Mexicans Vote to Return the PRI to Power

by Dan La Botz

July 7 2012

The PRI is back in power. Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has won the Mexican presidential elections with a plurality of 38 percent of the vote, returning to power the party which ruled Mexico as an authoritarian one-party-state for decades. Peña Nieto defeated the left-of-center Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) who got 32 percent of the vote and Josefina Vázquez Mota of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) who received about 26 percent. For the Mexican left, the election results are a stinging defeat not only at the presidential level, but also in the congressional elections.

López Obrador, who claims to have won the last election, has not accepted the election results either and is asking the electoral authorities to investigate. Thousands of his supporters marched through Mexico City the day after the election, claiming that their candidate had once again been defrauded of his victory. López Obrador claims that Peña Nieto and the PRI violated spending limits; he argues that through fraud they have stolen one million votes. The Mexican electoral authorities have agreed to recount more than half the ballot boxes because of irregularities found in vote tallies. Peña Nieto won the election by more than three million votes according to the authorities. The PRD, however, won again the mayoralty of Mexico City with 60 percent of the vote and won the governor’s elections in the States of Morelos and Tabasco. The PRD thus remains a political power in the country though it did not win the presidency and has a minority in the congress.

While López Obrador attributes his loss to his opponents’ violations of election law and fraud, his own decisions no doubt also had an impact. In 2006 the Mexican election authorities reported that he had lost by a quarter of a million votes and many believe he actually won; this time he lost by more than three million votes and no one but his most ardent followers are asserting that he was the winner. Why did López Obrador lose in 2012? Perhaps it’s because he abandoned the more radical rhetoric of his 2006 campaign, which led the media to compare him to Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, and this time portrayed himself as a moderate reformer who would follow the example of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, the former president of Brazil. López Obrador sought this time around to win the confidence of the Mexican business establishment and of Mexico’s middle classes, while still holding on to his traditional base among working people, peasants and the poor. Did some of his potential voters lose confidence in a candidate who changed his identity from left to center? Perhaps. In any case, the move to the right clearly failed to improve on his 2006 performance.

The Future: A PRI – PAN Alliance?

The PRI in power under Peña Nieto will not for the foreseeable future be in a position to recreate the one-party state that it was in the past. While final statistics are not yet in, the PRI will likely have little more than 240 seats in the 500-seat lower house. The PRI will only be able to rule by making an alliance with the PAN with which it shares a common economic program, and the PRI and the PAN together will have just enough votes to make it impossible for the PRD to block their program. Mexico’s former Foreign Minister, Jorge Castañeda, believes the outcome of the election will lead to cooperation between the PRI and the PAN on the basis of their common economic agenda. Under a Peña Nieto presidency and a PRI-PAN alliance, Mexico’s neoliberal policies will continue and will expand, with the country likely to see continued piecemeal privatization of the petroleum industry and the passage of a labor law reform bill that would weaken unions. There is also, however, the possibility of political deadlock, an alternative that led to a fall in Mexican stock prices as the election results were reported.

The Student Movement—Too Little Too Late

Peña Nieto, who had the support of the powerful Televisa network and of the PRI’s powerful political machine, faced a rising challenge in the month before the election from a new student movement that criticized his links to the mass media and his record of political repression in Mexico State where he had been governor. The student movement expanded from the elite Ibero-American University, to the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and then to state university campuses throughout the country, raising its cry again money’s corrupting power in the media in ways similar to the American Occupy movement.

But the student movement, known as “I am #132,” which grew rapidly and attracted attention from throughout the country, was still too little and too late to change the election victory for Peña Nieto and the PRI that had been predicted for months by the polls. The question now is, will the student movement that arose out of the 2012 presidential election be able to continue as a significant social movement once Peña Nieto takes power? Other student movements of the late 1960s and the mid-1980s had an important progressive impact on society at large, and this one may too if it can recover from the election hangover and tackle the society’s economic and social problems.

