Partido Revolucionario Institucional

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Partido Revolucionario Institucional





The Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI; Institutional Revolutionary Party) had been an imprint in Mexican political life for more than seven decades when the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN; National Action Party) swept into power in 2000 and again in 2006. During its seventy-one years in political power, the PRIs ideology rested with revolutionary nationalism and stateled economic development. The party also encouraged a welfare state, anticlericalism, land reform, and autonomy from the foreign-policy influences of the United States (Russell 1994, pp. 7778). The divergence of the PRIs undemocratic practices from the partys democratically ideological platform became the tool that ripped through its veil of political domination. Consequently the PAN victory in 2000 represented a historically significant moment for Mexico in which the true nature of democracy in terms of fair elections, candidates winning based upon popular vote, and a government led by other political parties besides the PRI had finally been realized. This illustration of democracy continued with the PANs slight victory over the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD; Democratic Revolutionary Party) in 2006. So the question remains as to what future role the PRI will play in Mexican politics.


The PRI began in 1929 under Mexican president Plutarco Elías Calles, who served from 1924 to 1928. Calles founded what was known as the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (PNR; National Revolutionary Party) in an effort to organize the political elite and establish an institutional mechanism ensuring the smooth transition of authority from one president to another. Prior to the PNR, a number of presidents who were also leaders of the Mexican Revolution, such as Francisco Madero, Venustiano Carranza, and Álvaro Obregón, were murdered by opponents. Thus Calles, who also actively participated in the Mexican Revolution, found it necessary to replace individuals with institutions (Fuentes 1996, p. 70). That institution would exist in the form of one leading political party. Calles also pushed for a constitutional amendment that eliminated presidential reelections. It was the long-running abuse of power by one president Porfirio Díazfor over three decades that ignited the Mexican Revolution, which left Mexico in political and economic chaos and instability. The ultimate goal was to end the violent struggle for power between individuals of the Mexican Revolution.

The new system succeeded in shifting the struggle for power away from the use of bullets toward the use of the newly devised electoral system. However, the system also produced a more authoritarian regime. Electoral fraud became characteristic of the one-party system from the beginning. For example, the 1929 election between PNR candidate Pascual Ortiz Rubio and opposition candidate and Mexican educator Jose Vasconcelos, who received support from the Christeros, or followers of Christ, was plagued with blatant acts of ballot-box stuffing and intimidation among other fraudulent activities that led to Ortizs victory (Castañeda 2000, p. xii). The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes described the stolen presidency as the result of the first superfraud of the government party (Fuentes 1996, p. 70).

By 1938 the PNR became known as the Partido de la Revolución Mexicana (PRM; Party of the Mexican Revolution) under President Lázaro Cárdenas, who ruled from 1934 to 1940. Cárdenas advanced upon Calless efforts to create a more peaceful transfer-of-power process by establishing the mechanism that allows Mexican presidents to choose their successors while also discouraging them from staying in power for longer than one six-year term. Naturally the party leader would choose a successor from within the party, which perpetuated the long cycle of one-party rule in Mexicos political history.

This form of presidential succession became a point of controversy for the party. Although presidential elections took place in Mexico every six years, the process failed to fit the mold of a democratic political system. The journalist Philip Russell wrote, The PRI maintains the fiction of democratic candidate selection (Russell 1994, p. 76). Unlike the democratic system in the United States, for example, Mexico did not include primaries in which the public selected presidential candidates for each party prior to the national elections. Therefore the presidential succession mechanism allowed the incumbent president from the dominant party to wield more influence than the populace on the outcome of presidential elections.

Moreover the PRM underwent a structural transformation under Cárdenas known as corporatism. The new structural system was an alliance between the party and three other sectorspeasant, labor, and popular. Scholars have argued that this system of state-structured interest groups played a key role in determining political and economic results (Collier and Collier 1979). The three sectors functioned to keep the party in power by advancing the objectives of and voting for the party in return for special benefits for its members.

The influence of each corporatist branch under the leftist populist regime evolved over time. The peasant sector carried the most weight because of its large numbers. However, the sectors clout declined as Mexicos urban population surpassed that of the rural poor. The demographic shift enhanced the role of labor unions. As a result the party later relied upon the Mexican Federation of Workers to carry out its labor policies. Finally, the popular sector has been viewed as the most influential of the groups (Russell 1994, p. 79). The popular sector, which consisted of a broad range of groups from trade unions to slum organizations to professional organizations, had a large population and was organized under the National Confederation of Popular Organizations in 1943. Cárdenas envisioned that the three sectors would continue to carry out the revolutionary policies of the party and strengthen the alliance between them and the state. As a result the separation of powers in Mexico was more symbolic than actual.

