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Mexico 2018: end of an era and regime change?

This is a truly historic moment, even though the candidates seem not to acknowledge it. The election opens the opportunity for a democratic shake-up to get Mexico out of a long night of violence. Español

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For almost three decades, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the National Action Party (PAN) center-right coalition dominated Mexican politics. Enemies at the polls, the PRI and the PAN were friends in government. This was a coalition that promoted ambitious market-oriented reforms, but often hindered democratic development.

But the PRI-PAN alliance is now dead. The PAN is competing for the presidency at the forthcoming elections (scheduled for July 1st 2018) allied with the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the former standard-bearer of the Mexican left and the most vocal opponent of the PRI-PAN alliance.

In the midst of a deep crisis of corruption, insecurity and gross human rights violations, the new PAN-PRD alliance is competing with the new standard bearers of the Mexican left, Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his National Regeneration Movement (Morena), for what looks like an imminent alternation of parties in presidential power.

The question is whether this end of an era will usher in the possibility of completing the regime change which began with the defeat of the PRI in the 2000 presidential elections.

At the start of the presidential campaign, the question is whether this end of an era will usher in the possibility of completing the regime change which began with the defeat of the PRI in the 2000 presidential elections, but failed to materialize in the advent of a liberal democracy. To understand the main parameters of the forthcoming elections and the foreseeable future, we must take stock of the democratic deficit legacy of the PRI-PAN coalition.

The PRI-PAN alliance was born when the PAN decided to endorse the electoral fraud that led to the presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, from the PRI, in 1988. In exchange, the PRI promoted some profound legislative changes that the PAN had championed for years: the end of agrarian reform, the privatization of the banking system, and the normalization of relations between Church and State.

The signing of the North American Trade Agreement (NAFTA) cemented the alliance, which moved Mexico into a sustained path of market-oriented reforms and trade liberalization. As part of this quid-pro-quo, the democratization of the electoral management bodies was postponed – right until the 1994 Zapatista uprising, when the government pulled away from the Federal Electoral Institute. Relatively clean elections were held in 2000, and the PAN managed to remove the PRI from the presidency.

With the PAN in power, the PAN-PRI coalition reinvented itself. Given the PRI’s promise to support the presidential agenda of economic and social reforms in exchange for impunity, President Vicente Fox aborted a transitional justice project aimed at dealing with the country’s repressive past. Fox did not get near to touching any PRI’s nerves. He also did not reform the Army, the police, the secret service, the Attorney General’s Office or the public prosecutors – the institutions which had played a central role in the repression of thousands of political dissidents for decades. And in true PRI fashion, Fox made use of the Attorney General’s office for political purposes - to harass López Obrador, his political nemesis and main contender to the succession. Under Fox, macroeconomic stability and market-oriented reforms were consolidated but democratic rule of law was postponed.

The victory of PAN’s Felipe Calderón deepened the PAN-PRI alliance. This time, it was the PRI which allowed Calderón to take office in the midst of serious questioning of the 2006 elections’ process. In exchange, Calderón exonerated a repressive PRI governor (Oaxaca) and a pedophile (Puebla). With the support of the PRI, Calderón started the war on drugs and deployed the Army in the country’s most conflictive areas. Faced with the savage spiral of violence generated by this intervention, Calderón politicized the war on drugs: he supported PAN governors trying to contain soaring violence; he reached out to some PRI governors; but left adrift leftist governors and accused them of corruption, ineptitude and drug trafficking.

Like Fox, he made use of the Attorney General’s office for political purposes and persecuted left-wing mayors for alleged collusion with drug traffickers. The war resulted in a dramatic increase in the military budget and it gave the armed forces autonomy from civilian rule and impunity for the numerous atrocities committed in combat. Under Calderón, macroeconomic stability was maintained and market-oriented reforms were deepened but the country experienced a bloodshed and the flimsy rule of law trampled on.

With Enrique Peña Nieto’s victory and the PRI’s return to the presidency, the PRI-PAN alliance was re-founded. This time, however, the coalition was joined by the PRD, which produced a leftist exodus from this party led by López Obrador. The PRI-PAN-PRD coalition allowed for major second-generation economic reforms. But the lack of effective checks and balances turned Peña Nieto’s presidency into a corruption quagmire both at federal and state levels.

With no one questioning it, the president maintained his predecessor’s failed war on drugs strategy and the country reached unprecedented levels of criminal violence and human rights violations. In the midst of a profound credibility crisis and in fear of the future, Peña Nieto has politicized the judiciary as never before: he has filled all the key posts in the judicial bodies with stalwarts, he has twisted the law to persecute his critics, and he has trampled again the country’s weak rule of law.

With a homicide rate of 24 per 100, 000 inhabitants, more than 120, 000 dead in conflicts related to organized crime, more than 30, 000 disappeared and hundreds of journalists and social activists killed after ten years of the war on drugs, today Mexican voters see insecurity, corruption and impunity as the country's main problems. With the implosion of the PRI-PAN partnership and the PRI’s absolute disrepute, Mexico is faced with the possibility of paying off the historical debt of the PRI-PAN partnership: the development of a democratic rule of law.

Mexico needs a real democratic shake-up; an accountability shock that would enable the country to get out from a long night of violence.

The candidates, however, do not seem to acknowledge the fact that the country finds itself in a truly historical moment. López Obrador toys with the idea of pacifying the country through the granting of pardons, and Ricardo Anaya (the PAN-PRD candidate) babbles his intention to support a truth commission and an international mechanism against impunity.

Coming from a discredited political class, this sounds like empty words. They are empty indeed if the candidates do not address impunity and its three ramifications: corruption, crime, and gross human rights violations. They are empty if their proposals fail to put the victims at the center of the truth and justice processes.

Mexico needs a real democratic shake-up; an accountability shock that would enable the country to get out from a long night of violence. This institutional shake-up will come from civil society in cooperation with international institutions and the parties will have to learn not to block it, but to accompany it and carry it through. 

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A Spanish version of this article was previously published at Animal Político.

About the author

Guillermo Trejo es profesor de ciencia política de la Universidad de Notre Dame, Indiana, y fellow del Kellogg Institute for International Studies.

Guillermo Trejo is a lecturer in Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, and a research fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies. 


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