What’s the Deal With a 2nd Disputed Election in México?

WTD knows the PRI, the PRD, the PAN, and is down with OPP (wait what?)

Hello All!

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?”, the blog that knows all the Mexican political acronyms.

In this week’s post, we’ll discuss the recent  presidential election in México, the subsequent protests surrounding the official results, and a dose of Mexican history to add some context.  We’ll also take a look at what the result means for México and its neighbors.

The Current

they argue the election was PRI-determined

On July 7th, a great wave of protests made its way through the streets of Mexico City through the Zocalo, a popular square.  Many of the boisterous participants of the crowd were young students, but they were not at the Zocalo to protest high tuition costs or student loan rates; they joined thousands of others in protest of the Mexican presidential election.

6 days earlier, Mexicans had voted for a new president in a general election that in its tumultuous outcome, has mirrored the previous presidential election in 2006.  By the following morning, the initial results showed a victory for Enrique Peña Nieto, the candidate of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), winning by a margin of ~ 6 points with 38% of the vote.  Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) finished second with 32% of the vote while Josefína Vazquez Mota, of the incumbent PAN (National Action Party) won just 25% of the vote.

López Obrador upon hearing the initial results, replied that he wouldn’t make any concession until an official confirmation could be made by election officials through a full recount.  This remark was reminiscent of his statement after the 2006 election when the very close race between López Obrador and the PAN candidate and current president Felípe Calderón saw López Obrador actually claim the presidency for himself and led to several weeks of protest.  Officials this time granted a partial recount of more than half the ballots and on July 6th yielded the same result: victory and the presidency for Mr. Peña Nieto.

Look, it’s already been 6 years since my last protested election. the time has come again to dispute the election

Instead of conceding the vote like his fellow candidate Ms. Vazquez Mota, Mr. López Obrador claimed fraud, said he would file a formal complaint, and rallied thousands to protest the result, mirroring his 2006 efforts.  The results, PRD supporters say, were flawed for several reasons that should make Mr. López Obrador the rightful President:  alleged campaign overspending, vote-buying, and favorable media treatment; all illegal acts in México.   Their gatherings and arguments have attracted much public and social media debate.

But even if the alleged acts are true, many sources are stipulating that the PRI would have been victorious anyhow (with such a margin), and that López Obrador has taken his fight too far. (The vote has now been declared as legitimate after the partial recount).

In the context of Mexican history, the resurgence of the PRI is no small feat.  Given the 70 year, often autocratic rule of the PRI, a vote for a PRI candidate in a free (and mostly fair) election is note-worthy.  But how did these political parties come about in México?  Why did the PRI rule for such a long time, and what does their resurgence mean for the future?

the same suit used in “Prometheus”

To delve further in to this issue is to take a dive into Mexican politics, and we should put on the oxygen tank of history to breathe some life into the situation and to put some perspective on the coming presidential term of Mr. Peña Nieto.  Time to wipe off your goggles and snap on your historical wetsuit folks (hope it still fits).

An Independent México?

The political leadership in the history of early México is a long list of authoritarian, often militaristic individuals who maintained a fairly rigid and discriminatory class system that favored American, or new world born, Spanish (Criollos) and Catholic clergymen (in other words, white people) over natives and mixed race peoples.  The history of Mexican politics is also a struggle between liberal and conservative viewpoints on how the country should be run: Since México’s independence, liberals have sought federalism, secularism, and the return of power from clergy and the military to the people while conservatives have sought to continue to have power remain with elite military and Catholic circles while governing a centralized republic.  A continuation of authoritarian leadership grew out of an imperfect revolution and independence from Spain.

the Viceroyalities of New Spain in red (not pictured, the Philippines)

The Mexican War for Independence in 1808 began with similar political ideals stemming from the Enlightenment and revolutions in America, France, and Haiti.  For New Spain, as the colony had been called since the 16th Century, the discontent was spurred by Criollos (Mexican born whites) who had been discriminated against receiving important colonial posts in favor of Spanish born whites.  Note: the actual fighting for Independence was fought largely by Mestizos (mixed European and native) and Indian populations.

“El Grito” was not greeted well in the end by the Spanish

Taking advantage of the small distraction to Spain in the form of Napoleon’s invasion in 1808, Mexican criollos held liberal meetings discussing reform and independence, even considering enlisting the masses of Mestizos and native peoples in an armed struggle against the Spanish crown.  When the parish priest Miguel Hidalgo gave “El Grito de Dolores” in 1810, the still celebrated revolutionary call for independence, his speech had been distributed widely around Queretaro, a struggling agricultural region and Hidalgo’s home town, and gathered many thousands of followers.  Hidalgo and his main co-conspirators were ambushed and executed by Royalist forces in 1811 and a bloody crackdown ensued on many rebels, yet insurrection continued; if sporadically.

An important action was taken in 1815 when José Maria Morales (another liberal parish priest) was able to organize a number of independent Chieftans from across the territory and attempted a more diplomatic revolutionary approach by forming a Congress and Constitution in 1813; declaring a list of rights and independence from the crown (even included abolishing slavery).  Like Hidalgo, Morales was also captured by Royal forces in 1815, ending a promising Continental Congress-like revolutionary government.  Resistance continued to a great extent in all the provinces, especially in Texas (part of New Spain at this time) but leadership was unable to unite and remained fractious.

Iturbe: An effective defector

No conclusion to revolutionary action occurred until 1821, when an important set up of an independent México was planned.  Agustín Iturbe was a Royalist commander (with a Mestizo heritage) who planned a more compromising solution to the eleven year struggle: defect from the Royal Army and create an independent México with a limited monarchy and a ruling military junta.  His proposal, collaborating with revolutionary Vicente Guerrero, was called the Plan de Iguala and called for a México independent from Spain, protection of the Catholic faith (with no others allowed), and equality for both Criollos and Spanish-born Mexicans (called Peninsulares,after the Iberian Peninsula).

The Plan de Iguala was officially recognized in 1821 under the Treaty of Cordova and the ruling junta with a limited Monarchy was formed.  Indeed, the Méxican revolutionary struggle for independence from the Old World was incomplete, and not what Revolutionaries like Hidalgo and Morales had envisioned.  Mexican born whites may have gotten what they wanted in political power, but civil rights were limited and rule was not democratic.  Even further, Spain and other old world countries left México with debt payments for decades to come, leaving leadership often at the economic mercy of their former colonial rulers.

So, if their first revolution failed to produce democratic leadership, what about their second revolution?  That’s right, México has had more than one revolution.

Prelude to a 2nd Revolution

eh, there wasn’t much there anyways….

We could go into great detail about the 19th Century in México and discuss the French occupation and the Mexican-American War that resulted in a loss of 1/3 of México’s territory, but we need to focus on the political leadership (and a lower word count).

Briefly summarized, México’s leadership unsurprisingly focused on centralized authority, kept power with the military and Catholic parish circles, and was often in debt.  After ousting General António López de Santa Anna (the 2 decades long leader) in 1855, a new progressive constitution was created that had its own bill of rights that included religious freedom, confiscated church holdings, and secularized education.  The constitution was so controversial, however, that its passage caused a 3-year civil war that ended with a liberal President in Benito Juarez in 1861.  Juarez led until 1876 through the tumultuous French occupation.

The more important (for this blog’s subject) era of which we should focus is the Porfirio Díaz era from 1876 – 1910.  Under Díaz, México undertook great strides in economic modernity, but at the expense of its own progressive constitution.  Díaz instituted heavy state investment in public works, and railroads, allowed significant foreign investment, and also expanded large-scale agricultural production meant for export on communal tracts called haciendas.   To enforce much of his agenda, especially when rural peasants saw the loss of their land to the haciendas, Díaz had his paramilitary force, the Rural Guard, in action to suppress unrest (often using intimidation and other repressive tactics).  Díaz also reestablished cordial relations with the Catholic Church, which he saw as an essential part of Mexican “identity.”  Essentially, Díaz created a very nationalistic state with authoritarian control; not exactly what the liberal framers of the Constitution of 1857 had in mind.

