Mexican Political System
Why and how Mexico's one-party regime gradually made a transition to democracy beginning in mid-1970s
Mexico attributes its political system to the Revolution that took place between 1910 and 1920. Their constitution has existed since 1917 and serves as the sweeping document. It captures the ideologies of the revolution and also reflects three generations of Spanish colonial rule. The constitution being revolutionary means that it aggressively protects the rights of peasants, workers, and their organizations ("Mexico - Government"). The constitution guarantees the right to working eight hours per day, the right for female workers, and payment of a minimum wage that is sufficient to satisfy the necessities of life. The colonial influence in Mexico is evident with the high confining civil law where the state has a heavy involvement in business and civic affairs. The executive branch of the government has been relatively stronger than the other branches. The history of Mexican political system has also been highly influenced by the loss of half of the national territory to the United States, the foreign military occupation and finally virtual dictatorship from a series of undemocratic regimes (Wiarda, Howard, and Harvey Kline). In this paper, we look at Mexico from a historical perspective, understand her political system throughout the years. The paper will also explain the reasons as to why and how Mexico transitioned from a one-party regime to a democratic state.
During his reign between 1924 and 1928, President Plutarco Elias Calles identified the country’s political system along corporatist principles as a way of solving the latent social conflicts. He expanded the government’s bureaucracy to mediate and resolve disputes that arose between constituencies and to also distribute funds to the organizations that were supportive of the official party. President Calles also created new organizations that were the umbrella to various groups according to their broad functionality. The organizations, however, depended heavily on state funding, therefore, were required to keep strong ties with the party that was ruling. By having the corporatist institutions, Mexico set its political path that was not in any way like the other Latin American countries (Camp, Roderic Ai). With this, Mexico was able to avoid the return of violence all over the country that had dominated between 1910 and early 1920s. Consequently, the nature of Mexican corporatism formed a firm foundation of civilian supremacy over the military and as a result, separating the Mexican political system form the rest of the region.
The Presidents that followed Calles maintained the same principles, however, one of his successors, Lazaro Cardenas revived the populism on the national politics. The policy dictated, a redistribution of land to the landless peasants under the state-sponsored program. Additionally, President Cardenas, emphasized on nationalism, a force that would make Mexico as a country expropriate the holdings of the foreign oil corporations. As a result, nationally owned oil company were created. The reforms made by Cardenas in the late 1930s reinforced the legitimacy of the political system and further concentrated power in the executive branch of the government and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional PRI) which was the official party. By the early 1940s, political process and institutions that would define the Mexican political system were already established. They would define the system for the next forty years. The primary characteristics of this political system included a stable federal government that was led by a civilian president and his loyalties in the ruling party. It was also characterized by a highly structure corporatist relation between the organization groups sponsored by the government to handle arbitration, and the state ("Mexico - Government"). Finally, the political system had an interdependent relationship between the official ruling party and the state.
The political system established by Calles and fortified by Cardenas soon started falling apart in the early 1980s. The falling apart was as a result of the financial crisis experienced in the 1980s. The economic crisis resulted in the death of public funding and as a result, the state-funded organization groups dried up and the state’s role in the economy that had been reinforced over the years scaled down. The relationship that had been developed between the government agencies and the organization groups over the four decades weakened (Álvarez Tovar, Jorge Arturo). The president that took over during this period to revive the economy for future prosperity took to himself to make structural adjustment program. The program aimed to regulate the key industries in Mexico systematically and to roll back the state ownership. The work of restructuring Mexico took two presidents; Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado of the period between 1982 and 1988 and president Carlos Salinas de Gortari of 1988 to 1994. Among the changes that these two presidents made was the elimination of the protectionist legislation that had made sure that Mexico was a closed economy (Álvarez Tovar, Jorge Arturo). They also lifted the constitutionally dictated prohibition of the sale of communally owned land. By doing this, they were able to open lands for more efficient farming.
