Few Singaporeans would have paid attention to the general election just held in Mexico. It’s on the other side of the world. But perhaps it might have been worth the while, for the party that had hegemonically dominated Mexican politics for 71 years (1929 – 2000), has returned to power. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had been thrown out of the presidency twelve years ago in 2000, in what was then seen as a huge democratic opening.
Here in Singapore, the People’s Action Party has not quite chalked up 71 years in power, but is coming close. This is its 53rd year.
Although no two countries follow the same historical path, there are several features of Mexico’s experience that may be interesting to note.
Coming out of the Mexican revolution (1910 – 1920) which erupted from great popular frustration over inequality and landlessness, the PRI was founded in 1929 by Plutarco Calles, who was president 1924 – 1928. After his term ended, he installed several successors who were largely his puppets. He himself was known as Jefe Máximo – political chief – for several years after his presidency, till 1934. The PRI’s original political leanings were socialist, calling for land reform and social justice. It was also a member of the Socialist International. But before long, it had become a hegemonic party, with super-majorities in the legislature and control of all state governments.
From 1929 to 1982, the PRI won every presidential election by well over 70 percent of the vote—margins that were usually obtained by massive electoral fraud. Toward the end of his term, the incumbent president in consultation with party leaders, selected the PRI’s candidate in the next election in a procedure known as “the tap of the finger” (Spanish: el dedazo). In essence, given the PRI’s overwhelming dominance, the president chose his successor. The PRI’s dominance was near-absolute at all other levels as well. It held an overwhelming majority in the Chamber of Deputies, as well as every seat in the Senate and every state governorship.
Does the above sound familiar?
For a few decades, the PRI delivered economic growth, culminating in the prestigious hosting of the Olympics in 1968, but inflation, oil price fluctuations and a series of economic and monetary crises gradually damaged its reputation. It became better known for inefficient administration, corruption and cronyism, and the heavy-handed measures needed to defend its continuing grip on power. It had come a long way from its socialist beginnings.
From the 1980s on, two parties began to make inroads challenging the PRI. On the right was the National Action Party (PAN) founded in 1939, generally known for its conservative economic and social policies. On the left was the the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) founded 1989, championing social justice causes.
In the general election of 2000, Vincente Fox of PAN won the presidency, the first time since 1929 that PRI’s lock on the office was broken. When his six-year term expired (no re-election allowed under Mexico’s constitution) the PAN again won the 2006 election under Felipe Calderon. That gave them 12 years of rule, pushing the once-dominant PRI into opposition.
However, a closer look at the results do not reveal such a simple picture. In none of these three general elections did voters give any single party a clear majority in the legislature.
It should be added though that in the 2009 mid-term legislative elections (for Chamber of Deputies only) the PRI won 241 seats and its ally the Green Party won 17 seats, making a slim majority of 258 seats. This was while PAN held the presidency.
In other words, the end of the PRI’s dominance in 2000 did not lead to any single party having a clear majority. Even presidential election winners did not get more than 50 percent of the vote. If Mexico had a parliamentary system of government, there would have had to be a coalition government all these years.
A large part is because opposition to the PRI from the 1980s on came from both the conservative and the socialist/liberal sides.
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In this connection, a Facebook comment by Xu Si Han is pertinent:
I don’t necessarily share the prediction, but it nonetheless suggests that the popular hope of supplanting the People’s Action Party (PAP) completely may need to be reexamined.
Even if popular support for the PAP diminishes, it is more likely to do so gradually than collapse altogether. Short of a huge scandal, the PAP’s store of goodwill and track record will ensure that a significant number of voters will continue to support it. The experience of Mexico’s PRI is instructive.
Whether those voting against the PAP will predominantly vote for the same opposition party, or split themselves across several parties is yet to be seen. But two things suggest that it is more likely to be split:
(a) opposition parties are ideologically different, each with its own supporters;
(b) no single opposition party has (yet) the capacity to field candidates in all (or nearly all) constituencies.
Therefore, the chance of one opposition party doing so well in a general election as to capture a clear majority in parliament is, frankly, remote.
Should a day come when the PAP loses a parliamentary majority, we are more likely to see it going into coalition with one of the opposition parties, than have all opposition parties come together in a non-PAP coalition. Xu Si Han’s point about opposition parties being spread across an ideological spectrum has to be borne in mind.
This means we’re likely to see PAP in power, either solely or in coalition, for decades to come.
And even if they should lose power altogether, the PAP can come back, just as the PRI has done in Mexico. In large part it’s because PAN’s record in power 2000 – 2012 has been mixed, but also because PRI continued to have a grip on many state governorships and several corporate and administrative bodies. Add to the fact that PAN never had a clear majority in the legislature, it was hard for any PAN president, however willing, to take a broom to Mexico’s institutions.
An important question now is whether the PRI that has regained power is the same PRI as before. There is tension within the party between its dinosaurs and its reformers, and how things play out in the new president Enrique Peña Nieto’s term will be interesting to watch.