Furthering Democracy in Mexico

A RETURN TO OLIGARCHY?

In July 2006, Mexico will have an opportunity to consolidate its democratic process for the first time in modern history. Only then will it be clear whether the political changes of the past five years have taken hold -- whether the country will go on building democracy and implementing much-needed reforms or instead fall into the sort of periodic crisis that has characterized too much of its past.

The 2000 presidential election was Mexico's first truly democratic national contest in a century, and the victory of Vicente Fox -- a former Coca-Cola executive running on the ticket of the center-right PAN (the National Action Party) -- put an end to 71 years of oligarchic rule by the PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party). In contrast to the electoral theater and pseudodemocratic displays of the previous seven decades, and much to the credit of then President Ernesto Zedillo, the election was an honest one, and its results were incontrovertible. Fox's victory in 2000 triggered hopes for profound change, and the opening days of his presidency were a heady time for Mexicans.

But it was not the first time Mexico had experienced such optimism. In 1911, Francisco Madero found himself at a similar turning point. He had become president after leading the first stage of the Mexican Revolution, but he was immediately bedeviled by a host of problems: a deeply divided Congress, an abusive press, the enmity of U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, and the hatred of a military establishment nostalgic for Porfirio Díaz, the dictator whom the revolution had overthrown. Despite being noble in many ways, Madero was also impossibly careless and fatally naive. And thus, instead of marking the start of a stable Mexican democracy, Madero's brief government ended in 1913 when he was murdered in a coup d'état by General Victoriano Huerta -- setting off a civil war and plunging Mexico into chaos. The discord did not end until 1929, when President Plutarco Elías Calles founded the National Revolutionary Party (which would later become the PRI). The party was meant to guarantee a peaceful, predetermined succession for the presidency, and it laid the foundation for what came to be known as "the Mexican political system." The coming of democracy, meanwhile, was postponed until the end of the century.

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