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The 1988 Elections

The 1988 elections were a watershed in the history of Mexican politics, marking a radical shift in the country's political dynamics and providing the first test of the 1986 electoral reforms. The emergence of two nationally prominent opposition candidates afforded an unprecedented challenge to the PRI's electoral machine, which until that time had faced mostly obscure and poorly financed adversaries.

Assailed by a partisan rupture over the nomination of Salinas, which ultimately led to the defection of much of the PRI's populist wing to the leftist opposition, the PRI party apparatus was under intense pressure to produce a victory or face disintegration. Within the context of a national economic crisis, an intraparty split, and a hotly contested presidential race, many observers expected the PRI to resort to fraud to secure a decisive win.

Although the PRI maintained control of the presidency and preserved its congressional majority in the July 1988 balloting, the elections were a blow to the PRI's preeminent position in Mexican politics. The PRI suffered a dramatic erosion of 18 percent in its share of the presidential vote from the previous election and surrendered an unprecedented 48 percent of seats in the Chamber of Deputies to the opposition. The official tally, which showed Salinas winning a bare majority of 50.7 percent of the vote, was questioned by an unexpected week-long delay in the computerized tally and widespread reports of vote fraud and irregularities. As a result, the new administration began its term in office as one of the most unpopular in recent Mexican history.

The Salinas Presidency: Reform and Retrenchment

Upon assuming office in December 1988, Salinas faced grave challenges to his authority as president. Among his most pressing concerns was the need to defuse political tensions that had arisen in the highly polarized climate of the election. The defection of many former PRI stalwarts and the threat of further erosion of the party ranks also placed enormous pressure on Salinas to relax the economic austerity measures put in place by his predecessor. Compounding the new government's problems was the fact that, for the first time in its history, the PRI did not command the two-thirds majority in the Chamber of Deputies required to amend the constitution. To continue liberalizing the economy, the government would need to negotiate with the 101 delegates of the "moderate" opposition (the center-right PAN) to remove the remaining constitutional barriers to reform.

Perhaps the most formidable political challenge faced by the new Salinas administration was mistrust of the official party's leadership and its lack of credibility among a likely majority of the electorate in light of the questionable results of the 1988 presidential vote. In the aftermath of the narrow PRI presidential victory and facing widespread charges of electoral fraud, President Salinas sought limited reforms of the electoral process without disavowing the PRI's many legal and financial advantages in the political system.

Seeking to restore the government's credibility and to pacify the opposition, Salinas increased the opportunities for opposition politicians to take office at the state and local levels. This strategy benefited mainly the PAN, whose free-market economic policies closely resembled those of the modernizing técnico wing of the PRI. Whereas previous PRI administrations had been willing to concede some municipalities to the PAN, the growth of opposition strength after the 1988 elections compelled the PRI to begin surrendering state governments as well.

The first test of Salinas's commitment to cleaner gubernatorial elections came in 1989, when the PRI conceded its first governorship to an opposition party by accepting a PAN victory in Baja California Norte. In 1991 PRI victories in the gubernatorial elections in Guanajuato and San Luis Potosí sparked widespread allegations of fraud. In both cases, the president intervened by forcing the local PRI candidate to step down. Whereas in San Luis Potosí another PRI leader was installed as interim governor, in Guanajuato the interim governorship was handed to the PAN candidate.

The 1992 gubernatorial elections in Chihuahua and Michoacán illustrated the Salinas administration's ambivalent approach toward the opposition in general. Although the PAN candidate won and was allowed to take office in Chihuahua, the PRI spent vast amounts of party and government funds to defeat the PRD in its regional stronghold of Michoacán. Following months of strident PRD protests over the official results, Salinas faced the prospect of a massive protest march on Mexico City. The president was finally compelled to intervene and replace the sitting governor with a more suitable PRI substitute.

Although President Salinas's rejection of overt electoral fraud was by no means novel or systematic, his admonitions concerning fraud in state and local elections did help curb some of the more conspicuous abuses. In addition, the president's moves against individuals associated with corruption served as a powerful weapon in his reformist struggles against the most recalcitrant factions of the PRI old guard. Many members of the PRI's político wing opposed the president's economic policies and resented central government interference in state and local politics.

Contradicting his moves on behalf of more transparent and competitive elections, Salinas took some measures that made it more difficult for the opposition to contest the PRI's public policy initiatives. In the name of preserving "governability," Salinas resorted frequently to his executive prerogatives in pushing legislation through the Congress with a minimum of public debate. Although the 1990 electoral reform created institutions and a legal framework to fight electoral fraud and abuses, it also contained a new formula for legislative seating that made it more difficult for the opposition to gain seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Under the 1990 electoral code, the threshold for obtaining an automatic majority of seats in the chamber was reduced to 35 percent of the national vote. This threshold practically ensured that any future PRI administration could count on a PRI-controlled Chamber of Deputies to pass its legislative initiatives. This highly unpopular electoral law was rescinded in 1994 during the reforms leading to the August elections.

One of the key features of the 1990 electoral code was the abolition of the discredited Federal Electoral Commission and its replacement with a new Federal Electoral Institute (Instituto Federal Electoral--IFE). The IFE is a semiautononomous organization, consisting of representatives from government and the major political parties. It supervises elections and investigates complaints of irregularities. The IFE also administers the entire electoral process at the federal, state, and local levels. During the early 1990s, reforms of the IFE strengthened its capacity to serve as a nonpartisan electoral commission. These reforms included the introduction of majority nonpartisan representation (six out of eleven seats) in the IFE governing board, a legal framework for Mexican and foreign observers to monitor the elections, and an independent audit of the national voter list. Other electoral rules implemented during the Salinas sexenio included the compilation of a new and more accurate national electoral roll, and the issue of new voter registration cards bearing voter photographs and fingerprints.

The Salinas government reform program was twofold. It focused on economic growth and the replacement of wide-ranging subsidies to the middle class by a welfare program targeted at the poorest sectors of Mexican society. In a coordinated effort to stimulate economic growth and restructure the economy, Salinas promoted the privatization of state firms that brought more than US$10 billion to the Mexican government. The administration also launched an active campaign to increase foreign investment in Mexico. A second approach involved the massive National Solidarity Program (Programa Nacional de Solidaridad--Pronasol), which was to help the poor and attract political support (see Social Spending, ch. 2). Pronasol distributed several billion dollars, derived from privatization funds, aimed at delivering public works projects to poor areas within the country. Heavy government spending on social projects (schools, health clinics, and roads, among others) contributed to PRI victories in the 1991 midterm elections.

Two important events in 1994 led to dramatic political reforms. First came the Chiapas rebellion on New Year's Day, in which an army of some 2,000 peasants led by the masked Subcommander Marcos demanded social justice and democratization of the Mexican political system (see President Salinas, ch. 1). Two months later, PRI presidential candidate Colosio was assassinated while campaigning in Tijuana.

Despite the rhetoric calling for political reform and democratization, President Salinas actually strengthened the traditional pattern of centralized authority in the decision-making process. A clear example of the continuation of the dedazo was the tight control and secrecy around the unveiling of the second PRI presidential candidate, Zedillo, soon after Colosio's assassination. Critics charged that much of the effort to curb voting fraud stemmed not from a change in institutions but from the personal intervention of President Salinas. Electoral reform was also inhibited by a lack of meaningful political participation by women (who did not attain voting rights until 1954) and by ethnic minorities. Despite the glorification of Mexico's indigenous history in popular art and literature, Mexico's indigenous peoples have been largely marginalized in national politics.

Data as of June 1996

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