Is Mexican Democracy at Risk?

By Gonzalo Escribano

Starting in 1929, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) governed Mexico for 70 years. A famous wisecrack of Mario Vargas Llosa characterized the PRI’s government as “the perfect dictatorship.” It was indeed a beautifully Machiavellian system. The PRI managed to reproduce the State within the party, giving powerful positions to the elites of very different but evenly antagonistic sectors of Mexican society, quickly losing its ideological coherence and changing the party’s narrative at its convenience. The PRI controlled the media and was the self-described party of everyone: labor unions, organized peasants, the military, and the popular sector.

Relying on a Constitutional mandate prohibiting reelection, the PRI “elected” a new President every six years and Congress every three years. By doing so, the PRI managed to periodically rotate its key political functionaries, thereby avoiding major internal divisions. Furthermore, membership in the PRI represented important client benefits: they appeased power-seekers by offering them a political career through access to public and elected offices. Disappearances and homicides were the last resort of the hegemonic party, but did happen recurrently, especially during the so-called “Guerra Sucia (Dirty War)” of the 1960s and 1970s.

As much as this seems to be in Mexico’s past, it could not be more pertinent to the present: The PRI never left and may be stronger than ever. Last July, the PRI candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, won the presidential election. Twelve years after the PRI’s first defeat, the erratic and unfinished Mexican transition to democracy is at risk.

For many years now, the PRI has insisted their tactics have changed. And while their discourse has evolved, the party has clung to its historic symbols. In the 1980s and 1990s, the PRI relaxed its authoritarian hold on power. Notably, the first strong opposition to the party’s rule came from within, as did approval for the legislative reforms that lead to the developing democracy that Mexico is today. Nevertheless, this is the same party that ordered the killing of hundreds and the torture of thousands of students during and after a demonstration in Tlatelolco, Mexico City. This catastrophe was the climax of the Mexican chapter of the worldwide protests of 1968.  As with many other archaic PRI practices, clientelism (exchange of goods or services for political support) never ended; it is widespread, systematic, and has been adapted to a more competitive system.

The PRI maintains strong allies in the media. Without any kind of serious accountability provided by either civil institutions or market competition, Mexico’s media remains one of the most traditionally autocratic sectors influencing national politics today. The Guardian recently found that a few years ago, the PRI allegedly entered into a pact with Televisa, the largest television company in Latin America, to support and promote Peña.  

Prior to these presidential elections, Peña was governor of the State of Mexico. His governorship was marked by a massive publicity campaign; however, serious human rights violations were being perpetrated on his watch. These are best illustrated by the police operation to shut down a social movement in the capital of the Atenco municipality that resulted in the rape of at least 26 women and torture of many.  Peña is part of the Atlacomulco group, an extended family reputed as one of the most corrupt factions of the PRI.  He is the nephew and protégé of Arturo Montiel, another prominent figure of the Atlacomulco group.  Governor of the State of Mexico immediately preceding Peña, Montiel reluctantly withdrew his bid for the presidential candidacy of the PRI in 2006, after allegations of systemic corruption during his six years governing the State of Mexico were confirmed through the media’s exposure of the luxurious properties he acquired while in office, such as a castle in France. 

Evidence suggests Peña is likely to use the Executive power to pursue the PRI’s old agenda marked by corruption, soft authoritarianism, and maintaining the status quo.  As Peña ran without a clear political platform and is a self-described conservative, his political, economic, and social agendas—if he even has them—are a mystery. However, the PRI’s proven inability to face crisis situations without the use of force only adds to worries of an increase in human rights violations. In a country where freedom of expression is already threatened by organized crime, an extremely cozy relationship between government and the press could be the final nail in the coffin for a free and independent media in Mexico. There are signs, however, that the PRI’s expectation of unfettered rule over the next six years may be misguided.

Today, the PRI must deal with a vibrant political opposition that perceives Peña as a politician created on a television set. The one time he faced an audience outside of his comfort area, he was unable to handle the young but highly critical crowd at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City. To say the least, the incident was a result of serious mismanagement by Peña’s campaign team. He was invited, along with the three other presidential candidates, to participate in a forum with the primarily upper-middle class students of this famous Jesuit university. The crowd was ill-disposed from the get-go because of Peña’s initial unwillingness to participate in the event.  They were further irritated by the priority access given to young people from outside the University who were part of the PRI’s campaign. During the event, several students confronted Mr. Peña on several issues, including the case of Atenco, with placards created on the spot.  After he finished his speech and was leaving the university, Mr. Peña was confronted by a large crowd of students outside the lecture hall vehemently accusing him of abusing democracy and human rights. At the time, several analysts agreed:  Peña’s reluctance to participate in events where he would be obliged to go off script and confront real issues had been fueling students’ frustration with the candidate in the lead up to the event, which marked a turning point in the campaign.  Unable to face the challenge, Peña ended up hiding in a bathroom, behind his security team, until he felt he could leave the area.

The PRI’s most faithful press, the Mexican Editorial Organization, described the event as a success for Mr. Peña. Members of the PRI gave false assurances that infiltrators, probably coming from rival campaigns, orchestrated the incident.  The campaign launched a TV spot where two young men, later identified as graduates from another college, posed as students of the Ibero-American University vouching for the success of Peña.  This fabrication of the forum’s events by Peña’s team catalyzed a student movement that grew quickly through social media platforms. A video of 131 students from the Ibero-American University was posted to YouTube.  The video, in which the students identified themselves as real participants in the anti-Peña demonstration, aimed to show their discontent with Peña and how his campaign responded to the incident. Since then, the movement has expanded to many universities and broader Mexican society, acting as a democracy watch network focusing on the manipulation of the media. For the PRI, the student movement represents a destabilizing factor that is the product of Mexico’s young democracy: civil society.

Peña has since responded with a democratic Decalogue in which he promises to respect several constitutional mandates, such as freedom of speech and freedom of association. He has assured in several interviews that he is committed to democracy and the liberties that ensure its consolidation. However, we can must remain skeptical of Peña’s sincerity, not only because of his own past as governor, but also in light of the most recent scandal of the PRI’s governor of Veracruz and close ally to Peña, Javier Duarte, who proposed a law punishing journalists who attack political parties and politicians in his own state. Just recently, the conservative journalist and political commentator, Pedro Ferriz de Con, was fired from the TV news broadcast he hosted as well as from the column he held in the Excelsior newspaper, due to his strong and recurrent criticism of the president-to-be.

Thus, the defensive and preemptive authoritarian actions of Peña and his PRI allies warn us that Mexico’s democracy will face numerous attacks from its Executive branch during the coming six years, despite the promising discourse. Still, today’s Mexico is equipped to confront this challenge. The notion of an organized society as a force to be reckoned with clashes with the PRI’s understanding of politics, as they rightly perceive such actors as threats to their power ambitions. Mexico can thwart a full-fledged comeback of authoritarianism with two additional checks on the PRI government: First, a strong political opposition in Congress and a true defense of the rule of law by the Supreme Court. Second, the role of independent media will be crucial as a source of information and a facilitator of public debate. If over the next six years a vigilant civil society and effective political opposition can be reinforced by an assertive independent media, Mexico’s democracy can flourish, despite entrenched party interests.



Gonzalo Escribano is a Mexican political commentator and lecturer of Political Discourse Analysis and Political Theory at the Iberoamericana University of Mexico City. He can be followed @gonzescribano.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]



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