The Death of an Entire System of Political Rule

It became increasingly clear, in fact, that PRI rule was little more than a PR façade, behind which the orgy of elite self-enrichment went on as usual. Whatever legitimacy the party had possessed had quickly eroded. But still more crucially, the mechanisms through which the party secured and wielded power had also been hollowed out over time. Clientelism no longer worked in the old ways. An early warning came in the gubernatorial elections in Mexico state in 2017, where the PRI nominee—tightly connected to Peña Nieto’s political clan, and therefore able to use its considerable resources—only just managed to defeat MORENA’s candidate, despite extensive fraud and widespread violence and intimidation. At the time, this was seen as a major political shock; but if anything, it understated the reversal that lay in wait for the PRI.

On the elections in Mexico

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, 2008.

Perhaps the clearest measure of the scale of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s victory in the Mexican presidential election of July 1, 2018 was the speed with which his opponents conceded defeat. Within hours of the polls closing, both José Antonio Meade of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and Ricardo Anaya, candidate of a coalition between the Catholic center-right Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN) and the center-left Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), had phoned to offer him their congratulations. Graciousness and humility are not the Mexican political establishment’s strong suits; nor had the country’s recent history done much to encourage faith in the integrity of the electoral process. In 2006, López Obrador—then governor of Mexico City, and universally known by his initials, AMLO—had run for president as the PRD’s candidate. After a campaign in which the country’s entire political establishment, its main TV stations, and major press outlets had come out solidly against López Obrador, denouncing him as a “populist,” a demagogue in the mold of Hugo Chávez, he was edged out at the last by the PAN’s Felipe Calderón, amid widespread reports of vote-tampering and fraud. Thousands of his supporters took to the streets in protest, even occupying a stretch of Mexico City’s Reforma, a tree-lined avenue flanked by corporate headquarters and upscale hotels. After several weeks, the country’s electoral authorities conceded a recount in only a handful of districts—and then confirmed Calderón as president anyway, by a margin of 0.56 percent.

That was a subtle theft, though, compared to 1988, when Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the candidate of a progressive alliance, had established a clear lead on polling day over the PRI’s Carlos Salinas, only for the computers tallying the votes to crash mysteriously. Once they had rebooted, Salinas turned out to be the winner. In the buildup to 2018’s vote, the question inevitably lurking in many people’s minds was whether this election, too, would be stolen. AMLO had consistently been the front runner in every available poll for a year or more, and by margins that could only have been overturned by electoral larceny on the grandest of scales. Would Mexico’s power elite dare? Was the fraud required even logistically possible? There was certainly vote-buying, predominantly by the PRI- and PAN-led coalitions—according to one report, as many as thirty million Mexicans were offered bribes, and nine million admitted accepting them—as well as levels of violence that would have been shocking in any other place, and in Mexico at any other time: 136 candidates from all parties were killed in the months preceding the vote. But in the end, there was no fraud and—at the third attempt, after another unsuccessful run in 2012—AMLO cruised to a widely predicted victory.

Yet few would have expected it to be so resounding. With 53 percent of the vote to Anaya’s 22 and Meade’s 16, AMLO defeated his rivals by the widest margin since Mexico started holding competitive elections in the 1990s. Arrasó, read the front page of Excelsior the day after the vote: He Swept the Board. This was not just true of the overall result: AMLO had come out on top in all but one of Mexico’s thirty-two states. Normally you would expect some unevenness in electoral outcomes, reflecting the country’s socio-economic, geographical, and demographic diversity—from the poorer, more indigenous and agrarian south to the industrial wealth of Monterrey in the north, from the oilfields of the Gulf of Mexico to the tourist havens of the Pacific coast, and from the deserts of Sonora to the sprawling, twenty-million-strong megacity at the country’s heart. In 2006, for example, the electoral map had been split roughly fifty-fifty between the north, which went for Calderón, and the south, which AMLO took; 2012 produced more of a patchwork, with López Obrador winning a few of the poorer southern states, the PAN’s candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota winning mainly in the northeast and along the Gulf Coast, and the PRI filling in the rest of the map.

