A Warning for México: If the PRI Can’t Tame Itself, You Can’t...

A Warning for México: If the PRI Can’t Tame Itself, You Can’t Either


It would seem many American observers have called the upcoming Mexican, which will take place this Sunday, a foregone conclusion resulting in the victory of Enrique Peña Nieto, and the re-institution of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) into the presidency.

Some articles, such as the recent one featured in The Economist, have dutifully recounted the corruption and democratic degradation Mexico endured through seven decades of PRI rule. However, these same commentators seem to have embraced the notion that while the PRI may not have changed, Mexico’s democratic institution have grown stronger, and will be able to resist backsliding, were the PRI to try anything funny.

This notion is dangerous, as it underestimates the precarious nature of Mexican democracy.  In the face of an imminent victory for Mr. Peña Nieto (as suggested by polls that place him ahead of both Andrés Manuel López Obrador (PRD) and Josefina Vázquez Mota (PAN), the Economist has recognized the risks of a PRI restoration to power. However, it has also insisted that:

“[F]ortunately, Mexico has changed much in the quarter-century since the PRI’s monopoly of power began to crack. Democracy has nurtured some independent institutions, such as the Supreme Court, the Congress, the central bank, and print and social media. And by embracing globalisation, Mexico has opened itself to outside scrutiny.”

And therefore,

“All this means that if Mr Peña attempted a restoration, he would face resistance.”

But the problem with this reasoning is that it overestimates modest democratic advances and assumes they are both self-sustainable and a viable check on the PRI’s trademark tactics. Let’s look at some of these nurtured independent institutions, and their PRI moderating potential.

The Supreme Court

During the mid-1990s, a constitutional mandate granted the Mexican Supreme Court budgetary autonomy as well as protections for judges against blackmail and intimidation.

While such independence was important, it didn’t much improve the effectiveness of the judicial system, or rule of law. Impunity rates hover around 98% and the inquisitorial (guilty until proven innocent) trial structure that prevailed for decades has only recently been switched to an accusatorial (innocent until proven guilty) system.

In an effort to improve the situation, a package of judicial reforms was introduced in 2008. However, “the Supreme Court has made little progress in developing a new Federal Code of Criminal Procedure.”

If Mexico’s judicial system is unable to sustain efforts for its own improvement, how exactly will it pose resistance to party responsible for much of its weakness?

The Congress

A key improvement in the structure of the Mexican Congress would be to allow the re-election of legislators. Given that much of Mexico’s political history involves head honchos seizing and then refusing to relinquish power, Mexican democracy was founded on the principle of no reelection.

However, it’s become increasingly evident that such a principle is disastrous in the Congress.

Imagine a world where Congress can only be three years old before being reset. Legislators barely have an opportunity to understand the inner workings of Congress before they are kicked out. This system drains all continuity from legislative efforts.

So, it would be very helpful to push reforms that would allow some scheme for reelection in the legislature. Well, Mr. Peña Nieto has already opposed such a measure, applauding the PRI’s opposition to Congressional reelection. And in Mexico, an ineffective Legislative body translates to a disproportionately influential Executive, conceivable headed by Mr. Peña Nieto.

The Media

It is also unclear how print and social media are immune from potential government power encroachment. The PRI has already established its preference for media manipulation and co-option, but the claim is that these institutions have matured to the point where they could impede a return to such tactics.

That notion seems rather quixotic, as Mexico’s media seems to be as vulnerable as ever.

Just recently, it agreed to voluntary censorship to curb attacks on journalists by drug cartels, and to only divulge police information and tactics judiciously. The drug war has revealed many vulnerabilities to civil society in general. Think of President Calderon’s threats to take legal action against those who brought war crime allegations against him to the international criminal court.

There are the institutions that will keep the PRI honest? Journalists persecuted by drug cartels and left out in the cold (if not sued) by their government?


Nor will globalization ensure Mexico’s democratic health in the case of a victory for the PRI, as the article in the Economist would suggest. Commentators making these “globalization makes the world safe for democracy” arguments usually overlook two aspects of globalization.

First, globalization is not irreversible. While trade interests are important, several other factors – geopolitics, domestic pressures, ideology, etc. – can force a country to avoid globalization and seek autarky instead. Such exercises of self-sufficiency might be futile, and ultimately destructive to countries, but the point is that globalization is not an unrelenting, self-propelling force.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, even if globalization were unstoppable, there is no reason why it will ensure democratic institutions prevail in Mexico. For the umpteenth time folks: globalization does not equal democracy. Plenty of countries have found ways to integrate their economies with the rest of the world, while maintaining democratic progress stifled.

Think of China, it’s both the third largest trader in the world (after the United States and Germany) and one of the countries with the worst records on democratic institutions. A point the Economist itself has made in the past.

So, Mr. Peña Nieto might win the election, and might inevitably do so. But such a forecast should not incite calls for comfortable, teleological horizons where all roads lead to democracy. Mexican citizens and civil society, should they decide to place the PRI back in power, should do so with extreme caution.

Old habits die hard.  New institutions are not born easy.


  1. The problem with Mexico is the people who can make a difference are happy with the way things are going. Get stopped by the cops, pay then off. Need to get something done in the government, pay them off. Lie, cheat, steal, whatever it takes to get what I want. I think it is funny that everyone wants Mexico to change except Mexicans.

  2. […] The victory of presidential candidate Peña Nieto has been received with pessimism among public opinion and social media users in the country. Middle class voters living in urban areas believe the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, the single party that ruled the country for seven decades, represents a return to authoritarian regime and corrupt practices. […]