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  • Mexico’s New PoliticsThe Weight of the Past
  • Roberto E. Blum (bio)

The midterm elections held on 6 July 1997 seem to have brought Mexico to the verge of genuine democracy. The general consensus is that the electoral process was basically fair and transparent. No major acts of fraud were alleged, and the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost its seven-decade-old majority in the lower house of Congress, along with two of the six governorships at issue and the regency of the Federal District (DF), home to some 8.5 million of Mexico’s 97 million people. At the state level, opposition parties, notably the center-right National Action Party (PAN) and the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), now govern six out of every ten Mexicans. 1 President Ernesto Zedillo will find in the new Congress a counterbalance to the traditional power of Mexican presidencialismo. We may be witnessing the birth of a competitive multiparty political system. Mexico’s normally resilient authoritarian institutions appear to be in the throes of a fundamental crisis. Traditional control mechanisms are no longer working, and serious adjustments in the balance of power seem to be in the offing.

It is still unclear, however, whether the crisis of authoritarianism will lead to a functioning modern democracy, as many hope, or to some other chain of events, with unexpected and unpredictable outcomes. Democratization has tumbled down some of the world’s most conservative and stable authoritarian systems over the past decade, but the strength and inertia of Mexico’s traditional institutional system should [End Page 28] not be underrated. It not only features a well-adapted and dense institutional ecology, but it is run by a pragmatic, seasoned ruling class that has proven its ability to survive almost any conceivable social transformation by means of ideological maneuvering, iron-fisted control over the necessary strategic and tactical resources, and “marriages of convenience” with rising new political and economic elites. In the long run Mexico, no matter how unique it is in some ways, cannot be expected to hold out against the powerful global forces that are pushing for modernization and democracy. It is by no means assured, however, that it will be able to follow a short and direct path to democracy.

A Dense Institutional Ecology

Experience teaches that political change is more difficult when it must confront a well-structured and robust institutional context. Usually it is far easier to start something from scratch than to reform it successfully. Many observers have commented on Mexico’s extraordinarily dense institutional context, far richer and more complex than those of most other Latin American countries and comparable only to those of India and China. For more than four centuries, Mexico’s basic institutions have grown, multiplied, and adapted almost uninterruptedly to shifting circumstances. In this sense, Mexico, despite its history of “revolutions,” has suffered no radical break with the past. For all the turmoil that accompanied them, neither the first “revolution” of 1810 to 1824 nor the second “revolution” of 1910 to 1929 significantly changed Mexico’s basic institutions. On each occasion, a renewed equilibrium similar in kind to its predecessor returned after the social and political convulsions had passed. In the nineteenth century, for example, stability returned only after 1880, when a formally republican structure informally assumed the monarchical political powers that had existed before independence in 1821. Something similar occurred after 1929, when an informal but effective monarchy, limited to a six-year term of office, was established within a formally republican framework.

Interestingly, it has been only during periods of relatively high economic growth (1770–99, 1895–1909–1933–81) that Mexico’s social structure has undergone changes that affected political and institutional structures, straining them severely as they attempted to adapt to changing social demands. 2 On the first two occasions, a convergence of various internal and external developments drove the system to the breaking point. Events then snowballed, producing a violent and protracted reshuffle of the main political actors through a process popularly known as la bola. 3

In Mexico’s experience, “revolutions” have occurred only when 1) a period of economic growth and rising social expectations...