The reforms which were initiated by President Madrid did not go unopposed; instead, they created a rift between the populist and the technocratic members of the ruling party. The division was partly also as a result of the difference in ideology on the market reforms and the authoritarian system of the PRI dominated politics. The main counterparts to Madrid’s economic reforms were members of the PRI’s core labor and agrarian. They rejected the elimination of the subsidies on goods and services for the consumers. The naming of Salinas who was educated in the United States as Madrid’s successor in power was rejected by a faction of the PRI leadership causing more rift. The internal division, however, saw the development of the first defection from the PRI when Cuauhtémoc Cardenas Solórzano from the party. Solórzano (son of the former president) left the PRI party to form a coalition that would challenge the ruling party for the 1988 presidential elections (Hiskey, Jonathan).
Despite the opposition, Salinas went ahead and became the president wherein his tenure he liberalized the electoral system. The primary goal of his administration was to restructure Mexican economy by integrating it into the global market. Although he was not aiming at democratizing the political system, Salinas found himself making electoral reforms. The reforms were not easy to come, and it took both domestic and international pressure for Salinas to set a democratized stage that allowed competitive presidential and congressional elections of 1994 (Camp, Roderic Ai).
The 1994 elections saw yet again the prevailing of PRI as the world’s longest-ruling party as Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon won the August 1994 elections. The winning, however, presented the party with a challenge of handling the Mexican dislocated economy and political realignments. The domination of the PRI in the Mexican political arena was, however, decaying where the mid-1990s was dominated by a pluralism of the political activity. It was clear that Mexico was not ready to go back to a single ruling party, therefore, a need for transitioning.
Mexico attributes its transition from the one-party regime to a democratic state to a number of factors (Camp, Roderic Ai). The factors include;
· Formation of groups of elite who pushed for democracy within the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)
· Creation of civic and social movements with the goal of addressing incompetence in the government resulting from the earthquake of 1985
· Widespread fraud that took place in the presidential elections held in 1988
· Formation of a section of elite group who disintegrated from the PRI to form their opposition party in 1989 that went by the name Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD)
· Introduction of new electoral laws that reinforced independent electoral process in the 1990s
· The uprising of Zapatista Army of Liberation in 1994
· Introduction of new political actors from establishments and opposition that had strong influence at the local levels and were in support of democratic governance.
Unlike other states like the Russia, Mexico took longer to transition. It is due to a number of reasons. One could argue that its proximity to one of the most democratic state in the 20th century which is the United States. Through this, Mexico gave greater credibility and legitimized its unique one party ruling as a vehicle for Mexican independence and nationalism from their historical enemy (Álvarez Tovar, Jorge Arturo).
Although events such as the student movement of 1968 could be said to have been the beginning of the transition, the real transformation started in 1982 with the reign of president Miguel de la Madrid. Miguel’s presidency was characterized by increased global economic ties with other countries in the world. He started by signing the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) in 1986. GATT was the organization that came before World Trade Organization of 1995. Miguel had also tried to introduce electoral integrity 1983 for the local elections. The elimination of the election fraud led to many victories for the opposition parties like the PAN (Camp, Roderic Ai). Miguel’s attempt to straighten the electoral process was met by opposition from the elite in the ruling party hence backfired. Given his other problematic policies like the mounting debt and inflation, Miguel quickly reverted his electoral liberalization policy. He devoted his time and efforts to other issues like that of macroeconomic issues that would have brought a widespread of dissatisfaction among the citizens. When exiting the office, Miguel selected Carlos Salinas to be his successor, a choice that was met with considerable opposition from the elite dissension in the party. The elite discord is usually one of the components for most democratic transitions for any authoritarian regime (Álvarez Tovar, Jorge Arturo). Salinas was a technocrat just like Miguel and a product of Harvard Business School with only knowledge of the world of economics and very little of the political world. Carlos unlike his predecessor, showed very little interest in the liberalization of politics (Hiskey, Jonathan).
Salinas decisively chose economic liberalization over political one. In his pursuit, Salinas accomplished two policies. One he was able to reverse Portillo’s (Madrid’s predecessor who was the president between 1976 and 1982) decision to nationalize all banks in Mexico which had resulted to 80% of the economy being controlled by the state. Madrid had attempted to do the same in his tenure, but after analyzing the repercussions it would have on the political environment of the country, he decided to drop the pursuit. Salinas sold shares of these banks back to private owners, a move that cemented the support from entrepreneurial capitalists ("Mexico - Government"). The move earned him loyalty from the new bank owners in Mexico. The second step is where he decided to strengthen the country’s economy by persuading the European Union (EU) into accepting Mexico to be part of it. However, the EU rejected his proposal, a move that saw him make treaties with Canada and United States (North America Free Trade Agreement- NAFTA), believing that the future of Mexico’s economy would succeed from the economic bloc that was formed with the two major countries in the region (Wiarda, Howard, and Harvey Kline).