Not this time. The only state López Obrador didn’t win, Guanajuato, is the historical heartland of conservatism in Mexico, cradle of a Catholic insurgency in the 1920s and long a power base for the PAN; Anaya won it with 40 percent of the vote to AMLO’s 30. But everywhere else, López Obrador won by clear, often crushing margins. In ten states, including four of the five most populous, he scored between 20 and 40 percent more than his nearest rival. In another twelve states, containing almost a quarter of the population, his winning margin was in excess of 40 percent—including, for example, his home state of Tabasco, where he pulled in a remarkable 81 percent of the vote to Meade’s second-place 9 percent. In seventeen states, he was 20 percentage points or more ahead of the total for his two main opponents combined. The thirty million votes AMLO won are twice Calderón’s winning total in 2006, and almost twice the number the PAN’s Vicente Fox got in 2000. Whichever way you slice it, this was an avalanche.

Of course, the presidency was not the only post in contention on July 1: both houses of the Mexican congress, the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, were up for reelection, as well as nine governorships and a swathe of seats for state-level representatives and mayors, making for a nationwide total of more than 3,400 contests. Here, too, López Obrador’s party MORENA—an acronym for Movement for National Regeneration—and its coalition partners cleaned up. Between them, MORENA and its allies garnered 310 seats in the 500-member Chamber, and 68 seats in the 128-person Senate, as well as picking up five of the nine governorships—including the greatest prize, Mexico City, which will be run for the next six years by scientist Claudia Sheinbaum, a specialist on sustainable development who served under AMLO as the capital’s Secretary of the Environment between 2000 and 2006. The state of Morelos—homeland of Emiliano Zapata—will now be governed by ex-footballer Cuauhtémoc Blanco (famed for “bunny-hopping” with the ball between two South Korean defenders at the 1998 World Cup). MORENA is also set to dominate at the local level, winning several mayoralties and state assemblies, and more than 250 municipalities across the country.

MORENA’s electoral success is all the more remarkable because the party has only existed for a few years. Originally set up as a vehicle to support AMLO’s 2012 presidential campaign, when he came second to the present PRI incumbent Enrique Peña Nieto, it was formally registered as a party in 2014. Since then, it has rapidly consolidated itself as the main electoral force on the center-left in Mexico, in some areas overtaking and displacing the PRD—notably in Mexico City’s legislature. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that a generational cycle has closed: the PRD itself had been founded in the late 1980s, gathering together a coalition of progressives, leftists, and dissidents from the PRI in the wake of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas’s foiled 1988 bid—in other words, circumstances similar to the birth of MORENA. Over the past decade, the PRD has moved relentlessly away from its center-left roots, forging electoral alliances with the center-right PAN and generally indulging in the kind of opportunism and cronyism it was originally set up to dismantle. A decade ago, it was potentially a challenger for national power: it narrowly missed out on the presidency, held half a dozen state governorships, including the capital, and boasted 127 deputies and 26 senators. Now it is almost an irrelevance: in the 2018 elections, it barely scraped 5 percent of the vote nationally and lost its registration in ten states; its congressional representation has been reduced to twenty deputies and eight senators.

But the major precondition for AMLO’s and MORENA’s victories was the total collapse of the once-dominant PRI. Its presidential candidate, José Antonio Meade, had filled different ministerial posts under Peña Nieto, including a stint as Finance Secretary from 2016 to 2017, during which he introduced sharp austerity measures—which the PRD and PAN also voted for—and oversaw a steep and hugely unpopular rise in gasoline prices. He came a poor third on July 1, his score barely reaching double digits in much of the country. Not only did he not win a single state; he seems, judging by the preliminary returns provided by the Instituto Nacional Electoral, to have come first in only a handful of electoral districts. He came an astonishing third in Mexico state, immediately adjacent to the capital, which has long been a massive vote bank for the PRI. Even in the dozen or so states where he finished second, he was often thirty or forty points behind AMLO.

