- Courting Democracy in Mexico: Party Strategies and Electoral Institutions, and: Mexico Under Fox
The past 20 years have brought extraordinary changes to the Mexican political system. Once an authoritarian regime controlled by the hegemonic Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Mexico is now an emerging democracy in which political parties compete in open elections and voters understand that electoral results are anything but predetermined. The presidential domination of the past has given way to a more even distribution of power among branches and levels of government. But [End Page 180] Mexico's evolution toward democracy has been anything but linear and straightforward. Indeed, it has progressed in fits and starts over a 30-year period, and although many claimed that PAN candidate Vicente Fox's victory in the 2000 presidential election was the culmination of the democratic transition, it is clear four years later that the Mexican political system will require more time and more changes to become a full-fledged democracy.
These two books offer a detailed look at two different aspects of Mexico's transition. Todd Eisenstadt's Courting Democracy in Mexico focuses on explaining the processes that ultimately paved the way for Fox's election in 2000, while Luis Rubio and Susan Kaufman Purcell's edited volume Mexico Under Fox evaluates Fox's performance during the first three years of his term and reflects on its implications for the future prospects of democracy in Mexico. Both books make solid contributions to our understanding of the Mexican experience and provide important insights into the broader phenomenon of democratic transitions.
Eisenstadt's book is a remarkably detailed and comprehensive analysis of Mexico's "protracted" move away from a single-party authoritarian system. Based on exhaustive empirical research and equipped with a strong research design, it ambitiously seeks to demonstrate that informal institutions, in this case subnational postelectoral conflicts, were more important than formal ones (that is, electoral courts) in determining the nature of Mexico's transition to democracy. Eisenstadt argues that Fox's victory in 2000, and therefore the country's ability to turn the corner in the transition to democracy, was made possible by a series of state and local postelectoral struggles in which the opposition was able to exact concessions from the PRI.
According to Eisenstadt, recurrent economic crises and rampant corruption only partly explain why the PRI suffered a legitimacy crisis in the 1980s and 1990s. At least equally important was that the PRI helped sow the seeds of its own demise by negotiating agreements that allowed the PAN (and the PRD to a lesser extent) to take office at the state and municipal levels. These agreements undermined PRI hegemony by alienating its subnational bases of support and giving the PAN an opportunity to establish a strong track record and strengthen its national profile. By the same token, the PRD's unwillingness or inability to negotiate similar compromises explains, in part, why that party was not as successful in the 2000 presidential elections.
Eisenstadt builds on the notion that informal institutions are often more important than formal ones—an assertion that contradicts much of the accepted wisdom offered by "new institutional" approaches and that is gaining momentum among Latin Americanists (for example, Lauth 2000). Moreover, the book provides compelling evidence that we should not be tempted by the "electoralist fallacy" (Schmitter and Karl [End Page 181] 1991) that equates ostensibly free and fair elections with democracy. Yet there is much more to this book. For example, chapter 2 explains that contrary to popular thinking, the Mexican transition was rooted not in structural economic factors but instead resulted from the PRI's decision to liberalize Mexico's electoral laws between 1977 and 1996—a decision chosen in order to appease and control the opposition, and later to consolidate the technocrats' power in the party. Eisenstadt's reintroduction of agency is...