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Journal of Democracy 11.4 (2000) 5-19

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Mexico's Victory

The Democratic Revelation

Andreas Schedler


On 2 July 2000, Mexican citizens threw out the world's longest-reigning political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had held power in Mexico for most of the twentieth century. In recent years, there has been heated debate about whether Mexico qualified as an electoral democracy; now, it is clear and beyond dispute. Mexico has reaffirmed its membership in the international democratic community. Yet the democratic fiesta of July 2 did not suddenly give birth to democracy; it merely made visible fundamental changes that had been taking place under the veil of governmental continuity.

The PRI was founded in 1929, in the aftermath of the civil wars of 1910-20, to put an end to armed strife between regional warlords and rival revolutionary factions. In its 71 years of continuous rule, the party accomplished this basic mission. It brought a degree of social peace and political stability widely admired throughout Latin America. At the same time, however, it set up an authoritarian regime whose nature seemed as exceptional as its longevity. Scholars have been creative in coining concepts to classify the unclassifiable, describing Mexico under PRI rule as a civilian, inclusive, corporatist, and hyperpresidential authoritarian regime held together by a hegemonic state party. As the Latin American regional pendulum swung from democracy to authoritarianism and back again, Mexico's semiliberal "authoritarianism with adjectives" always seemed to be out of phase.

Yet the notion of Mexican exceptionalism was flawed from the [End Page 5] beginning. The country's hegemonic-party regime was not sui generis; it belonged to a species that was widespread in the past and is spreading again in the present--electoral authoritarianism. Electoral autocracies reproduce and legitimate themselves through periodic elections that show some measure of pluralism but fall short of minimum democratic standards. Their violations of liberal-democratic norms may be manifold, and Mexico had nearly all of them in place: limitations on civil liberties, restrictions upon party and candidate registration, electoral fraud, electoral corruption through vote-buying and coercion, and a dramatically uneven playing field, with the ruling party enjoying a near-monopoly of access to media and campaign resources.

At the same time, Mexico's postrevolutionary regime showed a deep respect for the forms of electoral democracy. Since 1934, presidential elections have been held with clocklike precision every six years, punctuating a dense calendar of regular legislative, gubernatorial, and municipal elections. Yet these democratic forms were hollow rituals, given the systematic absence of minimal democratic guarantees. Over the decades, the combination of fine-tuned antidemocratic restrictions and genuine popular support made the PRI regime unbeatable. As the country's protracted transition to democracy finally got under way in the early 1980s, however, opposition parties succeeded in gradually undermining both pillars of this regime: its antidemocratic structures and its popular legitimacy.

An Ambiguous Transition

Students of Mexican politics tend to think that the country's democratic transition was as exceptional as the regime that it brought to an end. Without doubt, that regime had some peculiar traits. While transitions from military rule center on the negotiation of military prerogatives, transitions from electoral authoritarianism revolve around the incumbent party's electoral prerogatives. Moreover, Mexico went through the unusual experience of a regime change without a change of government. A "silent revolution" transformed its electoral infrastructure, its party system, its legislative politics, and its federal system under the deceptive surface of constitutional and governmental continuity. Compared to the early "third wave" transitions in Southern Europe and South America, the Mexican transition looked like a distinctly postmodern phenomenon characterized by multiple absences: no collapse, no foundational elections, no big pacts, no constitutional assembly, and no alternation in power. 1

Still, in its basic dynamics, the Mexican transition was played out along the lines of the standard four-player game between authoritarian incumbents (split into "hard-liners" and "soft-liners") and a democratic opposition (split into "moderates" and "maximalists"). The divisions on both sides faithfully reflected the basic dilemmas of the ancien régime. Under electoral [End...