But though Meade had certainly run a lackluster campaign, the failure was not just his. If anything, his miserable showing was in some cases better than that of his party as a whole, which pulled in only 17 percent in the congressional vote. The PRI’s representation in the Congreso de la Unión has, as a result, now shrunk dramatically, from 205 deputies in the last parliament to a mere 45 in the one just elected, and from 55 senators to 13. It has also been ejected from power in a string of state assemblies and municipalities. This includes several of its former bastions in the state of Mexico, such as Ecatepec, Naucalpan, Toluca, and, most humiliatingly, Atlacomulco, which had been the launchpad for Peña Nieto’s political career. If elections are inevitably referendums on the ruling government, then 2018’s vote has to go down as a momentous rejection of the PRI. This verdict has been long in the making. More than a sweeping victory for López Obrador, the 2018 Mexican elections signal the death—long foretold, but repeatedly forestalled—of an entire system of political rule.

It is hard to convey fully the magnitude of the disaster that 2018 represents for the PRI, which has governed Mexico for most of the century that has elapsed since the Revolution of 1910–20. In recent years, establishment parties have run into trouble in many parts of the world, especially in Europe, where the vote shares of the French Parti Socialiste and the Italian Partito Democratico have crumbled while the Greek PASOK has completely imploded. In Latin America, the Pink Tide of the 2000s broke the hold of longstanding elite formations, forcing them onto the defensive in much of the region. But the Mexican case is sui generis in several respects—mainly because of the character of the PRI itself. Its oxymoronic name—the Institutional Revolutionary Party—bespeaks its origins as a means of consolidating the new governing elite that emerged from the turmoil of the 1910s and 1920s. (At its founding it 1929 it was called the Partido Nacional Revolucionario, and then renamed the Partido de la Revolución Mexicana in 1938, before settling on its current name in 1946.) More than a ruling party, it supplied the personnel for the entire political class. Though there were officially licensed opposition parties—including, from the mid-1940s onwards, the PAN—the PRI was more or less co-extensive with the Mexican political system as a whole. Its web of alliances and clientelist networks stretched from the presidential palace of Los Pinos down to the smallest villages, and its corporatist structures helped the party hold sway over organized labor, peasants, and professional classes alike. Ideologically, the PRI was always a chameleon, tilting to the left in the 1930s under Lázaro Cárdenas, before veering rightwards in the 1940s to embrace a conservative modernizing agenda, only to flirt with a progressive Third Worldism in the 1970s. But for much of the 20th century, it was wedded to the project of national development, which among other things involved industrialization, expansion of infrastructure, and a nominal commitment to agrarian reform and some form of basic social welfare.

Mario Vargas Llosa called the PRI’s rule “the perfect dictatorship.”1 Presidents were elected to single six-year terms, at the end of which the incumbent would designate his successor—a process known as el dedazo, the finger. The PRI’s candidate would duly be voted in by the populace, in an apparently democratic but utterly non-competitive election. (In all thirteen of the presidential votes held between the Revolution and 1988, the winners scored more than 70 percent, in some cases managing 100.) For much of the postwar period, the PRI was able to govern largely unchallenged thanks to a prolonged economic boom, winning popular legitimacy with genuine material and developmental gains. By global standards, it was not an especially repressive regime. Despite the crushing of student and working-class protests in 1968 and a brutal counterinsurgency against leftist guerrillas in the 1960s and 70s, Mexico was seen by other Latin Americans as a haven during their “leaden years” of military rule. (Gabriel García Márquez, Roberto Bolaño, and the Argentine poet Juan Gelman were among the best-known exiles to settle in the capital.)

Things began to unravel, though, in the late 1970s. First came the debt crises of 1976 and 1982, which sent government and private debt levels rocketing—especially after the US Federal Reserve decreed a sudden hike in interest rates in 1979, sucking money from Mexico to the US, and making debt payments balloon. At the same moment, a drive to liberalize the economy was set in motion, initiated in the late 1970s under IMF pressure, and implemented thereafter by a new layer of Mexican technocrat-politicians. The combination of recession and structural adjustment only deepened the country’s economic suffering, bringing increases in poverty and unemployment. The inadequacy of the government’s response to the 1985 Mexico City earthquake seemed, for many, to symbolize the growing dysfunction of the PRI system. Its legitimacy crumbled further with the 1988 election fraud, which stole victory from a political movement that had in large measure developed out of the volunteer networks and civic mobilizations ordinary Mexicans created in response to the earthquake a few years earlier. The message seemed to be that the PRI would rather bring the house crashing down on itself, and everyone in it, than hand over the keys.