State influence under the corporatist structure also spilled over into other areas of Mexican political life, thus threatening the democratic principles of checks and balances. The legislative and judicial branches as well as the media all followed the president rather than the rule of law and ethics most of the time (Castaneda 2000, pp. xii-xiii). The PRM dominated both the house and the senate because the president chose for congress PRM candidates who remained loyal to the party. The president along with the attorney general also selected judges who pledged allegiance to the presidential head of the party. The media outlets remained controlled and limited by the state until the late 1990s, even though newspapers and radio and television stations were mostly independently owned. The corporatist system became less effective as the country later moved away from a state-led government and economy toward a more liberal political and economic ideology.

Although the democratic nature of the Mexican political structure under Cárdenas remained questionable, Cárdenas also implemented successful social reform programs to ensure the equal treatment of all Mexican citizens. Fuentes described this period, stating, And even if the upper and middle classes were favored, the working and peasant classes also received larger slices of the national pie than they ever had before or ever have had since (Fuentes 1996, p. 71). Cárdenas carried out agrarian reform by returning to the Indian and peasant communities land that they had lost prior to the Mexican Revolution under the Spanish-controlled hacienda system. (Haciendas had been part of Mexicos colonial economy since the sixteenth century. They were large pieces of land upon which the Spanish employed workers, predominantly of Indian origin. The Indian workers depended on the land for their survival. They lived and worked on the haciendas and were usually paid low wages.)

Cárdenas also promoted health, education, and other reform programs with the objective of alleviating poverty among Mexican citizens, including the Indian population, which often faced discrimination and suffered from inequality. The history of the PRI is not completely mired in corruption and failure.

Moreover in 1938 Cárdenas nationalized Mexicos strongest export sectoroilwhich contributed to the countrys economic success for a substantial period. The state control over Mexicos petroleum protected the economy from the competitive forces of the global market for another four decades. Cárdenass approach contributed to 6 percent annual growth for the next forty years and increased salaries and purchasing power (Fuentes 1996, p. 71; Castaneda 2000, p. xv). Mexico was successful, relative to the rest of Latin America, at maintaining social peace and political stability. As a result the party under Cárdenas was characterized as promoting both social justice and economic growth while lacking in political democracy.

The party name changed to PRI and underwent another structural change under President Miguel Alemán Valdés in 1946. Alemán served as president from 1946 to 1952. Whereas the party under Cárdenas mostly emphasized social change, the new PRIs dominant focus shifted toward economic development. By the mid-1950s until the late 1970s the Mexican state controlled the economy and instituted mechanisms to protect domestic producers from foreign competition. The goal of aligning social justice with economic development began to fade, and the gap between the wealthy and the poor continued to widen thereafter. The populist aspect of industrial development disappeared while the role of the state in the economy grew even more. The states alternative development goal included advancing the interests of private investors, both domestic and foreign (Walker 1995).

The departure from the measures put in place during the 1940s showed an even uglier side of the Mexican political system under the PRI. Social injustice and human rights abuses became even more overt by the late 1950s and continued well into the 1960s and 1970s. The alliance that civil society groups enjoyed with the state disintegrated. For example, workers movements were confronted, strikes were broken, labor leaders were incarcerated, civil society leaders were murdered, and student groups were attacked. Some cases include the murder of agrarian leader Rubén Jaramillo and the killing of students in the Tlatelolco Square massacre in 1968 right before the Mexico City Olympics.

Electoral fraud by the PRI did not continue only at the executive level. Rather, corruption plagued legislative elections as well. For instance, Félix Salgado Macedonio, opposition candidate for deputy in the second electoral district of the state of Guerrero and representative of the Frente Democrático Nacional (FDN; National Democratic Front), the antecedent of the PRD, exposed the fraud associated with the 1988 national elections before the congress. Macedonio presented the congress with a large number of ballots marked in his favor that authorities had partially or wholly burned, costing him an electoral victory over PRI candidate Filiberto Vigueras (Fuentes 1996, p. 60). The congress eventually allowed Salgado to take his well-deserved seat while offering Vigueras another congressional position.