Zapata, Villa, and the PRI

the reward for México? U.S. support for stability

The Díaz era was the forerunner to the second Mexican revolution.  After a fraudulent election in 1911, a nationwide protest movement coalesced to bring about the freedoms espoused in the 1857 Constitution and Díaz resigned and fled to France.  The provisional government couldn’t gain the support of a radical movement led by Emiliano Zapata, who had gathered the support of long-suppressed peasants.  Violent revolutionary action rival groups headed by Victoriano Carranza and Francisco “Pancho” Villa resulted in many deaths and rampant lawlessness that saw the United States under the Wilson administration get involved to capture Villa (they never did).

When some semblance of order resumed in 1917, a new constitution had been drawn up, but nearly a million people had been killed in the 7 year chaos.  The U.S. played a particularly important role during this time not just in attempting to hunt down Villa (who had thrust into American territory killing some rural villagers) but also in undermining a revolutionary government led by Victoriano Huerta, and in supporting a government led by Carranza who was finally able to restore order in 1920 when Zapata was assassinated.

So, after this tumultuous period, centralized government control seemed an obvious response to such an outburst of lawlessness.  Strong central governments headed by former Revolutionary generals led México through the 1920s to the 1940s and more importantly created a political institution that is the subject of today’s current debate, the PNR, the predecessor to the PRI, or Partido Revolucionario Instituciónal (Institutional Revolutionary Party).  President Plutarco Elías Calles in 1928 started a tradition (not a new one) of strong authoritarian leadership, nationalized industries and agriculture, anti-clericalism, and military submission to civilian authority.  Most importantly, the PRI leadership created methods of keeping itself in power while abiding by the Constitutional line of a one term, 6 year presidency.

With their hold on power, the PRI began to mirror Díaz himself

These rule-bending actions included intimidation, electoral fraud, exchange of services for votes, and most recently, the domination and restriction of media.  The PRI rule through a top down control was able to dominate Mexican politics and hold power for 7 decades until 2000.   It should be noted though, that for the majority of their first six decades in power, the PRI saw very little political violence that had tormented México in the Post-Díaz era.  The PRI allowed middle class citizens to be involved in politics by not allowing reelection and by emphasizing personal relationships between lower class groups and government officials; further entrenching political patronage.

Instead of a democracy, the PRI instituted more of a feigned republic that mirrored a Communist state.  Under President and former General Lazaro Cardenas (1934-1940), México nationalized oil (Pemex), instituted land reform (ejidos), and strengthened unions.  While these efforts solved some initial problems, they resulted in many internal problems that state capitalism causes.  After 1946, and the departure of President Camacho (who officially named the party the PRI), no PRI leader came from a military background and México had really “civillianized” the military, a big change from the 19th and 18th Century México.

no gimmicks for Pemex, as its state ownership is in the constitution

A nationalized oil industry finally was able to reap the profits of an industry that until then was primarily foreign owned and labor unions did gain some political clout (as a political move against initial President Calles, Cardenas formed the National Peasant Confederation and Confederation of Mexican Workers).  But state controlled industries ran into trouble due to poor ownership and significant levels of corruption, especially when oil prices hit highs in the 1970s.  In fact, corruption in the public eye became the eventual downfall of the PRI.

Excessive flow of funds from Pemex to swell payrolls, for wasteful public spending, and union “gifts” to the government during the Presidency of José López Portillo (good economic times) became open to the public in the early 1980s (economic recession) and was not received well.  This severely impacted the public opinion of the PRI and their internal political structure was left open for technocrats who were specialists in reaffirming the Mexican economy.  A split began to develop between traditional PRI policies and a more free market, pro-business agenda.

