Vicente Fox's 6.4-point margin of victory over Francisco Labastida on Sunday, July 2, not only ended the reign of the world's longest-ruling party but was the first time in Mexican history that power has passed from one government to another peacefully and democratically.
The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) held power for seventy years on the basis of vote-buying, control over the news media, intimidation, and outright fraud. The party allowed rival parties to gain seats in Congress to maintain a facade of democracy, but it always sustained overwhelming majorities. The PRI's "perfect dictatorship" ensured stability by allowing outgoing presidents to handpick their successors and then forcing them to retire from the political scene.
The PRI finally lost power in the 1990s because of three fundamental changes in Mexico. First, the PRI lost the ability to produce economic growth. Since 1982 Mexican average incomes have been flat. Second, the attempt by President Carlos Salinas to reverse economic decline by opening up the economy weakened the party's political control. NAFTA, for example, created a new class of businesspeople dependent not on the state's favors but on their ability to compete internationally. Third, a wave of assassinations prompted by infighting within the PRI and the outbreak of the insurgency in Chiapas led many Mexicans to see the PRI as a source of disorder and violence.
In addition to changing the governing party, Fox's landslide severely weakens the power of the Mexican president. On paper, Mexico's Constitution resembles the checks and balances of the United States, but its one-party rule gave the president unquestioned authority and discretion. President Fox, however, will have to negotiate initiatives with a freely elected Congress, meaning that future agreements between Mexico and the United States will have to navigate an open political process on both sides of the border.
The Fox victory may also mean the end of the PRI as an influential political party. One reason that the PRI dominated Mexican politics for so long was that it controlled a huge patronage machine, at the center of which sat the president. With the presidency now at the hands of another party, using the federal treasury to reward political allies will be impossible. The end result may be a multiparty system in which the PRI is not a major player.
Finally, the Fox landslide has the potential to bring effective government to Mexico. Over the past decade, Fox's party (the PAN) won a number of governorships in northern Mexico. The federal government responded by cutting federal aid to those states. PAN governors, such as Vicente Fox in the state of Guanajuato, were therefore forced to eliminate large swathes of bureaucracy. The end result was an improved level of public service at lower cost. These states have also made headway in reducing the corruption endemic to nearly all transactions between Mexican citizens and state officials. Voters noticed and gave the PAN the chance to do the same at the federal level. The challenge is to meet their expectations.