After Salinas took office in late 1988, he set about liberalizing the Mexican economy in even more determined fashion, privatizing state assets at a rate unmatched in the Americas. In many cases this gave rise not to market competition, but to private monopolies that made fortunes for select oligarchs. (For example Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man from 2010 to 2013, did especially well from his 1990 purchase of Telmex, which through its subsidiary Telcel today dominates the mobile phone market, and even now operates almost all the landlines in Mexico.) The liberalization was entrenched still further with the signing of NAFTA, which dismantled the remaining protections on Mexican industry and agriculture, and opened up its consumer markets to US and Canadian corporations. The PRI’s national developmental agenda was long forgotten: the country’s new niche was to provide cheap, massively exploited labor for scores of new maquiladoras.

In 1997, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas won the governorship of Mexico City for the PRD, and three years later Fox was elected president. Between them these developments seemed to herald a kind of belated political transition. Most of Latin America had shaken off its military dictatorships over the course of the 1980s, culminating in Pinochet’s exit in Chile in 1990. The PRI’s “perfect dictatorship” had been shaken in 1988, but the party had held on; after losing the capital in 1997, was it now finally going to relinquish its hold on power at the national level? Even in formal terms, the idea of a wholesale political shift soon proved to be a wishful exaggeration: though it had lost the presidency, the PRI still retained a strong parliamentary and senate representation, as well as a slew of state governorships—not to mention its extensive patronage networks among the business elite, in labor and peasant confederations, and in the countryside. This was not like the post-Communist transitions in Eastern Europe, where single-party monoliths had shattered after 1989. In terms of policy substance, the PAN’s rule in any case turned out not to be all that different from the PRI’s neoliberal incarnation of the 1990s. Across the board, what emerged was largely a kind of continuity dressed as change (with the notable exception of an official embrace of the Catholic Church that would have been unthinkable under the secular PRI). Mexico seemed to have shifted from single-party rule to a pattern more like that of wealthy capitalist states, in which power alternates safely between two rival wings of the same neoliberal consensus.

Over the past decade and a half, however, Mexico has been ravaged and reshaped by the escalating “war on drugs.” After squeaking into the presidency in 2006, Calderón immediately announced a massive militarization of government policy, launching an armed conflict that took most of its casualties not from the ranks of the cartels but from among the civilian population. Over the six years of Calderón’s presidency, at least one hundred thousand were killed. The PAN’s handling of the drug war, and its mismanagement in many other areas of government, prompted a growing resentment of the party and the president, and in some cases a deluded nostalgia for the PRI—embodied in the slogan que se vayan los pendejos y que regresen los corruptos: out with the assholes, in with the crooks.

This combination of a negative consensus against the PAN and a cynical belief that the PRI would at least be competent crooks was enough to lift Peña Nieto to the presidency in 2012. The party still dominated the Chamber and Senate, and held a solid bloc of state governorships as well as mayoralties and regional legislatures; with its return to the presidency, the ancien régime had seemingly been restored. Outwardly, though, the PRI appeared to have learned a thing or two, adapting to the changing times by selecting a telegenic candidate, too young to be associated with the old, pre-2000 version of the PRI. Peña Nieto’s sexenio began with a burst of energy, his promises of rapid economic growth at home accompanied abroad by boosterish op-eds from Thomas Friedman and, in February 2014, a laudatory Time magazine cover: the president was apparently “Saving Mexico.”

The country itself was less enthusiastic. Instances of corruption multiplied, from the luxury mansion built for the president’s family by a well-connected construction firm, to a string of PRI governors accused of embezzling public funds. More destructive still was Peña Nieto’s failure to halt the slaughter taking place under the rubric of the war on drugs: during his presidency, the casualty rate even increased relative to Calderón’s time in office, each year more deadly than the last. All told, since 2006, as many as thirty-five thousand people have now vanished without trace, a figure comparable to the disappearances that took place in Argentina or Chile under military rule. Among the disappeared are the forty-three students from Ayotzinapa, whose abduction in the fall of 2014 sent Peña Nieto’s approval ratings into free fall. Not only did the government fail to locate the students, it organized a clumsy cover-up to protect the perpetrators, as well as actively undermining efforts to establish what happened. The incident revealed to the world what many Mexicans already knew: the drug business had so totally penetrated the political system that there was now little to distinguish the narcos from the government.

It became increasingly clear, in fact, that PRI rule was little more than a PR façade, behind which the orgy of elite self-enrichment went on as usual. Whatever legitimacy the party had possessed had quickly eroded. But still more crucially, the mechanisms through which the party secured and wielded power had also been hollowed out over time. Clientelism no longer worked in the old ways. The PRI’s pocket trade unions and peasant confederations, their memberships shrinking as informal labor multiplied, had lost much of their traditional power. In the ideological realm, the spread of internet access has undermined the grip of the establishment media—led by Televisa and TV Azteca—on public opinion. Long before the 2018 elections, it was in any event apparent that the PRI might be in trouble. An early warning came in the gubernatorial elections in Mexico state in 2017, where the PRI nominee—tightly connected to Peña Nieto’s political clan, and therefore able to use its considerable resources—only just managed to defeat MORENA’s candidate, despite extensive fraud and widespread violence and intimidation. At the time, this was seen as a major political shock; but if anything, it understated the reversal that lay in wait for the PRI.

For the first time in Mexico’s history, a democratic election has granted the president and his party a resounding mandate at all levels of power. What will AMLO and MORENA do with it? Though his campaign undoubtedly drew much of its strength from an overwhelming popular rejection of the PRI—the word hartazgo, describing the feeling of having had enough, was on many people’s lips—López Obrador did make a number of positive proposals. As well as voicing a commitment to rein in corruption, he has vowed to end the disastrous militarized approach to the drug war taken by his two predecessors. What form this will take is not yet clear, but he has suggested a range of measures, including selective amnesties for low-level offenders and scholarships to prevent young unemployed people from being drawn into working for the cartels in the first place. He has also committed to raising the minimum wage and expanding old-age pension coverage, as well as reducing gasoline prices. Some of these measures will supposedly be paid for with money saved by curbing corruption, as well as by reallocating government spending. Many state functionaries’ salaries will be cut by half or more, including the president’s own; lavish pensions will no longer be granted to ex-presidents; the government’s advertising budget will be slashed; the presidential plane will be sold, and the palace of Los Pinos will be turned into a public museum.

There is an obvious symbolic dimension to many of the proposed measures, which would visibly take from the well-appointed corridors of power in order to give to the streets and the countryside. AMLO’s provisional cabinet, too, represents an important symbolic advance, in being composed of equal numbers of men and women. Both houses of the incoming congress will also be gender-balanced. (Not that AMLO or MORENA can claim the credit for that: since 2014, Mexican electoral law has required gender parity in candidacies for all posts at federal and state levels.) Announcing the composition of his prospective government as part of his campaign platform in December 2017 was a masterstroke on AMLO’s part, giving people plenty of time to get used to the idea of what a MORENA cabinet would look like. Yet by the same token it has in some ways restricted his room for maneuver, and allowed space for unease to creep in among his original supporters on the left. The line-up includes not only several academics and non-party figures, but also former PRI functionaries and businessmen connected to the old regime. Incoming education secretary Esteban Moctezuma, for example, was PRI president Ernesto Zedillo’s interior secretary in the 1990s, while the new interior secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero served on the country’s Supreme Court from 1995 to 2015; Monterrey businessman Alfonso Romo, a former supporter of Vicente Fox, has recently been appointed AMLO’s chief of staff.

The Mexican presidential transition is long—AMLO doesn’t take office until December 1—and many of the appointments previously announced could still be switched. But a larger, structural issue lurks behind the question of cabinet jobs and other government posts. What compromises have AMLO and MORENA already had to make in order to win power, and with whom? MORENA’s electoral coalition, dubbed Juntos Haremos Historia—Together We’ll Make History—included not only the Partido del Trabajo (PT), a small socialist party, but also the Partido Encuentro Social (PES), a highly conservative party that opposes abortion and gay marriage. The latter, riding on AMLO’s coattails, was a fringe party but will now have fifty-five deputies and seven senators—more than the PRI—while the PT will have sixty-seven and six respectively. MORENA will likely need the votes of both to maintain its majority in both houses, which may prove a complicated balancing act.