The PRI’s Past

The Institutional Revolutionary Party has its origins in the Mexican Revolution. It was created in 1929 by President Plutarco Elías Calles as the party of government functionaries and transformed by President Lázaro Cárdenas in the late-1930s into a mass party of workers and peasants. By the 1940s the PRI had become an authoritarian and corrupt party with a nationalist economic program; it oversaw the state banks and industries, encouraged private capital and used its control of the labor unions and peasant leagues to ensure labor peace. The “Mexican Miracle” of the 1950s and 60s was based on the PRI’s policy of keeping wages down, though providing workers with subsidized health care, housing, food, and fuel. By the 1980s, however, the PRI abandoned its nationalist economic program and adopted neoliberal policies to encourage foreign investment, open markets to free trade, cut the social budget, and weaken labor unions. Since the 1970s, the PRI had loosened its hold on the political process and by the 1980s there were growing political parties left and right.

When the PRI turned right in the 1980s, the nationalist wing, led by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas broke off forming the Democratic Current and then a National Democratic Front, which also included the former Mexican Communist Party and other left groups. Cárdenas ran as the Front’s candidate in 1988 and is widely believed to have won the election, but the PRI President Miguel de la Madrid and the electoral authorities declared Carlos Salinas de Gortaria the winner. Salinas then oversaw a vast privatization of industry that transformed Mexico’s political economy. In the election which just took place, Salinas supported Peña Nieto, and some argued that Salinas will be the power behind the throne.

The PAN’s Failure

In 2000 Vicente Fox, a Coca-Cola Company executive, businessman and rancher, ran as the National Action Party’s candidate for president and won, ending over 70 years of rule by the PRI. Fox had received votes from both the right and left, from all of those who wished to end the long rule of the PRI. Fox oversaw the emergence of multi-party political democracy, but did little to change the economic direction of the country. Many were surprised to see him maintain the alliance with the country’s corrupt official unions. When Fox retired, he left to his successor Felipe Calderón the country’s continuing economic difficulties and its fundamental social problems. In this election, Fox declined to support the candidate of his own party, Vázquez Mota, and instead endorsed the PRI’s Peña Nieto as the best option for voters.

For the last six years, Felipe Calderón, also of the conservative PAN, has held office, pursuing a war against drug dealers that saw the deployment of 40,000 soldiers and thousands of police officers, widespread violations of human rights, almost 60,000 killed, 10,000 disappeared, and thousands forced to leave their homes for other states. He has also presided over an economic crisis that saw annual per capita growth of less than one percent throughout his term, with millions unemployed and a growing number of youth who could neither continue their education nor find jobs. Real GDP growth for the last dozen years has averaged 2.3 percent, low for a developing country. Some have argued that the terrible economic situation helped to drive tens of thousands of Mexicans to seek work in the illegal drug trafficking business. Calderón thus became tremendously unpopular with the Mexican people, making PAN candidate Vázquez Mota’s campaign an uphill battle. The people punished Calderón and the PAN by denying her their votes.

The Left’s Future

Mexico’s left, which invested so heavily in the rightward-moving López Obrador must ask itself whether it made a mistake and might not have done better pursuing some other alternative. Lacking confidence in the Party of the Democratic Revolution, López Obrador created his own campaign organization called MORENA (Movimiento para la Renovación Nacional or Movement for National Renovation). MORENA became an umbrella for a variety of social movements and small left political parties who stood under it or just outside of it, anxious to find a candidate who could advance the left. Speaking to the left, López Obrador said he wanted “real change,” and the revolutionary left interpreted this to their followers as “regime change” that would restore democracy and create a popular political economy. The appearance of the student movement “I am 132” encouraged the left to believe that their time had come. The Mexican left thus embraced a rightward moving populist, a strategy that in the wake of López Obador’s defeat leaves it disappointed and disoriented.

What is new and exciting coming out of the election is the new student movement. On July 4 in Guadalajara, one of Mexico’s largest cities but also generally a conservative one where the largest demonstrations by social movements, unions and the left seldom exceed 500 people, students using social media organized a 7,000 person protest against Enrique Peña Nieto and the PRI. Something is happening among Mexico’s young people and they deserve to have options on the left besides populism; their demand for democracy and social justice needs to find expression in a revolutionary rejection of capitalism and a vision of democratic socialism. If the left is to offer it, it must critically examine its own illusions regarding the existing political system, its parties and its candidates.

Dan La Botz is a Cincinnati-based teacher, writer and activist. He is the editor of Mexican Labor News & Analysis. This article was first appeared on the website New Politics.


