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  The Rise and Fall of Mexican Politics

Mexico's Major Political Parties

PRI | PAN | PRD

By Aileen S. Yoo
Washingtonpost.com Staff
Updated August 1998

For most of the 20th century, one party has dominated Mexican politics. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (known by its Spanish initials, PRI) embodied the ideals of the 1910 revolution that rang as a theme for Mexican politics. It became clear, however, that the PRI-dominated Congress served merely as a rubber stamp for the president. As charges surfaced that the party perpetuated corruption and the widening disparity between the elite and rural poor, the people responded.

The 1997 elections were a political watershed for Mexico. The world's longest-ruling party lost control of the lower house of Congress, giving other parties greater representation and marking what many analysts have described as the beginning of a multiparty democracy.


Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI)
The Institutional Revolutionary Party symbolized the values of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, which dismantled the old political and social system and helped usher in the 1917 constitution. Plutarco Elias Calles formed the National Revolutionary Party in 1929; the current name appeared by 1946. Started as a union of local and state groups, the party became a coalition of labor, agrarian and "popular" sectors that gave it broad-based support.

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President Ernesto Zedillo addresses the lower house of Congress. (AP)
The PRI, generally considered moderately left-wing, maintained its political dominance for 68 years by weakening any resolve for a political coup by appeasing the middle and lower classes with political opportunities and favors in exchange for votes. Electoral fraud, ballot tampering, violence and bribery were also used.

The party's power slowly eroded. In 1988 many PRI members left to form an opposition group, the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD). The elections that year were a wake-up call – the PRI lost 48 percent of its seats in the lower house of Congress. And while the PRI's Carlos Salinas won the presidency, capturing slightly over 50 percent of the vote, its share of the presidential vote dropped significantly.

In the July 1997 elections, the world's longest-ruling party lost control of the lower house of Congress, which analysts said was the result of voters' anger about corruption. While the PRI still holds 239 seats, the largest number in the 500-seat Congress, it falls short of the 251 seats needed for a majority. The combined opposition holds 261 seats: The Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) captured 125 seats; the National Action Party (PAN), 121; the Green Party, eight; and the Labor Party, seven.

The PRI also battled controversy within its own ranks. The 1994 assassinations of leading presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio of the PRI and second-ranking PRI official Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu sparked allegations that the murders were linked to the party. Former president Carlos Salinas's brother Raul was arrested and accused of plotting the Massieu murder.

Raul Salinas is awaiting trial in a maximum-security prison outside Mexico City. President from 1988 to 1994, Carlos Salinas has been blamed for much of Mexico's economic chaos and is living in self-imposed exile in Ireland.


Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN)
Founded in 1939, the center-right National Action Party emerged as the first real opposition party to the PRI. Viewed as pro-business and pro-Catholic, the party has strong support in the industrial north and other urban areas.

Over the last few years, PAN has chipped away at the PRI's monopoly. It won its first popularly elected Senate seat in 1991 and its first governorship in the Chihuahua state the following year. Since 1992, the party has captured six of the country's 31 governorships from the PRI. In 1996, PAN had 249 mayors, compared with 18 in 1987.

While PAN has posed the largest threat to the PRI, it has also been accused of working closely with the ruling party – a strategy that failed in the recent elections as frustration toward the PRI siphoned voters left to the Democratic Revolution Party.


Partido Revolucionario Democrático (PRD)
Founded by former PRI member Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in 1988, the Democratic Revolution Party (then called the National Democratic Front) emphasizes social welfare and greater state control of the economy, and it opposes initiatives increasing trade and foreign investment. The PRD draws its support mostly from poorer rural residents in central and southern Mexico.

photo At the helm of the party is its Cardenas (left), who is the son of revered former president Lazaro Cardenas. Elected mayor of Mexico City in 1997, Cardenas holds the second most-powerful position in the country next to the presidency.

While a PRI member, Cardenas led an internal movement that called for the end to tapadismo, a Mexican tradition in which the incumbent president chooses a successor. He left the party in 1988 to protest its choice of Carlos Salinas de Gortari as the presidential nominee.

Cardenas lost his bid for the presidency in 1988 to Salinas and in 1994 to President Ernesto Zedillo.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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