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  • Mexico’s New PoliticsThe Elections of 1997
  • Chappell Lawson (bio)

On 6 July 1997, Mexican voters delivered an overwhelming defeat to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has dominated their country’s political life for almost 70 years. In all, the PRI lost two of the six state-gubernatorial races and the regency of the Federal District (DF), as well as its absolute majority in the lower house of Congress. Although the PRI’s 39 percent share of the congressional vote leaves it Mexico’s largest party, it will now have to cooperate with the opposition in federal policy making. Mexico’s “great democratic fiesta,” as President Ernesto Zedillo termed the elections, thus heralds the end of the world’s most durable one-party regime.

Though he had campaigned hard for his party, President Zedillo accepted the opposition’s triumph with grace and statesmanship. On election night, standing before a gigantic portrait of President Benito Juárez, Zedillo recommitted himself to the democratic reforms that had helped to make the opposition’s victory possible. But the intended comparison with Juárez—Mexico’s great liberal reformer of the nineteenth century—was double-edged. Like Juárez, Zedillo will now be forced to deal with a fractious legislature controlled by potential rivals and adversaries. The election results thus entail all the risks—as well as the obvious benefits—of further democratization.

At stake on July 6 were the entire lower house of the federal legislature, one-quarter of the federal upper house, the regency of Mexico’s Federal District, six state governorships, and hundreds of lesser state and county offices. The single most prominent contest was for regent of the Federal District—a post previously filled by presidential appointment. This race went to Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, candidate of the [End Page 13] Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and leader of the country’s left for the last decade. His victory over PRI politician Alfredo del Mazo and conservative National Action Party (PAN) candidate Carlos Castillo Peraza signaled the revitalization of Mexico’s left and the political renaissance of its leader.

Despite the symbolism of the regent’s race, the most important contest was for Congress’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. Chamber representation is determined by a hybrid system that combines three hundred Westminster-style, single-member districts (SMDs) with two hundred seats allocated based on parties’ respective shares of the total vote. The complex formula for assigning those two hundred proportional-representation seats means that one party can achieve a majority either by winning more than 250 of the SMDs (a nearly impossible feat), or by securing at least 42.2 percent of the overall tally. As Table 1 shows, the PRI fell short of that magic number and lost its majority. The PRI’s traditional satellite parties also suffered losses. By contrast, both the PAN and the PRD (as well as the smaller Green Party) gained seats.

Table 1.
1997 Provisional Election Results for Chamber of Deputies
Party % of Valid Votes No. of Seats Gain/Loss
Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) 39 239 −59
National Action Party (PAN) 27 121 +2
Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) 26 125 +60
Green Party (PVEM) 4 8 +8
Labor Party (PT) 3 7 0
Others 1 0 −14

Source: Federal Electoral Institute (IFE).

Political reform, civic mobilization, and public disgust over corruption and economic mismanagement all contributed to the PRI’s defeat. Over the last decade, mobilization by civil society has pushed forward a halting, protracted process of political transition in Mexico. Elections have become fairer and more competitive; opposition representation has increased at all levels of government; the mass media have grown more independent and pluralistic; human rights abuses have declined; and Mexico’s powerful presidency has lost its pharaonic quality. By 1997, political liberalization had created a climate in which opposition parties could expect to compete on a roughly equal footing with the PRI. In this context, public disenchantment with various aspects of PRI rule translated directly into votes for the opposition.

Perhaps the chief institutional manifestation of Mexico’s transition is the “reform of the state,” negotiated by the country’s main political [End Page...