The two economic moves formed a crucial part of the democratization the political system in Mexico. Salinas’ pursuit of the economic strategies was meant to increase Mexico’s economic growth and in doing so benefit his political stature and that of his party by earning favor from the large Mexican Population. He believed that pursuit of political reforms was less significant as compared to economic growth which was essential to the state. Ironically, Salinas did not seem to recognize the power of economic growth and increase in education to the choice the people made. According to research conducted by a scholar and published in the early 1970s, the higher the income and education one had, the more likely they would vote for the opposition. It is in direct contradiction to what Salinas hoped by bettering the economy that he would get more supporters for him and the ruling party. The proposition is evident in the 1982 election. PRI received 55% support in regions that had high income while 82% in low income-earning areas. The fifty-five percent further dropped in the following six years to 37%. The same can be used to explain why in the mid-2000, PRI had a huge support only in the poor and rural regions of the country (Wiarda, Howard, and Harvey Kline). With this, Salinas increase the number of opposition supporters without intending, while the main aim of the opposition was to get a democratic government, he was slowly enabling them achieve that.
Although he did not intend to make any political changes in Mexico, Salinas initiated one political change which promoted the democratization process. In 1992, Salinas made reforms on the constitution that restricted a lot of Catholic Church practice. Prior to the change, Mexico had been violating human rights by the way they were treating the Priests and nuns of the Catholic church. The violations were also against the agreement Mexico had made with the United Nations. Although the Catholic church did not lobby for these reforms, they were a starting point for the change that would revolutionize the environment in which the religious organization operated. The church even though did not advocate for any political party in its masses and official documents, it helped educate the citizens on their civic duty in a democratic setting which was voting. The church is cited prior 1994 to have even warned they followership to vote as it was a sin not to do so. By this, a lot of church members participated in the transformation of Mexico to a democratic state through voting (Camp, Roderic Ai).
The period between 1982 and 1994 was marked by three major events that made a huge impact on the political system of Mexico which contributed towards the efforts of democratization. The first event was the 1985 major earthquake that took place in Mexico City. The disaster was not the main focus but the reluctance of the government to acting upon the problem by offering help to those who were affected. As a result, lots of movements were formed in protest, demanding the government to change housing relief plans and help accelerate the reconstruction of houses for the victims. The second event took place in 1988 when the Salinas and the PRI used fraud means to get the presidential seat. By doing this, it proved to the opposition that they could actually win an election hence cementing their quest for fraud-free polls and a move closer to democracy. The competitiveness of opposition during these elections demonstrated that there was a shift from one party State to a multiparty country (Álvarez Tovar, Jorge Arturo). It is evident when the National Action Party (NAP) obtained two hundred and forty seats out of the overall five hundred. The same event forced the PRI to negotiate new electoral laws with the opposition which would see the first fraud-free presidential election in Mexico that took place in 1994. The final event was the Zapatista uprising that took place in January 1994. The rebellion was followed by the assassination of PRI's presidential candidate. The two events changed the world’s image and perception of the country which Salinas had work hard to shape through the media. It showed that the political system in Mexico had some faults (Álvarez Tovar, Jorge Arturo). The movement mobilized thousands of the citizens to air their frustration that resulted from the semi-authoritarian political system which had dragged the development for decades.
Unlike his predecessors, President Zedillo who took over after Salinas was committed to supporting democratic changes leading to an easier process than that of the early 1980s. Zedillo played a crucial role in opening Mexico to democratization. He also continued Salinas’ work in development of Mexico’s economic despite being seen as a weak president by his fellow party members. By the end of his tenure, it is clear that he had worked on seeing a multiparty country where the winner of the elections would win fairly. As a result, a leader from the position was elected for the first time in the history of Mexico (Hiskey, Jonathan). The election and swearing in of a president that was not from the PRI party only showed how Mexico succeeded in becoming a democratic state with free and fair elections despite having taken the country a long time to achieve this.
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