We got rid of those responsible… but not the system

A new Harvard-educated President in 1988, Carlos Salinas, attempted to “clean up” the electoral process and corrupt elements but by no means fixed the systemic problems, because high level posts were still occupied by PRI veterans.  Further, Salinas’ nomination for the ’88 presidency caused the creation a new left party, the PRD, and a significant loss in Congressional seats to the PRI from the PRD and the conservative Catholic connected PAN.  The PRI had the lowest margin of victory in 1988 in its history, winning just 50.7% of seats; down from 71.6% in 1982 and 98.7% in 1976.

Salinas during his administration moved away from the strongholds of the Cardenas presidency (collective farms or ejidos and labor unions), focusing instead on the Roman Catholic Church, foreign investors, and private banks, shedding a great deal of economic nationalism.  The nationalistic mainstay of the PRI, the nationalization of oil under Pemex, remained.  The 1990s also saw violence that under the PRI had been relatively rare.  A radical movement in Chiapas state in 1994 the Zapatistas, named after the former rebel Emiliano Zapata, brought a great deal of violence and changed the state of the military to a more modern force (with American help).

The gradual change further towards a free market economy lurched towards a more true democracy in the 1990s with Constitutional amendments making private contributions to political campaigns much less influential compared to public and independent electoral commissions were given more teeth.  Opening up the field to new political parties in ’89 and the new laws on the books in the 90’s allowed for the mostly free and fair elections in 2000 that saw former Coca-Cola salesman and PAN candidate Vicente Fox win the presidency, taking away majority leadership from the PRI for the first time in 7 decades.


Now emerging from the murky political history, we can take some souvenirs with us and look again at the 2012 election and the return of the PRI back to Los Pinos, the presidential residence.

  • In its push to democracy, México has seen a stuttering series of incomplete political revolutions with power remaining in too few of hands.
  • A revolving struggle between leaders over public ownership of industries, power for the military and Catholic Church, and power for the general public.
  • Violence and uprising permeated these struggles, though the PRI was able to strike a balance in the 20th Century.
  • For its many flaws, México’s political system has gone a great deal fulfill full fledged democracy

So after a 12 year absence, the PRI is back in power.  But is it the same PRI as the 20th Century?

Mr. Peña Nieto has campaigned on the fact that the PRI has grown up a great deal during the Fox and Calderón administrations.    Peña Nieto has planned to end state ownership of Pemex, a pretty big step (though this will take a Constitutional amendment) and claims that the PRI is not the overbearing, authoritarian, and embedded political institution that it once was.  Apparently, a majority of Mexicans agreed on July 1st.

A closer look though shows that Mr. Peña Nieto is a bright, young face on a remaining system.  Many connections to unions and media still exist along with old faces, known as the “dinosaurs”;  the media connection giving favorable coverage was one of the main arguments for electoral fraud by Mr. López Obrador and his supporters.  The PRI did learn a great deal though in their 12 year presidential hiatus though.  their adaptations to win back former supporters of the PAN shows their adroit ability to show themselves as the “different” leadership.

Many challenges now confront Mr. Peña Nieto including the vast drug war started by current president Felípe Calderón (and something Mr. Peña Nieto has vowed to continue).  Mr. Peña Nieto would also do well to pay attention to the social concerns of Mr. López Obrador’s supporters.  The PRD was relatively successful in the congressional results, and their popularity among young people is noticeable, especially considering the participants of the election protests were of shorter tooth.

So was the 2012 election rigged or flawed worth overturning?  Probably not, but some reminders of Mexican history reverberate.  The vote saw shadowy works that showed the PRI machine is not done yet, but also shows that it is operating in a new México: one that expects fair elections.  What “El Grito” and the independence sought was ridding corruption and basic freedoms.   Instead of wondering how to gain the most favor through a corrupt political party, the México of today since 2000 is now struggling to choose the right direction of policy through elected leadership; and that is something worth shouting about.

Until the next media stir,

Your faithful historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:














Politics in Mexico, Roderic Camp


About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
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