A brief history of the PRI
Yet the coming elections may well mark the end of the PRI as we know it. Not only is the party set to lose the presidency, but also approximately 70 percent of its congressional seats and possibly two governorships. This dramatic and rapid decomposition will have profound implications for the future of Mexican politics.
Why is the PRI collapsing now?
The most obvious factor for the PRI’s rapid decline is a generalized rejection of the party. Current president Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration has been an embarrassing disaster, overseeing spectacular corruption scandals and staggering violence. Unsurprisingly, a Reforma magazine poll found only 17 percent of Mexicans think the PRI should continue to govern the country.
But the voto duro is faltering. Meade’s campaign has been disorganized and dysfunctional. But the consistently poor turnout at rallies is less the result of an uninspiring candidate than it is the product of crumbling machinery.
What happened to the machine?
And that’s just one example. In recent election cycles, the PRI lost 38 percent of its municipalities in Chihuahua, 35 percent in Tlaxcala, 31 percent in Hidalgo, and 60 percent in Tamaulipas. To the extent that the PRI’s survival turns on local influence, the collapse of the regional machinery is a crisis.
In the short term, López Obrador’s Morena party will harvest the windfall from the PRI’s collapse, capturing the presidency and a legislative majority on the strength of the anti-PRI vote. Morena could — and likely will — pursue programs that put pressure on what’s left of the PRI. These might include federal social spending strategies that undercut state-level patronage networks and transparency efforts that threaten party elites.
Given that, it’s hard to see how the PRI could revive after this election.
Could Morena become a new PRI?
Many PRI defectors — both low level operatives and high-profile party members — will likely align with López Obrador’s Morena party if it has a big win this year. Local PRI party bosses have already been welcomed into Morena. Some elements of the party’s ideology and approach align with PRI’S principles.
But competition over PRI’S wreckage is likely to be fierce. As parties woo local operators, clientelist groups will suffer internal schisms, further fracturing the remnants of the PRI.
Morena will also face unique challenges. While this is López Obrador’s third run for the presidency, his party is only four years old and its rivals have more experienced operations across the country. At best, Morena will capture five governorships this election, giving it only a tenuous regional presence.
Mexico is likely to see increased political variegation as regional actors build state-level organizations with fewer ties to national party structures. A gubernatorial victory for the small Movimiento Ciudadano party in Jalisco might be a harbinger of that trend. Elections in nine PRI-controlled states are coming up in 2021 and 2022. A dramatic realignment of regional politics is in the offing.
The 2018 election will therefore mark a moment of transition from a relatively stable party system to a fragmented and fluid one. It is not entirely clear whether this will be good or bad for Mexico’s democracy. Competition over clientelist networks could, in the short term, increase incentives for local corruption. Additionally, if party fractiousness leads to legislative stagnation, Mexicans may become more dissatisfied with the political system — in a country where support for democracy is flagging.
The death of the PRI thus ushers in a decidedly uncertain future.
Michael Lettieri is a senior research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.