5 responses to “Mexicans Vote to Return the PRI to Power”

  1. Joaquín Bustelo Avatar
    Joaquín Bustelo

    Despite the confident assurances that “The PRI is back in power,” the real battle is taking place AFTER the “voting,” with the indignado/occupy #YoSoy132 movement forcing the PRD and even the PAN to challenge the PRI’s ballot-box stuffing, vote buying and money laundering.

    It was obvious that this was coming weeks before the election. Only those who failed to apprehend that something NEW had emerged with the indignados and occupy, that #YoSoy132 wasn’t simply a rebranding of the PRD’s electoral cretinism, would have failed to understand it.


  2. Anonymous Avatar

    A few points in response to this analysis.

    In the first place, while not directly relevant to the issue, Obama did not rush to congratulate EPN on behalf of the “American ruling class with all its investments in Mexico.” The ruling class in the United States is based on the hegemonic fraction of capital, the transnational corporations. These corporations span the globe and their executives and directors come from many different countries. Transnationals also have interlocking boards of directors. So the “American ruling class” cannot be differentiated from the Mexican ruling class or the ruling class from any country within the U.S.-OECD bloc–they are one class. Obama congratulated EPN because the U.S. is the global defender of the interests of transnational corporations and the transnational capitalist class.

    Now to the elections:
    The statement, “I do not believe that one can build a politically independent or eventually socialist working class movement within such a political operation as López Obador’s Morena organization or in the corrupt PRD,” is true, but it is not the issue. Mexico in 2012 is not the same country as it was even in 2006. Decades of neoliberal policies have impoverished the people, displaced hundreds of thousands of small farmers as agriculture was transformed by capitalist production methods, and made the country more violent. The world economic crisis has hit Mexico as it has all other countries. Further exacerbating the crisis is the forced return of hundreds of thousands of workers from the U.S., which deprives the state (and the people) of some of the remittances it has counted on to close its trade deficit and as a social pressure release valve.

    All that was needed at this point was an issue that galvanized the people. In Canada, it’s student debt; in Mexico, it’s electoral fraud. I agree that AMLO should not be trusted, and he may even be a U.S. asset like El Salvador’s Mauricio Funes, who’s first job was working for the CIA. However, it is what the people do at this point that counts, and the people are rising up. So the PRT made the right decision strategically, to support the candidacy, because it is now in a position to push the struggle to the left and raise the demand of ending neoliberalism, which it is doing. It is also in a position to recruit honest members of the PRD and MORENA to its side.

    But the student movement is especially significant, because the students are embracing the participatory and democratic forms of organization and struggle pioneered by Spain’s “indignados,” the first occupiers. They are also reaching out to workers and ordinary people and forming an alliance that has the potential to challenge the reformist and opportunistic tendencies of the PRD and MORENA. We are just witnessing the beginning.

    Regarding the drive-by at Hugo Chávez, people who have studied the Bolivarian revolution and gone to Venezuela understand what a great socialist leader he is, not only in Venezuela but throughout Latin America. To separate him from the socialist movement he founded is ludicrous. Chávez began the campaign to rewrite the constitution when he was running for president in 1997, calling on all social sectors to form constitutional assembly fronts. Nor can he be blamed for the government corruption left over from the old regime, which he has struggled against since he took office. One example of this is his creation of local communal councils, which are parallel governments with participatory planning a budgeting. These were necessary to get around local politicians who were not meeting people’s needs but just advancing their own interests.

    Criticizing the governments of Venezuela and Bolivia may have its place, but only at the very bottom of a long series of articles criticizing the other governments in the region, starting with the United States, Colombia and Mexico.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Reply by Dan La Botz

    I thank the readers for their letters and their arguments. I am convinced by the writers of the critical comments written about my article that they are probably right, that López Obrador’s rightward movement had no impact on his base. I appreciate their correction to my account.If that is the case, however, that his base did not care about his overtures to the business class or his redefinition of himself as the Lula of Mexico, if they did not care that he created his slogan “the loving republic” as an alternative to having a genuine leftist political platform, then it is hard to argue at the same time that he and his following represent a genuine left alternative no matter how much enthusiasm sections of the middle class, the working class, and poor people have for him. I wanted to believe that some section of López Obrador’s base would have understood that as he moved right they had to hold their ground on the left, and I am convinced by the readers that I was wrong. As I suggested in earlier articles published in New Politics, ZNet, and on the Solidarity webzine, ( and I am convinced that López Obrador represents a populist, capitalist candidate such Mexico has seen the past, even if he represents a somewhat more leftwing version (though not as left wing as Lázaro Cárdenas). I do not believe that one can build a politically independent or eventually socialist working class movement within such a political operation as López Obador’s Morena organization or in the corrupt PRD.

    The allegations of fraud and reports of them have been substantial. At the time I wrote the first published version of my article on July 3, they were only beginning to come out. It now certainly seems altogether possible that the election was stolen through vote-buying, and even if that would not have affected the outcome, it represented a gross violation of the citizens’ rights and the Mexican people are right to protest what they see as an imposition. I had written about both the fraud and the protests and I regret that those articles which would have rounded out my coverage had not yet been posted on the Solidarity site. They can be found in New Politics at: and as well as on ZNET. The student protests and protests by Mexican citizens have been large, though the national civil resistance or rebellion that some had hope for has unfortunately not so far materialized.

    The Mexican ruling class elite has succeeded in any case in having their candidate Enrique Peña Nieto elected president, as two-thirds of Mexican voters cast conservative ballots either for the PRI or the PAN. Whether or not the election is “an imposition,” in the sense of fraud confirmed by the authorities remains to be seen, but it is certainly a victory for the Mexican ruling class. And, as President Obama’s rush to congratulate Peña Nieto showed, it is a victory as well for the American ruling class with all its investments in Mexico as well.

    On the question of elections in Mexico in general, one should consider, as I am sure that you are aware, that Comandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN) and more recently Javier Sicilia of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, have argued that the Mexican political system and its parties are so utterly corrupt that one should abstain from voting. I am not an advocate of that position, but Marcos and Sicilia are certainly right that in Mexico participation in the electoral system has tainted all who have done so, since in Mexico the voting, the counting, and the final assignment of victors have always been corrupt in the Congress. The parties’ internal elections are also corrupt, as we know from revelations in the press over the years, including the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the party on whose ballot line López Obrador ran. Leftists whose parties were in the Mexican Congress in the 1980s have told me frankly that that experience also corrupted their parties.

    I am not opposed to electoral politics, as one of the critics suggests. I believe that socialists and others on the left should work to construct in countries as different as Mexico and the United States a working class alternative, ideally a socialist alternative. The Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT) made one such an attempt, as I reported in an article that I wrote on Mexican unions and the elections, joining with the Mexican Electrical Workers Union and other organizations to create the Political Organization of the Workers and the People (OPT). The PRT and the OPT, however, were created as independent vehicles for supporting the López Obrador campaign, not as a genuinely independent working class organization. In my own view, virtually all of the left was held within the grip of López Obrador and his top-down Morena organization, a development which inhibited the left’s ability to raise a genuine alternative. I found that the left in Mexico when addressing its own members and supporters and the public generally exaggerated the leftism of López Obrador, arguing that he represented regime change, a genuine alternative, and some suggested even a socialist alternative, none of which is at all true. López Obardor’s record when he was mayor of Mexico City of establishing a partnership with Carlos Slim, the richest Mexican (and perhaps the richest man in the world), at the same time as the mayor expressed a general disregard for interests of the genuinely independent labor unions. All of this suggests that he would in power have become a social liberal like Lula, just as he claimed.

    The logic of supporting López Obrador because many working people and the poor have been convinced that he is the answer to the country’s problems is not a very convincing one. Working people and the poor have frequently rallied to charismatic (and sometimes even not so charismatic) populist leaders throughout the history of Latin America, most famously to Vargas in Brazil, to Perón (or better the Peróns) in Argentina, and to Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico, and while workers’ lives improved to some degree under those presidents, at the same time in different ways and for different reasons in those various countries, the socialist movement ground to a halt. Populism was an attractive capitalist alternative to socialism, not step toward socialism.

