The 2000 National Elections in Mexico

by | Oct 24, 2001

The voter as protagonist: Cool shop, Downtown Mexico City. Photo by Matthew C. Outmann.

The protagonist of Mexico’s political transition has been the voter. Acting collectively, voters shaped the peculiar character and duration of this transition. Unlike in Spain, Brazil, or Chile, no grand elite pact determined the key circumstances of change. Unlike in Poland or Hungary, the transition did not occur suddenly; it took at least a dozen years and it is arguably not yet complete. Unlike in Rumania, El Salvador, or Guatemala, the transition was non-violent.

Mexican voters withdrew their support from the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) only gradually. Before each election since 1988, a significant proportion of voters strongly criticized the PRI and its government officials but nonetheless indicated their intention to vote PRI. The party that had built modern Mexico, these loyal subjects seemed to believe, deserved one more chance. The proportion of PRI-critical PRI voters, to be sure, declined with each election since 1988 but their remarkable patience shaped the pace of the transition.

The dramatic July 2000 election in brought to the presidency opposition candidate Vicente Fox, heading a coalition of the National Action Party (PAN), the Green Party (PVEM), and Fox’s own unaffiliated supporters. However,the drama resulted from subtle or marginal changes rather than from a wholesale re-making of Mexico’s political map. Consider some plausible accounts of this election that are incorrect.

At election time , domestic and international media, as well as many observers, gave the impression that a massive increase in electoral turnout had defeated the PRI. Not true. Turnout rates were not particularly high in 2000. But the composition of the turnout changed. For the first time in Mexican electoral history, turnout was higher in areas where the PAN was strong than in areas where the PRI was strong.

During the election campaign, much attention focused on voters ‘ demographic characteristics. . Was there a gender gap in the Mexican electorate, as there had appeared in other countries? Did young voters turn massively against the established authorities? None of these demographic factors mattered much in explaining the electoral outcome.

Mexico’s economic performance during the 1980s and 1990s was poor, although signs of economic recovery at last appeared towards the end of Ernesto Zedillo’s presidency. Did voters make their decision about whom to support on the basis of any aspect of this past economic performance? Was there retrospective punishment or reward in response to the economy? Apparently not.

How, then, can the electoral outcome be explained? Mexican voting behavior in each triennial national election since 1988 can be consistently and effectively explained by four factors. . First, many Mexican voters are partisans. They vote for the same party again and again, demonstrating levels of loyalty comparable to western European voters. Second, in a strongly presidential system, the electoral behavior of Mexican voters is significantly shaped by how they feel about the incumbent president’s performance in office, even though the incumbent is constitutionally prohibited from running for re-election. Third, although Mexican voters may have low levels of education and not be well informed on the substance of issues, they form strong opinions about the likely future direction of the economy; these opinions also help shape their voting decision. Fourth, a small but decisively important minority of Mexican voters have been strategic voters, that is, they suppress their ideological and policy preferences in order to vote for the candidate most likely to defeat the PRI. In 2000, the percentage of strategic voters was about the size of Fox’s margin of victory.

Yet some new specific factors made their appearance in the 2000 election. One of the most important novelties was the change in the political structures that make a fair election possible. The independence and professional competence of the Federal Electoral Institute created the practical and symbolic conditions for such an election. Voters came to believe in the electoral process. The campaign finance law also enabled opposition parties to present their case to the electorate like never before. Victories by opposition parties during the 1990s in state and local elections had reassured voters that parties other than the PRI could govern Mexicans at least as well or better than the PRI. An international environment favorable to democratization was also probably an enabling condition. The fact that the U.S. government and Wall Street wanted stabilitymeant a much stronger preference for fair elections than for dishonest victory of any one particular candidate or party.

Consequently, the campaign mattered. Voter perceptions of the presidential candidate weighed in much more heavily than in previous elections. This factor, of course, greatly favored Fox and explained much of the change in voting behavior leading to his victory. Voter responses to mass media coverage and political advertising proved significant as well. Candidate choice and choices and partisan strategies counted.

In the end, it almost seemed as if there were multiple simultaneous national elections held in Mexico on the same July 2, 2000. In one of these elections, the PRI lost the presidency by a convincing and uncontested margin; the party earned its lowest ever share of the national presidential vote. In the second simultaneous election, Vicente Fox decisively defeated Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the founding leader and three-time losing presidential candidate of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and its predecessors, for the right to receive the lion’s share of the opposition vote against the PRI, thus winning the presidency. In the 1997 congressional elections, for example, the coattails from Cárdenas victorious candidacy for mayor of Mexico City had pulled many other PRD winners nationwide into office; the PRD beat the PAN in the number of seats won in the federal Chamber of Deputies. In 2000, Cárdenas poor campaign, and Fox’s well-executed campaign, shaped the outcome of this second battle.

The third simultaneous election on the same day in 2000 was for control of the Congress. The PRI won this election. It remains the largest single party in both the federal Chamber of Deputies and the federal Senate. It also holds the majority of state governorships. Even today Mexico cannot be governed without PRI participation. Mexico transited from single-party rule, whereby the presidency and both chambers had long been controlled by the PRI, to divided government whereby the president lacks a reliable majority in Congress, as became clearly evident during Fox’s first year as president.

The Mexican voter remained the prudent maker of Mexico’s political transition. In 2000, Mexicans voted Fox into the presidency but deprived him of a majority in Congress. Mexicans want a transition to democratic politics, not an outcome marked by victors and vanquished. Mexicans want politicians engaged in respectful and productive dialogue, engaging those who had long governed Mexico and those who have just earned the legitimate right to do so. The Angel of Independence that graces the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City might be interpreted afresh not as a marker of warfare but as an elegant monument to independent and discerning voters who successfully enacted a democratic transition.

Fall 2001, Volume I, Number 1

Jorge I. Domí­guez is the Director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University and a member of the DRCLAS Executive Committee. The Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs at Harvard, he is the author and editor of dozens of books on Latin America, including The United States and Mexico: Between Partnership and Conflict and Toward Mexico’s Democratization: Parties, Campaigns, Elections.

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