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  • Mexico:Salinas and the PRI at the Crossroads
  • Wayne A. Cornelius (bio)

Is recent Mexican political history repeating itself? President Miguel de la Madrid began his six-year term in 1982 with a burst of political reformism. In the first half of 1983, his government strictly adhered to a policy of recognizing opposition-party victories in municipal elections, wherever they occurred. This resulted in a string of victories by the conservative National Action Party (PAN) in important cities of northern Mexico. Hard-liners within de la Madrid's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has governed Mexico since the late 1920s, quickly convinced him to truncate the political opening. The lesson of 1983 seemed to be that clean elections were a prescription for electoral disaster, in the absence of a thorough internal reform of the party.

Yet de la Madrid was not prepared to shift the focus of political reform from relations between the PRI and the opposition parties to the internal problems of the PRI itself. Reforming the PRI would have been far riskier and potentially more disruptive than making further concessions to the opposition parties. As de la Madrid's term wore on, the gap between economic modernization and political modernization grew ever wider. It was a glaring contradiction, never resolved, that contributed importantly to the PRI's electoral debacle of 1988, when the party's presidential candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, won with a bare majority (50.4 percent) amid charges of widespread PRI fraud from his challengers on both the left and the right. [End Page 61]

Within weeks of taking office, President Salinas proved he was far more of a political risk-taker than his predecessor by removing from power two of the Mexican political system's foremost "untouchables"—the longtime leaders of the oil workers' and teachers' unions. Salinas's July 1989 decision to recognize a PAN electoral victory in Baja California Norte—the first state governorship ever surrendered to an opposition party—was another act of political courage. But the government's dubious handling of the state elections in Michoacáin later that month cast a cloud over Salinas's reformist intentions that has not yet been dispelled.

Since then, the central authorities' willingness—and perhaps their capacity—to run clean elections and accept legitimate opposition-party victories has varied greatly from one state to another, and in some cases (notably Michoacáin) from one election to the next within the same state. Moreover, the electoral-law amendments that the Salinas government pushed through Congress in December 1989 seemed intended mainly to shore up the PRI's position and to guarantee the executive automatic majorities in the Congress, in anticipation of opposition challenges in future elections. These changes—to which the PAN acquiesced for tactical reasons—did little to enhance the Salinistas' credibility as political reformers.

In its dealings with the government-affiliated labor movement, the Salinas administration has been willing—indeed, eager—to eliminate widely detested national-level union bosses. These caciques have been replaced, however, by more servile leaders who lack credibility and a broad base of personal support among the union membership. Indeed, they have proven increasingly incapable of controlling their own unions (as exemplified most strikingly by the new head of the teachers' union, the nation's largest). Meanwhile, workers continue to press for greater democratization of their unions. They insist on their right to rid themselves of corrupt, authoritarian leaders at all levels of the union structure, and even to break with the PRl-affiliated national labor confederation and establish ties with independent union movements.

In sum, political change under Salinas thus far has been neither as rapid nor as wide-ranging as the opposition had hoped and the PRI old guard had feared. The Salinas team has been pursuing a gradual, incremental approach to political liberalization. It has tried to maintain as much cohesion as possible within the PRI-government apparatus, while still responding at least partially to the clamor for political change emanating from the public, the opposition parties, and the reform wing of the PRI itself.

Like his predecessor, Salinas is now being criticized for allowing political reform to lag too far behind economic change. Compared...


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