What the Democratization of Mexico Means for All the World

Monday, October 30, 2000


icente Fox’s presidential election victory in Mexico on July 2 was more than a shattering defeat for the world’s longest-ruling governing party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI); it was also a hugely significant victory for democracy. In Mexico, it puts a long-overdue end to seven decades of rotten, cynical control by a single party over a swollen and abused state. In Latin America, it ends the biggest exception to the two-decade-long regional swing toward genuine electoral competition.

Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.

Globally, it brings democracy to the most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world. And for the United States, it offers hope that a more accountable government will accelerate the construction not only of a market economy but of a true rule of law. To do this, the new government must overcome the enormous power of gangsters, narcotraffickers, and the local party bosses of the PRI, who too often have been one and the same.

The “Perfect Dictatorship” Comes to an End

Fox’s victory (by a stunningly large and unanticipated margin) terminated a system of government that had fused the party and the state. So seductively had Mexico’s multiparty system offered the illusion of electoral choice while perpetuating PRI hegemony that the famed Mexican poet Octavio Paz called it “the perfect dictatorship.”

The PRI’s defeat marks the completion of a tortured process of transition to democracy in Mexico, which would probably have happened 12 years earlier if the PRI had not blatantly rigged the presidential election count in 1988, vaulting Carlos Salinas to victory when he was trailing Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. During his six-year term as president, Salinas began a historic process of opening, liberalizing, and privatizing Mexico’s economy. These economic reforms were accompanied (and heavily undermined), however, by levels of cronyism and corruption that were breathtaking even for a system that had long privileged the distribution of private and public goods.

Vicente Fox’s presidential election victory puts a long-overdue end to seven decades of rotten, cynical control by a single party over a swollen and abused state.

Salinas left office a reviled figure. It took a very different technocrat-president, Ernesto Zedillo, to bite the bullet of political reform. Zedillo’s willingness to accept a new, independent electoral administration—and his determination to permit it to operate for the first time without PRI direction and manipulation—was indispensable to Mexico’s transition. This political transformation, however, did not come without heavy international pressure and an extraordinary outpouring of energy, courage, and mobilization from Mexican nongovernmental organizations, such as the Civic Alliance. Already by 1997—when the PRI lost control of Congress in midterm elections—it was apparent that a free and fair presidential election in the year 2000 could produce the litmus test of democracy: alternation in power.

In 2000, even the poor woke up and—fed up—abandoned the PRI. One mother told a correspondent, “We had been feeding the PRI for a long time with our votes and they left us with nothing.” That was not quite true. The PRI fed the poor in return but only at election time, when everything from bread to building materials flowed like water from the faucets of the party-state. Mexican voters did in 2000 what citizens of any other free political system do when they view the ruling party to be corrupt, wasteful, unresponsive, or even just a little too arrogant. They voted for change. And not only in Mexico.

The lessons of the Mexican election speak to all of Latin America but especially to the Andean region, where democracy is in crisis because virtually all the traditional party elites have been corrupt, arrogant, and unresponsive. Venezuela’s recent electoral embrace of the autocratic leftist populist Hugo Chavez (who had led two attempted military coups against democracy in the early 1990s) shows how even a long-standing democracy can slide back toward strong-man rule when the institutions do not deliver accountable government and broadly distributed growth.

A Year of Upheaval

The year 2000 has been a global waterloo for one-party-dominant regimes. In March, the Kuomintang (KMT) went down to defeat after half a century in power in Taiwan. That same month, the Socialist Party lost power in Senegal after four decades of hegemonic rule and electoral fraud behind a democratic facade that too many Westerners took as real. The 1998 electoral victory of Kim Dae Jung in Korea also came at the expense of a party that traced its lineage continuously back to authoritarian rule in the 1980s.

he new government in Mexico must overcome the enormous power of gangsters, narcotraffickers, and the local party bosses of the PRI—who all too often have been one and the same.

Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has trudged listlessly through the 1990s, first losing power, then regaining it, but all the while watching its underlying base of political support continue to shrink. If the principal opposition party in Japan is ever able to do what the opposition parties in Korea and Taiwan did—unite behind a strong political reform leader who can articulate a clear vision of alternative policies—then the LDP will probably meet the same fate as other long-dominant ruling parties.

In Taiwan, the ruling KMT lost because of a party split, the result of five decades in power that had bred arrogance, complacency, and a deaf ear to popular grievances. If Taiwanese voters could not help but be pleased with the country’s extraordinary economic achievements and resilience, they were nevertheless fed up with the rampant corruption, known locally as “black and gold” politics. (“Black” refers to the local organized crime factions that the KMT increasingly relied on to mobilize votes and then protected from prosecutors. “Gold” refers to the huge reserves of party and government wealth that the KMT mobilized to buy votes in every campaign.) The KMT, having realized that these methods could not work in a media-saturated presidential election with an informed and independent-minded electorate, is now going through the bracing process of transformation into a modern political party that will have to compete on the basis of superior ideas, candidates, and voter appeal.

The grand prize for political arrogance and self-delusion must go to the party that now inherits the PRI’s dubious mantle as the world’s longest ruling—China’s Communist Party.

In Mexico, the PRI will either follow the same course of internal reform as the KMT (and beat the same path to think tanks and party institutes in established democracies), or it will likely perish of its own dinosauric weight.

An Impatient Electorate

For his National Action Party, but most of all for his country, Vicente Fox will have to govern artfully and quickly because Mexican voters, like those elsewhere around the world, are increasingly impatient, watchful, and demanding. (As the divided democrats recently discovered in Mongolia—where the Communists swept back into power in an electoral landslide—what goes around can come around if democrats do not deliver minimally effective and coherent government.) The challenge facing Fox will be particularly daunting because his party will lack a majority in Congress and because the rot of seven decades of venal, unaccountable rule has seeped deep into the bureaucracy, the justice system, the police, and other public institutions. One encouraging development is that Fox has pledged that legal and judicial reform will be one of his highest priorities.

Mexico’s lessons resonate beyond the nondemocracies and troubled or partial democracies of the world. Even in vigorously democratic party systems, public patience with ruling parties (indeed, all parties) has visibly diminished in the past two decades. This is why Al Gore is locked in a tight race with George W. Bush, even though the social science models would predict that he should be leading comfortably, given the booming economy and the incumbent president’s high job approval ratings. In Britain, Tony Blair is finding that on several crucial issues (such as whether Britain will abandon the pound for the euro) he must get his governing act together if he wants to win another term. His once huge lead in the polls over the Conservative Party has nearly vanished. As public confidence in political leaders and institutions has steadily declined, voters appear more ready than ever to punish incumbents.

Still, the grand prize for political arrogance and self-delusion must go to the party that now inherits the PRI’s dubious mantle as the world’s “longest ruling“—China’s Communist Party–for which the global trends can only be unnerving. China’s Communists are damned if they don’t and damned if they do. If they don’t continue opening up the economy to world trade and opening society to the Internet, they won’t be able to keep the economy growing at anything like the rate necessary to hold the ticking time bomb of popular frustration at bay. However, if they do continue to globalize and develop China, they are also damned, sooner or later. For, like members of any long-ruling, hegemonic party, they are too corrupt to do it fairly and transparently, and globalization will bring in China what it brought in Mexico: a more skillful, informed, assertive, and well-organized citizenry. The WTO will do to China’s Communist Party what NAFTA did to the PRI’s dominance in Mexico. And the only way China’s Communists can resist it is by wrecking the economic development they need in order to survive in the short run.

The Communist Party will leave power in China either through some version of the peaceful evolution that Taiwan and Mexico have experienced or through a cathartic upheaval. If the party’s planners ponder how ugly the latter scenario could be, the fate of the PRI this past July will look pretty benign.