Within MORENA itself, meanwhile, the growing momentum behind López Obrador’s campaign brought a wave of new recruits to the party. In most cases these were people genuinely enthused by the possibility of change; but there were also many opportunists who hopped across from other parties—MORENA militants call them chapulines, grasshoppers. The scale of the party’s victory on July 1 will doubtless prompt more such transfers from one or other of the sinking ships of Mexican politics—especially since it will now receive the lion’s share of state funding for political parties. The danger here is twofold: first, that MORENA’s newness as a party will make it difficult to impose the clarity and discipline required to resist the drift towards deal-making and business as usual; second, and relatedly, that the party’s very success will undermine its promises to dismantle what AMLO, on the campaign trail, called the “power mafia.” In one alarmist scenario, political commentator Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez speculated even before the election that MORENA could eventually come to absorb much of the political spectrum, turning into “the new octopus”—a new version of the PRI. Yet the problem could just as easily be posed in the opposite terms: for all its current ascendancy, MORENA is inhabited by fragments of its defeated opponents, making splits in the governing party somewhere down the line all the more likely.

Given the electoral upheaval the country has just produced, it seems far-fetched to bet on the long-term dominance of any party. Still, the question of how far AMLO and MORENA will be able to break with the existing system, rather than reproducing it in a new form, is well founded. The surge of optimism and enthusiasm that López Obrador’s victory generated bespeaks the profound need for a change of model—that is, not just an overhaul of political leadership, but a more thoroughgoing reinvention of Mexico’s economic framework, its social policies, its handling of internal security, among many other areas. During his campaign, AMLO frequently spoke of bringing about a “fourth transformation” of the country: after independence, the liberal Reforms of the late 1850s, and the Revolution of 1910–20 will come a period of “national regeneration” under MORENA. So far, López Obrador and his ministers-to-be have not put forward anything approaching that; rather, what they seem to be proposing is a recalibration of the existing system in a more humane, less crooked direction. There have already been criticisms of AMLO from the left on this score, including from the Zapatistas, who greeted his victory by issuing a statement saying that “you can change the overseer, the steward, and the foremen, but the landowner is still the same.” Yet short of an actual revolution, it is hard to deny that what AMLO and MORENA have achieved—within the confines of an electoral system heavily loaded against the left—is remarkable, offering a platform for change that the left has not possessed in Mexico for several generations.

Victories on this scale give rise to commensurate hopes, which run the risk of turning into disappointments of equal size. For all the authority AMLO currently enjoys, it is worth acknowledging now that he faces considerable constraints, which he will be largely powerless to change. The disproportionate influence of the US is foremost among them—from the renegotiation of NAFTA threatened by Trump to the new viciousness of US immigration policy, and from the ongoing US demand for drugs to the continued southward flow of weapons from US vendors into the hands of Mexico’s cartels. The global economic climate doesn’t look especially favorable for Mexico either, which will make it difficult to create growth at the rate required for substantive reductions in poverty or inequality. Corruption, too, is likely to prove stubbornly persistent. On several fronts, in other words, AMLO may well find it difficult to meet the feverish expectations his ascent to power has produced.

Yet for all that, the very fact of his victory represents an unmistakable opening of the political horizon in Mexico, comparable to any of the electoral successes of the Pink Tide elsewhere in Latin America over the previous two decades—and similar to those events, too, in being built on the ruins of an entirely discredited political establishment. In the rest of the hemisphere, that cycle has of course now ended, and AMLO will be more isolated than figures such as Chávez, Lula, Morales, and Correa were in the 2000s. Times are different, and many difficulties no doubt lie ahead. But the old pattern of Mexican politics has been broken, joyously and emphatically; what new shape it takes remains to be seen.

  1. An earlier version of this article misattributed the phrase to Octavio Paz. 

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