Against the trend of democratization that is establishing itself in Latin America, complete with the accompanying debacle of its various state-party regimes, Mexico alone continues to postpone the transition to a legitimate and representative polity. The party dictatorship described as ‘perfect’ by Mario Vargas Llosa, the former candidate of the Right for the Peruvian presidency, is still in power. It is no coincidence that one of the few Latin American countries to have escaped the scourge of coups d’état and military governments is one of the last to concede the minimum democratic right of citizens to elect their rulers.

The character of Mexico’s political system is currently being called into question not only by the mounting pressure of opposition, but also by the contradictory needs of the neo-liberal economic project President Salinas has been pursuing since taking office in 1988, and which has reached a particularly delicate stage. Economic growth has resumed during the Salinas presidency, at a rate of 3 to 4 per cent per year (compared to 7.5 per cent per year at the end of the 1970s), but at the same time wages have continued on a sharply downward trend dating from the early 1980s, and import liberalization, in conjunction with recession in the United States, has produced a trade deficit of over $10 billion, reversing the substantial surplus of the 1980s. In the meantime, ratification and implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is the centrepiece of the project, looks unlikely to take place before 1993. On the one hand, the logic of the neo-liberal project requires a dismantling of the corporatist framework under which Mexico has been governed since the revolution. On the other, the need to preserve control of the process of liberalization, while it remains fragile, dictates the need to utilize those same corporatist structures to avoid the possibility of electoral defeat. As yet, this political dilemma remains unresolved.

The origins of both the long period of political stability in the country and the archaic state-party political regime lie in the Mexican Revolution. This first victorious social revolution of the twentieth century—which subsequently has been described as having been betrayed, distorted or interrupted—was after all a popular revolution. It therefore stamped its own particular characteristics on Mexican development and left an important legacy of popular struggle. From this broad social movement there emerged a lasting social contract which, even at its weakest moments, guaranteed a minimum representation of popular interests in the management of the state. It is the ultimate breakdown of this contract that explains the crisis of the once so successful Mexican political regime. It is difficult to put a date on this collapse, as the regime had been showing signs of strain for some time. Nevertheless, all the evidence suggests that it occurred during the government of Miguel de la Madrid (1982–88), precisely because the latter ended the subordinate representation of popular interests, which led directly to political crisis during the 1988 presidential elections.

The terms of the social contract were inscribed in the 1917 Constitution, particularly Article 27, in which the right to private property was guaranteed by the state and the basis of radical agrarian reform laid down, and Article 123 on the rights of workers in relation to capital.footnote1 The social contract became a reality in the 1930s during the government of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–40), an era of intense political transformation—land redistribution and the destruction of the old landowning oligarchy, the expropriation of oil and the recovery of foreign enclaves, and the mass organization of rural and urban workers.footnote2 This period also saw the gestation of the state-party regime which would subsequently turn into a system of corporatist control of the population. A key factor in this process was the fact that the organization of the working masses led not to independent groupings but to their incorporation into the Partido de la Revolución Mexicana (prm, Party of the Mexican Revolution), later transmuted into the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (pri, Institutional Revolutionary Party).footnote3

The founding of the ruling party on a popular base—it included worker, peasant and military sectors, but sought (though failed) to exclude the bourgeoisie—gave it a virtual monopoly over the representation of popular interests. If one adds to this a degree of presidential power once almost absolute but subsequently curtailed over time, a revolutionary nationalist state ideology, and little tolerance towards other viable parties, the basic institutional features of the Mexican state-party regime become clear.footnote4 The formal existence of other political parties does nothing to mitigate this characterization.