Mexico: A Podcast Primer

The National Palace on the east side of Plaza de la Constitución or Zócalo, the main square of Mexico City; it was the residence of viceroys and Presidents of Mexico and now the seat of the Mexican government.

Mexico: An Overview

Tomorrow’s podcast features a conversation with Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley about the politics of criminal violence in Mexico. Their research transcends Mexican politics to provide insights about democratization and criminal governance. But it helps to have a basic overview of Mexico’s political system. This is not an outline designed for serious scholars, but listeners who want a broad overview so they can better follow along with the conversation. A few links below offer additional resources for even further research. 

The event which marks Mexico’s democratization is the 2000 General Election. Vicente Fox of the PAN won the Presidency. He was the first member of a political party other than the PRI to occupy the country’s highest political office. But Mexico had begun the process of political liberalization more than a decade earlier. Opposition parties had already started to win elections for Governors of states, Mayor of cities, and seats in the Chamber of Deputies. 

Nonetheless, the precise moment of democratization is difficult to articulate, because Mexico never introduced any formal institutional reforms like a new constitution. Instead, the PRI gradually allowed a process of political liberalization. The institutions did not change, but the political environment did. Unfortunately, the liberalization of elections did not extend to other institutions. Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley emphasize how the failure to reform institutions like the military, law enforcement, and judiciary had tragic repercussions. 

The Political System of Mexico

The Mexican constitution dates back to 1917 during the revolution. It has been amended over the years, but remains the foundational document of Mexico. It is the first constitution to guarantee social rights to its citizens. The 1917 constitution also established the political institutions of the state including a President, a bicameral legislature, and a federal system of subnational government. 

The President is elected to a single six year term. The constitution was briefly amended to allow for reelection so long as the President did not serve consecutive terms, but the amendment was repealed in 1934. Mexico has a long tradition in support of term limits dating back to the Mexican Revolution and the opposition to Porfirio Díaz. In fact, the tradition goes back earlier as Porfirio Díaz even used the principle of no re-election as a justification for his own political ascension. 

The legislature includes two branches composed of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The Chamber of Deputies includes 500 members elected every three years. It selects 300 members from single member districts. The other 200 members come from a form of proportional representation based on each party’s share of the national vote. The Senate has 128 members with three members from each state and an additional 28 selected proportionately based on the national vote. They are elected every six years at the same time as the President. 

Mexico has a federal system of government with some similarities to the United States. It has thirty-one states. Mexico City is not formally a state, but is considered a federal entity with representation in the legislature and local autonomy. Each state mirrors the federal level with a Governor, legislature, and a judicial branch and further divided into municipalities with its own degree of autonomy for local governance. 

Political Parties of Mexico

Mexico currently has three dominant political parties. However, the different electoral mechanisms and the federals system allow for the proliferation of smaller parties. The Chamber of Deputies actually includes representatives from seven different political parties. Despite the number of parties, Mexican politics remains largely polarized between the classic right-left spectrum. 

The PRI dominated Mexican politics from its origin in 1929 until 2000. It remains a significant political force even after Mexico’s democratization. Its candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, won the Presidency in 2012. Moreover, between 2009 and 2018 it held a strong plurality in the Chamber of Deputies. Still, its future has looked less clear after the 2018 election when it lost 158 seats in the Chamber and 44 seats in the Senate. It recovered slightly in elections earlier this year with a gain of 24 seats, but remains a distant third in the legislature. Nonetheless, it controls the executive in more states than any other political party.

The PAN is a traditional party of the right. It formed in 1939, but had little electoral success until the 1980s. Its candidates won the Presidency in 2000 and 2006, but infighting among its leadership opened a window for the PRI to win the Presidency in 2012. It remains the primary opposition to President Lopez Obrador and MORENA. It has the second most seats in both chambers of the legislature and the Senate.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) won the Presidency in 2018. He had lost in previous bids in 2006 and 2012 as the nominee of the PRD.  In 2014, AMLO formed a new political party called MORENA. It has largely displaced the PRD as the party of the left. Moreover, it commands pluralities in both legislative chambers.

Final Thoughts on Mexico

Mexican politics continues to surprise political analysts. From the election of Vicente Fox in 2000 to the more recent rise of MORENA, Mexican politics delivers the uncertainty that any vibrant democracy anticipates. Many observers look to the 2024 Presidential election with more questions than answers. Will MORENA survive without AMLO as its standard bearer? The traditional party of the left, the PRD, has become an afterthought with just 17 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. It is not clear whether MORENA will survive, but it’s even harder to imagine the PRD can return to relevance.

Despite the dynamism of national politics in Mexico, its process of democratization remains incomplete. It has become cliché to say democracy is about more than elections. But democracy relies on many institutions along with a commitment to the rule of law. The criminal wars between the military and the cartels in Mexico have exposed the challenges that remain. The cartels have taken advantage of weaknesses in the rule of law and subnational governments to seize de facto control of the governance of municipalities and even entire states. 

Listen to tomorrow’s episode of the Democracy Paradox to learn more about Mexico’s criminal wars and its implications for Mexico’s fragile democracy. It features Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley in a conversation about Mexico, its War on Drugs, and criminal governance. 

Further Reading

The Economist (2018) “AMLO Will be the Most Powerful Mexican President in Decades

Gustavo A. Flores-Macías (2016), “Latin America’s New Turbulence: Mexico’s Stalled Reforms,” Journal of Democracy

Kenneth F. Greene (2011), “Campaign Persuasion and Nascent Partisanship in Mexico’s New Democracy,” American Journal of Political Science

Kenneth F. Greene and Mariano Sánchez-Talanquer (2018), “Mexico’s Party System Under Stress,” Journal of Democracy

Andreas Schedler (2014), “The Criminal Subversion of Mexican Democracy,” Journal of Democracy

Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley (2020) Votes, Drugs, and Violence: The Political Logic of Criminal Wars in Mexico

Mike Duncan, Revolutions – The ninth season details the Mexican Revolution

Mexico’s Constitution of 1917 with Amendments through 2015

Election Guide United Mexican States

Wikipedia “Politics of Mexico

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley on the Political Logic of Criminal Wars in Mexico

Michael Miller on the Unexpected Paths to Democratization

More Episodes from the Podcast

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