By the end of the twentieth century Mexico had experienced a profound change in its political system that demonstrated a move toward a more representative democracy. President Ernesto Zedillo of the PRI pushed for the first primary in Mexico starting with the 1999 elections. Zedillos break from political tradition, which kept the PRI in power at all levels of government, set the stage for other parties to have a fair opportunity and the people to have a real voice during national elections. As a result of these changes, a candidate from PAN was voted into the presidential office in fair, democratic elections. Many Mexicans compared the election to the fall of the Berlin Wall (Kaye 2000).

Vicente Fox Quesada, a former Coca-Cola business executive and former governor of the Mexican state of Guanajuato, won the Mexican presidency in 1999. He surpassed Francisco Labastida Ochoa, who was chosen to represent the PRI during the primary, with 43 percent of the vote to 37 percent. Cuahtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano, the candidate for the PRD and son of former Mexican president Cárdenas, followed with only 17 percent of the popular vote. Foxs message of addressing the failures of the previous administration under Zedillo, such as resolving the conflict in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas and cracking down on drugs, resonated well with voters who had vivid memories of the problems under the PRI. For example, the 1990s were plagued with charges of corruption, political ties with powerful drug lords, the collapse of the Mexican peso, and an economic recession. PAN, in the words of the Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda during an interview, served as the party of prosperity, of modernization, of democracy, of respect for human rights (Kaye 2000). The ideas of modernization and prosperity did not stray too far from the efforts of Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari of the PRI during the early 1990s. Salinas pushed Mexico into a different direction economically by opening the countrys market and substantially reducing state involvement in the Mexican economy through the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States and Canada in 1994.

The PRI suffered an even more embarrassing defeat in the 2006 national elections. The PRI candidate Roberto Madrazo Pintado garnered only a little over 20 percent of the vote. However, the majority of the popular vote was split between two other opposing parties. The PAN candidate Felipe Calderón won the election by an extremely small margin relative to the PRD candidate Andres Manuel Luis Obrador, with 36 percent and 35 percent respectively. Most analysts anticipated that Manuel Luis Obrador would win the election with his left-wing populist ideology, which emphasized social improvement, since early poll numbers showed him leading the national election. His campaign did not sound very different from the policies of Cárdenas fifty years before. It must be noted that Manuel Luis Obrador was a member of the PRI under the Mexican president Luis Echeverrías administration from 1970 to 1976, but he left after being frustrated with the partys inability to produce change (Castañeda 2006).


Although the PRI lost the presidential elections in 1999, it continued to govern seventeen out of Mexicos thirty-one states and dominated the congress. Under President Fox, the PRI still maintained a significant amount of authority in both houses of congress. The PRI was able to stall a number of Foxs reform initiatives and even blocked one of Foxs trips to the United States in 2002 (Peters 2002).

The PRI merely tried to remain afloat in Mexicos political waters after badly losing its grip in both houses of congress in 2006. The party lost the majority of its seats in congress for the first time since its founding. PAN dominated both the executive and legislative branches of Mexican government as of 2007.

The future of the PRI remained bleak as the party suffered from internal turmoil. For the party to remain important in Mexican political life, it would have to redefine itself, emphasize coalition building, and establish a clear ideology and focus. In that the Mexican populace has become divided along the lines of left and right ideology, some analysts have even presented the possibility that the PRI, which is also divided along left and right ideological lines, may split into two separate political parties (Grillo 2006).

SEE ALSO Corporatism; Mexican Revolution (19101920)


Castañeda, Jorge G. 2000. Perpetuating Power: How Mexican Presidents Were Chosen. New York: New Press.

Castañeda, Jorge G. 2006. Latin Americas Left Turn. Foreign Affairs, MayJune.

Collier, Ruth Berins, and David Collier. 1979. Inducements versus Constraints: Disaggregating Corporatism. American Political Science Review 73 (4): 967986.

Fuentes, Carlos. 1996. A New Time for Mexico. Trans. Marina Gutman Castaneda and Carlos Fuentes. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Grillo, Ioan. 2006. Once Powerful PRI Now Trying to Survive. Associated Press.

Kaye, Jeffrey. 2000. A Mandate for Change. PBS Online Newshour, November 29.

Peters, Gretchen. 2002. In Mexico, War between Fox and Congress Escalates. Christian Science Monitor, April 16.

Primer: Mexican Elections. 2006. Washington Post.

Russell, Philip. 1994. Mexico under Salinas. Austin, TX: Mexico Resource Center.

Vigueras, Armando Reyes. 2006. La Noche en que Ganó Fox. La Nación.

Walker, David. 1995. Review of War, Diplomacy, and Development: The United States and Mexico, 19381954, by Stephen R. Niblo. East Lansing, MI: H-LatAm.

Sarita D. Jackson