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Latin American Research Review 40.3 (2005) 417-428

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Mexico's Long-Awaited Surprise

University of South Alabama
An Eternal Struggle: How The National Action Party Transformed Mexican Politics. By Michael J. Ard. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. Pp. xviii + 228. $64.95 cloth.)
Electoral Competition And Institutional Change In Mexico. By Caroline C. Beer. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003. Pp. xiv + 208. $45.00 cloth, $20.00 paper.)
Mexico's Pivotal Democratic Election: Candidates, Voters, And The Presidential Campaign Of 2000. Edited by Jorge I. Domínguez and Chappell H. Lawson. (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003. Pp. xxvi + 363. $75.00 cloth, $27.95 paper.)
Courting Democracy In Mexico: Party Strategies And Electoral Institutions. By Todd A. Eisenstadt. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2004. Pp. xv + 354. $70.00 cloth.)
From Martyrdom To Power: The Partido AcciÓN Nacional In Mexico. By Yemile Mizrahi. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003. Pp. xii + 224. $45.00 cloth, $20.00 paper.)

Paradoxically the Partido Revolucionario Institucional's (PRI) loss in the 2000 Mexican presidential election was both shocking and expected. The PRI had held power forever (seventy-one years) and seemed invincible. It was the largest political party in the country, maintained an unmatched electoral machine and had long enjoyed the support of a biased state adept at using reforms and fraud to help maintain its hegemony. In fact, right up until the elections in July, polls showed the PRI would divide the opposition enough to win the needed plurality. Hence the surprise many felt that evening when official returns showed Vicente Fox of Acción Nacional (PAN) leading the PRI's Francisco Labastida, the electoral computers still running, and President Ernesto Zedillo (the last PRI president?) on national television accepting the PRI's defeat.* [End Page 417] For most it seemed remarkable, a fundamental transformation in Mexican politics and the long-awaited birth of democracy. And yet, at the same time the 2000 vote was expected. After all, the latest installment in a long series of electoral reforms had divorced the electoral institutions from the PRI government, leveling the playing field and diminishing the likelihood of fraud. Decade-long voting patterns unfavorable to the PRI by and large remained consistent. And the opposition, already controlling numerous statehouses, municipal presidencies, and the Chamber of Deputies, simply won another post. From this angle, it seemed like a small, almost inevitable step and the crowning of a lengthy transition. Indeed, no hay mal que dure cien años ni un tonto que lo aguante.

Whether shocking or expected, the PRI's defeat and Mexico's long road to democracy pose some rather obvious questions. How could the PRI lose? How could the PAN—hardly a mass-based party that had never captured more than 27 percent in any presidential election (usually less than 20 percent)—pull it off? When did authoritarianism end and democracy begin? And what happens now? The five books under review provide essential insights into the historic defeat of the PRI and the nature of Mexico's political transition. The single-authored monographs by Ard, Beer, Eisenstadt, and Mizrahi dissect the gradual process of change. They detail the patterns of electoral competition, the mix of negotiations and reforms, the contestation and construction of democratic institutions, the rise of the PAN, and the fall of the PRI. The team assembled by Domínguez and Lawson, in turn, empirically analyze the role the 2000 campaign played in shaping the outcome.

Mexico's Unique Transition

The Mexican transition to democracy, as most of the authors here stress, differs fundamentally from the elite-pacted transitions described in the democratization literature (e.g. O'Donnell and Schmitter 1986; Przeworski 1991). This stems largely from the fact that the PRI-led regime, unlike most authoritarian governments that succumbed to democracy, not only appropriated the language of democracy, but allowed for parties and elections (and other ostensibly democratic institutions). Carefully balancing legitimacy and control (Molinar 1991), the PRI-government (always "new and improved" every six years!) championed...


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