    I am less confident than my critics in the notion that working people have always shown “good sense” when it comes to voting for those who are not overtly socialist in order to break with capitalism’s domination of the state. I agree that the left in Latin America made advances through electoral politics over the last decades, a process which unfortunately now seems to have ground to a halt. The revolutionary left in Brazil participated in the construction of the Workers Party (PT) headed by Lula, until it became clear that it represented a capitalist party, a quite corrupt capitalist party. (see Perry Anderson on Lula and the Workers Part at: Yet now in Brazil the (quite corrupted) labor unions and much of the working class base and the poor people continued to vote for the PT and for the new president Dilma Rousseff because of the economic boom and the poverty programs—and who can blame them for seizing what they can from a bad system during what has been a good economic moment in Brazil—even though it was now clear that the PT was simply a social liberal party. In Venezuela, the revolutionary left has recognized that the charismatic left populist Hugo Chávez, who came to power through the mixed method of first of attempt coups and then successful elections, created opportunities to advance a socialist movement, while at the same time his personalistic leadership and the widespread corruption within government have hampered the movement’s advance. We see something even more problematic in the Evo Morales government in Bolivia as Jeffrey Webber argues.

    Only when Mexico’s working class enters on a large scale into class struggle against the employers will it be possible to envision the creation of an independent working class party, and, though there have been some important struggles, particularly by the miners, we have not yet seen that development. When those developments take place the left will have an opportunity to challenge the masses “good sense” with the alternative of working class consciousness and socialist politics. The left will then have an opportunity to create a working class party, perhaps even a socialist working class party, rather than to back a populist, capitalist candidate.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    A quick look at the results indicates that the voter turnout was higher (63.14%) in 2012 than in 2006 (59.35%). Total votes for AMLO are reported to be 15,535,000 and for the PRI 18,727,000. This tends to discredit the author’s argument that AMLO’s centrist rhetoric alienated supporters.

    Moreover, such is the widespread belief (40%) that there was fraud, added to the protest movement that turned out 100,000 people in El Zócalo on July 7, that the PRI is forced to postpone an ambitious package of “reforms”–particularly a labor reform–that it planned to push through parliament in a special session this year. (

    Thus, those who did not abstain and but supported the PRD candidate in these elections, are on the right side in what is shaping up to be a popular anti-systemic struggle. Those parties that did abstain are going to have a hard time relating to the protest movement that has formed around the perception that Peña Nieto is being imposed on the people.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    The author suggests that part of the reason López Obrador lost the elections was because he moved to the right:

    “Did some of his potential voters lose confidence in a candidate who changed his identity from left to center? Perhaps. In any case, the move to the right clearly failed to improve on his 2006 performance.”

    However, any analysis of the elections must go deeper than this. In the first place, the author gives too little importance to the many forms of electoral fraud (the purchase of people’s voter ID cards, vote-buying, vote tally fraud, etc.) the influence of the two TV monopolies (one of which was paid millions to promote Peña Nieto’s image), and the fact that workers in PRI unions and other workers who depended on PRI jobs and patronage were forced to vote for the PRI.

    But assuming that López Obrador would have lost even without all of the vote rigging that clearly took place, to attribute this to the fact that he moderated his message assumes that a supposedly more politically progressive base was alienated and chose to stay home. If the candidate wasn’t radical enough for them, they would not then vote for the two neoliberal parties. Yet the author doesn’t cite the numbers who voted in these elections in comparison to six years ago to see if abstention went up. Of course, only a survey of those who abstained could reveal the real reasons. Did they have accessible voting centers with reasonable hours and sufficient booths? Was there transportation to these centers?

    Considering the rapid rise of the student movement just six weeks before the elections, this hypothesis is problematic. The students are politically more advanced than the general population, as poor as it is, so an argument that the more advanced students supported López Obrador while large numbers of workers and peasants abstained would have to be explained.

    The author’s claim that the Mexican left would have been better off Mexico’s left would have been better off “pursuing some other alternative” instead of “embracing a rightward moving populist” seems to be a rejection of participation in electoral struggles. However, Latin America’s greatest victories in the past 14 years have been the election of presidents who are either socialists or not hostile to socialist values.

    The people usually have a good sense when it comes to voting for those who are not overtly socialists, but who represent the possibility of breaking with capitalism’s domination over the state. They are more optimistic than the abstentionist leftists, and this optimism is an essential ingredient for a popular victory. The Mexican left’s embrace of López Obrador was the right decision because it was in line with the aspirations of Mexico’s oppressed majority.