forty years were well established: a strong federal government dominated by a civilian president and his loyalists within the ruling party, a symbiotic relationship between the state and the official party, a regular and orderly rotation of power among rival factions within a de facto single-party system, and a highly structured corporatist relationship between the state and government-sponsored constituent groups.
During the financial crisis of the 1980s, the stable, ritualistic pattern of Mexican politics instituted by Calles and Cárdenas began to break down. As public funding for a variety of programs dried up, the state's role in the economy was scaled back, and the clientelist relationships developed over four decades between government agencies and legally recognized constituent groups were weakened. Seeking to establish a basis for future economic growth, the governments of Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado (1982-88) and Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-94) carried out a structural adjustment program that systematically rolled back state ownership and regulation of key industries. They also eliminated long-standing protectionist legislation that had made Mexico one of the most closed economies in the world and lifted the constitutional prohibition on the sale of ejido land to allow it to be converted to larger, more efficient farms. In the mid-1980s, an internal rift emerged between the populist and the more technocratic wings of the ruling party over the market reforms and the authoritarian nature of the PRI-dominated political system. The economic reforms initiated by President de la Madrid had been opposed by many members of the PRI's core agrarian and labor constituencies. These groups rejected privatization and the elimination of economic subsidies for consumer goods and services. The naming of Salinas, a United States-educated technocrat, as de la Madrid's successor was also repudiated by the leftist faction of the PRI leadership. This internal rift developed into the first major mass defection from the PRI ranks when Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano, son of the former president, left the party to contest the 1988 presidential election as head of a coalition of leftist parties.
Since the late 1980s, the PRI has defeated serious electoral challenges to its central role in Mexican politics from parties of the left and right. During his presidency, Salinas liberalized the electoral system but further concentrated power in the executive. The main objectives of the Salinas administration were to restructure the Mexican economy and to integrate Mexico into the global market, rather than to democratize the political system. Nevertheless, the electoral reforms enacted by Salinas under domestic and international pressure for democratization set the stage for competitive, internationally monitored presidential and congressional elections in 1994.
After a strongly contested presidential campaign marred by the assassination of its original candidate, the PRI maintained its hold on the presidency with the election of yet another United States-educated technocrat, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, in August 1994. Zedillo's victory preserved the PRI's dubious distinction as the world's longest-ruling political party. The PRI victory also presented Zedillo and his party with the unenviable challenge of guiding Mexico through a difficult and uncertain period of economic dislocation and broad political realignments. By the mid-1990s, most observers believed that the PRI-dominated political system begun in the 1920s was in an advanced state of decay and that a transitional period marked by a greater pluralism of organized political activity was at hand. How this transition would unfold, and whether it would ultimately lead to a more participatory and competitive political process across the spectrum of Mexican society, was yet to be determined.
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