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  • Mexico’s New PoliticsThe Shape of the Future
  • John Bailey (bio) and Arturo Valenzuela (bio)

The elections of 6 July 1997 marked a watershed in Mexican history. Conducted by the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), an independent authority that worked closely with the country’s political parties to ensure a fair and transparent process, the elections confirmed that Mexico’s transition toward multiparty democracy is on track. Much of the edifice of one-party rule, in place since the 1930s, has crumbled. Founded on a dominant, single-term presidency with authority that transcended the laws, this system was buttressed by corporatist support structures, patronage networks, electoral manipulation, and legitimating myths stemming from the 1910 Revolution. Together, they upheld one of the most enduring regimes that Latin America and the developing world have ever seen.

Control over elections used to rest ultimately in the hands of the presidency, creating incentives that shaped political behavior from top to bottom. Whether in government or in opposition, political actors throughout the country took their cues from the office of the presidency in Mexico City.

The advent of credible voting “at the bottom,” combined with the appearance (partly deliberate and partly not) of presidential ambivalence “at the top,” has broken a key mechanism of authoritarian control and left the traditional political class adrift. The way now lies open to a democratic transition, albeit one shaped in the short term by a complex interplay of pressures. The initiative has shifted to other institutional arenas and opposition forces, and away from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which embodied Mexican politics for more than 60 years. [End Page 43]

Citizens have experienced a new empowerment. They can punish incumbents without fear, casting votes to reflect their interests as members of an increasingly complex and diverse society. Centralized control, mobilization, and symbolic appeals to such staple Revolutionary themes as agrarian reform, anticlericalism, and anti-Americanism must now give way to an emerging logic of political accountability based on multiple options that are effectively available at the ballot box. Accountability will reinforce the development of an independent press, the rise of transparency in governmental and intraparty affairs, and the emergence of new leadership styles driven by popular appeal and a changed discourse between leaders and followers.

Ernesto Zedillo, who as president is supposed to be the virtual embodiment of the regime, knows well the pressures for change and backs still broader reforms. Of course, he also seeks to advance the fortunes of his own party, causing mixed signals that inhibit coherent responses by the PRI, which contains differing currents whose disagreements will become ever more public. The political initiative rests with the disparate opposition coalition that holds a slender 11-seat majority in the 500-member Chamber of Deputies.

Pressures from the bottom and shifts at the top signal a period of volatility. Leadership and skill at maneuver (both strategic and tactical) will be key as institutions and practices are transformed. Yet new rules and institutions, along with the cultural values to support them, will take a long time, perhaps decades, to put down roots. The outlook for the next few years, then, is cloudy.

Parties and other elites must learn to form coalitions and negotiate solutions to issues of both substance and procedure, even as they forge a fresh compact—based on the inviolability of popular sovereignty and the rule of law—with an increasingly mobilized and independent citizenry. Although, in comparative terms, the prognosis for Mexico’s transition is favorable, the challenges are complex and daunting.

The institutional-reform agenda alone is extensive and complex. The old regime had “metaconstitutional” rules; policies and institutions were subject to informal negotiation. 1 With credible elections and an opposition majority in the Chamber, the formal constitutional and legal order will assume greater importance. New agreements will be needed to govern procedures within the Chamber, as well as relations among the Chamber, the Senate, the Interior Ministry, and the presidency. A new and more balanced form of federalism will be required. Although many items will compete for priority, the setting of fundamental national objectives through the budget process will emerge as critical, in both substantive and procedural terms. The judiciary and the...

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