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Politics in Mexico

Recent Administrations and Policy Debates in Mexico

Mexico has a federal system, much like that of the United States. It is comprised of an executive branch, headed by the elected president who serves a single six-year term, a legislative branch, with an upper and lower chamber, and an independent judicial branch. There are thirty-one governors, one for each Mexican state, a mayor of Mexico’s Federal District, and 2,438 municipal mayors.

Political Evolution

Beyond the basic outlines of the formal political system, the similarities with the United States are less clear. Mexico’s contemporary political dynamics can be traced to its bloody Revolution of 1910–1920. The Mexican Revolution began as a revolt in response to the 35-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and evolved into a full-blown civil war with many competing factions. It claimed one million lives — six percent of the population in 1910 — and left the country exhausted and deeply divided. To prevent further armed conflict among the factions, the new political elite created the National Revolutionary Party in 1929. This party, which would be ultimately renamed the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 1946, governed Mexico without interruption until 2000.

The PRI, which began as a confederation of leaders from the Revolution who had reached a pact to govern together, eventually became a mass party that incorporated organizations representing all aspects of social life, which were grouped into labor, agrarian, popular, and (until 1940) military sectors in the party. The PRI became effectively synonymous with the state for seven decades. While other parties were still allowed, the PRI won all governorships until 1989, maintained an overwhelming majority in Congress until 1997, and won all presidential elections until 2000. It did so through a mixture of fraud, intimidation, and effective politics.

This single party-dominant regime had distinct advantages. Mexico was largely peaceful and stable during a period in which its fellow Latin American countries suffered frequent and often violent coups. It also secured a degree of economic growth, especially during the post-War economic boom from the 1940s to the 1960s. However, this stability and successful growth came at the price of political freedom, including freedom of the press; produced a great deal of corruption, which continues to challenge Mexico’s efforts to consolidate democracy today; and occasionally produced selective violence against opposition leaders and civic organizations.

By the early 1980s, as Mexico’s economy went into a tailspin as part of the region’s debt crisis, opposition to the single-party system had grown. The PRI responded at first by allowing the op-position parties to win elections at a local level. In 1988 a strong challenge in the presidential elections from a left-wing candidate, who had split from the official party, almost toppled the PRI. As opposition leaders won local elections and seats in the Congress and the Mexican government became more sensitive to world opinion (especially during the NAFTA negotiations), election rules were changed to ensure increasingly freer and fairer elections. 

By 1997, opposition parties had won a majority of seats in the Congress and the mayor’s office in Mexico City.

In 2000, an opposition candidate from the right-of-center National Action Party (PAN), Vicente Fox, won election as Mexico’s first president not from the PRI in seven decades. In 2006, Felipe Calderón, also from the PAN, became president in a highly contested and controversial election in which a candidate from the left-of-center Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), Andrés Manuel López Obrador, placed a close second. Elections results from the years that have followed suggest that the political spectrum may again be altered, as the PRI reemerges as a viable political force. Mexico’s democracy is now decidedly competitive, at least at the federal level, and future elections are sure to be contested strongly by all three major parties and perhaps by several smaller ones as well.

Political Institutions and the Democratic Transition

The legacy of the Revolution has shaped the rules governing Mexico’s political institutions, as well as the evolution of their standing in relation to each other. The transition to democracy has altered these dynamics, though to varying degrees.

The Presidency:

The President is elected for a six-year term through a direct popular vote, with no possibility of reelection, mandated by the Revolution’s revolt against the 35-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. As long as Mexico was ruled by a single party, the president appeared to be all powerful: he could remove governors at will, select candidates for Congress, and pass almost any legislation he wanted.

With the advent of multiparty democracy, the President still remains the most important single decision-maker in the federal government, but his powers are roughly similar to that of the U.S. President and he must negotiate any policies that require legislation with Congress.

The Congress:

The Congress has two chambers, the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. Senators are elected for a six-year term and Deputies for a three-year term. Neither can be reelected to a consecutive term, though Congress is now considering changing this rule to allow for a single reelection, based on a proposal sent by President Calderón. Congress had little power as long as a single party ruled Mexico and members of Congress owed their candidacies to the president. However, since 1997, no single party has controlled Congress and the legislature has become increasingly influential in setting policy.

Since the 2009 congressional elections, for example, when the PRI replaced the PAN as the largest party in Chamber of Deputies, President Calderón has had to negotiate with that party and its allies on all crucial pending reforms. Even before this, when the PAN was the largest party, it lacked the seats to guarantee passage of presidential initiatives and had to negotiate with either the PRI or the PRD.

The Congress still has a very limited institutional structure, with comparatively few professional staff or research capabilities. Since no reelection is allowed for any elected position in Mexico, it is not uncommon for a career politician to serve in Congress, rise to be governor of his or her state, and then return to Congress again; or be a cabinet secretary and then a member of Congress. As a result, those senators and Deputies who have held other significant positions in government or within their parties tend to hold the most influence in Congress, while the rest have much less influence.

The Judicial System:

Mexico’s Supreme Court, with eleven justices, is the nation’s highest court. After years of subservience to the President, during the period of one-party rule, it has gradually established itself as an independent arbiter of constitutional law and gained considerable credibility.

The country’s remaining courts have lagged behind. The Mexican legal system was constructed for an authoritarian system and only recently, in 2008, began to fundamentally address the ambiguities of the justice system. The wide-ranging reforms of that year mandated that all states must implement public, oral trials for criminal cases in place of secretive paper trials; establish the presumption of innocence; and overhaul the system of public defenders, by 2016. States have proceeded with varying degrees of compliance with this legislation, which many experts see as one of the most important recent reforms.

State and Local Governments: 

Under the one-party system, state and local governments operated largely as extensions of the federal government with few resources or real powers. Since the mid-1990s, however, state and local governments have gained resources, functions, and powers and now represent around a third of all public expenditures. Most education and healthcare has been decentralized to state governments, and municipalities are responsible for most basic city and county services. States and municipalities remain dependent on federal transfers for a majority of their budgets. While some argue for giving them more power of taxation, others worry that the vast economic inequalities would mean that poorer states and municipalities would be unable to raise sufficient tax revenue.

State governors are becoming increasingly influential actors in national politics and their association, the National Governors’ Congress (CONAGO), has become a force to reckon with in national political decisions, including in debates on fiscal, education, and energy reform.

In the 2009 budget debate, for example, PRI governors successfully lobbied through their state congressmen for 96.6 billion pesos to be moved from executive branch operations, as the President’s proposal had detailed, to a series of infrastructure and social program investments. Those will be overseen by the state governments, over half of which are controlled by the PRI.

The growing strength of state and local governments contrasts with important institutional weaknesses that they face. Most state and municipal police forces are highly ineffective and some, as a string of high-level arrests during the Calderón administration’s effort against drug cartels have shown, have been subject to cooption by organized crime. Transparency in budgeting is often deficient, and funds can be subject to misuse. Electoral laws for municipalities are archaic and privilege local powerholders over real democratic competition. However, even with these deficiencies, many state and local governments are also increasingly becoming sites of experimentation in judicial and police reform, social policy, and economic development.

By Andrew Selee, Christopher Wilson, and Katie Putnam, The United States and Mexico: More than Neighbors, September 2010

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars