Renovation of old institutions: State governors and the political transition in Mexico, The

renovation of old institutions: State governors and the political transition in Mexico, The

Hernandez-Rodriguez, Rogelio


The process of political transition in Mexico has fostered several institutional transformations in the political system. Such changes do not modify the system’s design, but they do reactivate some basic institutions and forgotten powers that affect the operation of the political system as a whole. The state governors have undergone one of the most relevant transformations: they have gained more autonomy and have forged a new relationship with the federal executive. This essay analyzes the different actions governors have taken depending on their partisan origin. While the PAN governors focus on administrative and financial issues, the PRI governors have developed the most important political challenges to the president’s authority.

The process of political change in Mexico has been assessed-like the rest of the processes that have taken place since the 1980s-by the achievement, or not, of political alternation, considered since the first analysis as the ultimate evidence of structural transformation in nonclemocratic regimes. Alternation has been regarded not just as an important symptom of change but as the only one allowing observers to decide whether regimes are pluralist or not. In established democracies, alternation and, in general, electoral competition are a relevant issue, but not the main one. According to Dahl, democracy is a regime in which citizens have the same opportunities for conveying their political preferences and acting according to them, and for governments to take those preferences into account (Dahl 1971, 2). It is a system where public participation goes beyond the freedom to elect rulers, and a system that is protected by a genuine rule of law.

In democratic transitions, however, elections and, above all, alternation become much more important because they confirm that the previous leaders have been deprived of power. When alternation is attained, moreover, it can be said that the transition has been completed and the consolidation stage has started. At this point, it is crucial to create the legal and institutional conditions required to ensure competition and, therefore, the respect for the open participation of citizenship (O’Donnell 1992).

By overrating alternation, this approach-which still prevails, despite the changes it has undergone in recent years-does not take into account other institutional transformations that, paradoxically, while they may not modify the design of the political system, are associated with a level of competition unknown in the past. Such changes may thus reactivate some basic institutions and may put into effect forgotten powers that affect the operation of the political system as a whole. It is a process that enhances competition and strengthens plurality and political participation until it achieves a new institutional order, without the inevitable collapse of the previous regime. This, of course, is not a widespread experience because there is a crucial precondition for its achievement: the original system must have been endowed with a significant level of institutionalization so that, as the change begins, institutions may be able to assess and regulate the proposals of and the conflicts among the actors.


Analyses of political change have become increasingly complex and specialized, but early studies were extremely optimistic as they assumed that change would be relatively swift and would result in a full and functional democracy. This optimism was based largely on the belief that nondemocratic regimes (whether totalitarian, authoritarian, or dictatorial) would entirely collapse, and thus their institutions would be easily replaced. These forecasts, however, have not been confirmed. So far, except for some cases in which democratic success has fulfilled all expectations-such as Spain-the process has, for the most part, taken longer than usual. In many cases, a number of practices and actors from the previous regime have conspicuously reappeared, hindering the change to such an extent that it has become common to talk about authoritarian regression in countries that were depicted as democratic examples, such as Russia or Peru, just to mention two remarkable cases (Linz and Stepan 1996).

Recently, the analyses have focused on institutions that must regulate the conflict, set out behavioral standards, and guide the democratic transition. This emphasis is the result not only of the reemergence of the institutional approach, proposed by the neoinstitutionalism model, but also of having admitted a serious fault in early analyses that assumed that there were no significant differences among nondemocratic regimes, whether authoritarian, totalitarian, or dictatorial, and even less in their institutional structures. Change therefore was expected to be virtually the same in every case and always implied the breakdown of the system. It was taken for granted that the old regime institutions would be entirely replaced, since they were not democratic and could not facilitate the change.

While the replacement concept was stressed, the possibility for institutions to have a significant degree of social acceptance, and thus to be more resilient, was not considered. In early times, the survival of an institution was regarded as promoted by conservative groups, not as the result of a social or cultural identity. This is why, for example, in Eastern European countries, a first claim was the implementation of parliamentary systems that, while replicating Western models, ignored historical and political traditions that eventually hindered the real institutional function (Offe 1996).

A recurring phenomenon has been the endurance of a number of basic institutions from previous regimes. Analyses therefore had to focus on the very nature of those institutions, or on trying to design new institutions that would facilitate and ensure change, regardless of intellectual desires or formal political models. Scholars have thereby gradually recovered two essential proposals of classical sociology and political science: institutions survive even under radical changes; and an institutionalized regime implies a high level of resistance and social acceptance (Merton 1968; Huntington 1968). As some researchers have established, all institutions have a historical background and a traditional foundation (Elster et al. 1998; O’Donnell 1992). While some of the main political institutions have managed to survive radical changes, such as social revolutions or, more recently, the collapse of the socialist regime, in countries with a high degree of institutionalization, such as authoritarian Mexico, institutions have managed to assimilate and incorporate changes into their structure.

This explanation is not new. It stems from a political sociological tradition that admits, almost without variation, that institutions are stable and that they impose recurrent social behavior patterns because they were accepted and reproduced by people in society. Institutions are not only a source of imposition and control; as such, their rigidity would make them extremely vulnerable. To survive, an institution must not only adapt to changes but also assimilate them so they do not generate conflicts and instability (Coser 1956; Goodin 1996).

These kinds of regimes tend to have more permanence and endurance, but the change still may be the result of contradictions in the system in which the institutions work, their relation to the rest of the institutions in the system, or changes in the original order that assign them specific tasks. Some unexpected economical and political modifications may occur which, according to Thelen and Steinmo, could cause institutions that were previously marginal to incorporate tasks, goals, and strategies different from their original ones. The environment could also impede their original functions, or the regime could impose on them some other assignments. After the setting is transformed, those goals and powers unknown in the past would start to be deployed without changing the institution as a whole (Thelen and Steinmo 1992).

Without openly admitting it, scholars following the institutional approach accepted this potential scenario only for democratic systems, largely because they did not consider that a nonpluralist regime could have some level of institutionalization. The multiplicity of cases, however, their endurance, and the limited pluralism characterizing authoritarian systems led analysts to reconsider those systems. In his first works, Juan Linz stated that authoritarism was based not only on control and imposition but also on some legitimacy. But it was Samuel Huntington who acknowledged that the institutionalization of these regimes might be similar to that of the democratic world, as he identified the existence of political parties, including those regimes with a one-party political system (Linz 1964; Huntington and Moore 1970).

This may be one of the basic reasons for the different routes followed by countries whose transitions set off from a total lack of pluralism or from an order that-as in authoritarism-had institutions akin to the democratic ones, but restrained participation to an extent reputed legitimate by the whole system. To achieve that kind of controlled pluralism, institutions had to be deeply rooted in society, but eventually their operation depended on the system, on the environment in which each of them was entrenched, thus being ready, in principle, to adapt to change. A highly institutionalized system might resist pressure for change, but it might also accept alterations that, despite the original purpose and scope, would change the environment or the general order, allowing certain institutions to take on new tasks or simply to renew their operation. In this case, change should be assessed not only by the alternation but by the enlargement of pluralism and the institutional changes facilitated by the transformations in the environment.

The process of change in Mexico focused on electoral issues. But although competition was strengthened and alternation reached even the local congresses, municipalities, and governorships, the parties and some observers considered this democratic progress as minor, because alternation in the presidency of the republic-considered the only and ultimate proof of change-had not been achieved (Cornelius 1999; Serrano 1996). Although alternation did not reach the presidential level before July 2000, however, it certainly released institutions from restrictions imposed by the hegemony of the ruling party; and this change, although not quite remarkable, furthered the expansion of participation and accelerated the achievement of presidential alternation.


Mexico has been an example both of an authoritarian government and of the most successful one-party regime. Analysts have stressed the enormous relevance that institutions have had for maintaining a system. Huntington was one of the first scholars to recognize this high level of institutionalization and, thus, of the social acceptance of the regime, which provided it with political stability and economic development. Other studies followed Huntington’s view and stressed this trait, identifying both the single party (the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) and presidentialism as the key elements of this effective institutional structure (Huntington 1970; Ames 1970). Indeed, as some more recent research has shown, presidentialism in Mexico has not been endowed with more constitutional powers than other regimes. Some studies state, moreover, that in formal terms, presidentialism in Mexico is virtually balanced, in a way quite similar to the U.S. model (Mainwaring and Shugart 1993, table 3, 672).

Mexican presidentialism reached an extremely high level of influence through a series of political practices that canceled out other institutions’ capacities, including powers designed to control presidentialism that ultimately overestimated the executive. Two factors were crucial for this model to function: the political homogeneity resulting from the PRI’s electoral monopoly and, logically, the lack of political competition; and the efficient political network that deeply permeated society and that helped solve problems and regulate conflicts. In this sense, it was the system’s and its actors’ style of operation that determined presidential primacy, not presidentialism’s formal powers or constitutional design (Casar 1999).

Political homogeneity was the most significant consequence, which accounted for the lack of plurality. The PRI controlled every electoral position and, in addition, the government apparatus itself. This preeminence made ineffective the institutional and real functions of Congress and state governments, because it annulled political divergence. Because of this homogeneity, the legal and political authority of the federal executive gained prominence. The president was not always forced to use an extraordinary power or commit an illegitimate act to gain approval from officers and institutions. He simply was the national political leader, and he subordinated institutions to the interests of his government and even his personal power.

If we examine the powers of Congress and local executives, it is evident that since 1917, when the Federal Constitution was issued, initiating the institutionalization of the political system, those legislators had enough legal resources to oversee the executive and to correct any excess, if necessary. The Constitution provided not for a disproportionate presidentialism but for a true balance of powers. The problem was that such a design had nothing to do with a regime that needed an extreme centralism to subdue the regional and local powers. The creation of the dominant party, in 1929, was the main political event that would guarantee the control of dissension and, at the same time, enforce political homogeneity.1 The single party was the main resource for the federal center to achieve national control by means of the system’s institutions.

The institutional network that was being created in the country, moreover, could reach even to the roots of society. Because of this extensive network, the system could identify problems even before they appeared, meet socioeconomic claims, resolve contradictions among different actors, and therefore regulate social conflict. Institutions fulfilled their essential task as intermediaries between society and government, but also served as a means to disarticulate potential sources of instability. In addition, they conformed to the purpose of maintaining the presidential figure, which, although it was not their main role, was crucial for the system. That set of institutions gradually solved problems in the local and administrative levels, keeping them within limits that did not affect national stability or involve the president. The president had to intervene only in extreme cases. History reveals that each case in which the president got directly involved grew from political events that tended to surpass a great number of previous instances (Reyna 1976, 12).

Political partisanship, homogeneity, and institutional protection provided the means for the president to become the heart of the system and to dominate all aspects of it. It was not a deliberate agreement but the result of a political practice that favored the need to integrate local powers and to establish a single system throughout the country. Institutions may be forced to change, however, because of transformations in the structural context. In the Mexican system, some of the main institutions, such as the legislative branch and state governments, have begun to act differently from the traditional way, not because they have gained additional faculties but because the political homogeneity resulting from the lack of pluralism has been shattered.

Pluralism had an immediate effect on state congresses, but they still were dependent on a party-or a party coalition-different from that of the governor. Only with the prevalence of a nongoverning party could the congresses actually wield their autonomy and counterbalance the executive. In contrast, when the same party-be it the PAN or the PRD-had control of both branches, subordination to the governor was virtually absolute, and resulted in a higher control of congresses (Lujambio 1996).

While the strengthening of congresses was variable, that of governors was immediate, as they managed to turn their political autonomy into an increase of internal controls, always mediated by the support of their parties. Governors’ success in gaining the support of their congresses to legitimate local reforms that defied federal government policies and programs was the result of party control. The best example of collaboration among powers resulting in measures that the federal executive could not revert was the so-called Bartlett Law, through which Governor Manuel Bartlett of Puebla changed certain criteria to allocate federal fiscal resources locally. This is one of the exceptions this article will analyze.


State governors could never escape the president’s control. All the studies that have analyzed the long period of political stability and economic growth in Mexico (1940-70) view the state governors as presidential envoys; as the executive’s employees, charged with truthfully implementing federal programs and presidential desires (Scott 1964; Needier 1971). This idea has prevailed in the studies of regional political changes in recent years. While Graham calls governors “elected prefects” (1971, 25), Ward and Rodriguez describe them as “modern viceroys” (1999, 675). The result of this perspective has been that state governments and the real functions of their heads have not been properly analyzed. Although this subordination was partly true, it was never absolute; nor did state governors act as mere presidential delegates.

In reality, governors have played a significant role, requiring a great deal of autonomy, that simply was not used to challenge the federal executive because of political homogeneity. As regional research has clearly revealed, states have always had enough power to oppose national policies. The revolution itself, moreover, was developed with regional leaders who systematically tried to strengthen themselves, even at the risk of fracturing the integrity of the nation. With the rise of the Partido Nacional Revolucionario in 1929, the control of local leaders and caudillos began, and the governors became intermediaries responsible for local control, stability, and peace (Meyer 1978).

Historical tradition was not the only factor to guarantee a certain degree of regional autonomy. There was also the recognition that the country’s geographical and social complexity made it impossible for a single institution to meet the huge diversity of citizens’ claims and petitions. In this sense, the creation of institutions was the result not of a political estimation but rather of the pragmatic need to settle problems. State governors were the formal and actual counterparts of the president in each political entity. The control they exercised aimed not to ensure personal power, as did the caudillos early in the century, but to guarantee domestic stability in line with so-called national objectives.

Because this function required a deep knowledge of the situation of the states, governors could not behave as mere presidential envoys or discuss everyday activities. On the contrary, those tasks demanded that governors be granted enough autonomy to control political, interest, and opposition groups; resolve claims; allocate benefits; and disentangle any potential problems. While the president was responsible for national stability, each governor was responsible for a particular state.2

According to one author, autonomy consisted of a substantial-if not exclusive and thorough-control of the local elite and government, the legislative body, municipalities, and, of course, the local PRI (Anderson 1971, 302). The management of public positions was an instrument used both for rewarding loyalties and for preserving the political control of the state. Just as at the federal congress level, local congress members and municipal presidents were thus subject to each governor’s interest in ensuring political homogeneity.

The relationship between the legislative and executive branches was concurrent, though not formal. The channel for a fluid and efficient communication was, once again, the party, because it assembled not only social organizations but also the local political elites. Regardless of their level of ideological conviction, party activists admitted that commitment to the governor’s projects was crucial to their political future; and inasmuch as they held all the public sector jobs, they served as permanent mouthpieces of a single political perspective. Strictly speaking, local politics was an exclusive concern of the PRI activists, whose head was the governor. Homogeneity among institutions was mainly the result of the party’s structural involvement-including local management-rather than of orders or pressure from the governors.

The governor’s role in the party and institutions made him the local elite leader, and though he used that position to gain control, eventually it granted him a significant level of power that could have resulted in a confrontation with the federal authority. Of course, such autonomy did not emerge; and, along with other factors, the relationship stressed the governor’s subordination to the president and the federal government. Subordination, however, had only a threefold expression. One aspect was the management of budgetary resources, collected by each state but handed over to the federation, which decided on the allowance pursuant to a program prepared by the secretary of the treasury. That allowance usually did not match each state’s level of productivity. The second was the traditional presidential faculty to select governors, and the third was the evident presidential intrusion in dismissing governors.

Whereas the first aspect extends beyond the objectives of this research because of the technical details involved (Diaz Cayeros 1995), the second claim represents one of the most relevant aspects, even though it is only partly true. Certainly, as shown by the scant evidence available (Loret de Mola 1978, 13; Farias 1992, 129), the president made the ultimate selection of the gubernatorial candidate, who, because of the primacy of the PRI, could then be sure of victory. The selection of the candidate, however, did not depend entirely on the president’s own sympathies but took into account local conditions, group interests (for example, entrepreneurs, workers’ corporations) and the president’s leadership of the elite. The candidates’ personality or closeness to the president were elements that, for the most part, had to add to their capability for fulfilling the mission of ensuring stability. This was reasonable, apart from the presidential power, considering that the purpose was to have governors who knew about each particularity and interest in their states. If arbitrariness had been customary among the appointed candidates, the most frequent consequence would have been conflict and not stability, as evidence confirms.

The third argument draws from the preceding one. Contrary to the widespread view that governors were dismissed frequently, almost at the president’s discretion, which supposedly reveals the institutional fragility of state governments and an excessive federal intervention, the distinctive trait of modern times has been governors’ permanence in office until the legal end of their tenure. It is true that governors have always been unable to make their interests prevail in conflicts between the local executives and the president-with the sole exception of Roberto Madrazo, governor of Tabasco, in 1994, who was able to resist pressure from President Ernesto Zedillo to remove him from office. This confirms the historically indisputable authority of the president at the national level. But despite this manifest superiority, federal intervention in the states has aimed at restraining governors’ excesses or tackling local crises that revealed governors’ inability to preserve political stability.

As table 1 shows, between 1946 and 2000, a small number of governors have left their charge, whether they were forced to resign or promoted to a federal office. Except for Miguel Aleman (1946-52) and Carlos Salinas (1988-94), the percentage of governors who were removed in each administration has ranged between 6 percent and 28 percent of the total of state heads. While 71 governors removed in 54 years is not a small number, more than 270 governors held office during the same period, which means that more than two-thirds completed their formal terms. This is an indicator of institutional stability.

This finding shows that the preeminence of the federal executive and governors’ traditional subordination never emerged through arbitrariness and that, on the contrary, the institutional functions of state governments were acknowledged. Except for some cases during the Salinas administration, moreover, forced resignations were caused by serious political conflicts that put at risk both the states and the stability of the political system. In each of these cases, the governor committed serious mistakes, by imposing municipal presidents or taxes or by doing violence to social organizations or public demonstrations, which resulted in deaths and demonstrated the governor’s political inability to solve conflicts and respond to social claims. As Anderson found in the 1960s, when the governor tried to maintain influence by appointing immediate or potential successors, it was undermining the institutional reliability of state government to create personal power. In those cases, the risk was the emergence of old cacicazgos (regional power bases) (Anderson 1971, 315-17).

The relationship between state governors and the president was always more complex than what is usually accepted. The president did not have such a bearing on everyday activities; nor did governors lack power or resources. The relation, as the total of removals shows, was based on the governor’s ability to uphold the authority to control and regulate conflicts and to maintain local political stability. This ability, moreover, depended less on the governor’s personal skills than on the governor’s direct and unquestionable control over the politics and institutions of the state.

Eventually, those resources granted governors enormous power, which could generate a conflict of interest with the president. This is not a mere deduction, given that, as evidenced by some cases, some governors tried to consolidate their influence by appointing successors without discussing them with the president or the PRI’s national leaders. Not a single governor, however, was able to impose a personal view over that of the president. As long as the governor fulfilled duties and did not try to challenge the national project, the president would not intrude in local politics, even though the governor could commit abuses. Only when the governor failed to solve problems and keep the state in peace-that is, when the governor failed to be functional-would federal intervention proceed. In any case, the relevant point here is that the tasks of the governors needed a significant level of power and autonomy, which was invisible because of the party’s control. The political context was the key element of their behavior, not the institution’s original design.


Since the 1960s, but mainly during the 1980s, the process of change in Mexico has focused on the electoral field. Between 1973 and 1996, the nation’s electoral legislation has been amended seven times, resulting in a radical and deep transformation of electoral laws, proceedings, and institutions in charge of organizing, observing, and sanctioning the electoral processes.

The Institute Federal Electoral (IFE) was created in 1990, and six years later became independent of the federal executive. Largely because of the IFE, elections have attained a high level of equity, transparency, and, of course, credibility. As a result of increasing participation, political competition has allowed opposition parties to gain victories and assume the control of governments, with institutional responsibilities and tasks. Since 1989, when the Particlo Accion Nacional (PAN) won its first victory in the gubernatorial election in Baja California, the presence of governors from non-PRI parties has steadily increased. As of August 2000, the PAN held 7 governorships and the Partido de la Revolution Democratica (PRD) 4-including the national capital-and an alliance that included both held 2. The PRI kept the majority with 19 states (table 2).3

Table 2 shows that 32 percent of municipalities in the country are also ruled by opposition parties, including the major capital cities, which reflects their penetration into the most modem and developed areas of the country. In only 11 years, electoral competition has increased and generated a clear pattern of alternation, though this pattern still did not reach Mexico’s presidency until July 2000. Other political transformations occurred, however, that significantly modified the functioning of the system as a whole.4

Electoral reforms focusing on political change have altered the political order that defined each part of the system’s function. In other words, the political context that annulled institutional powers has started to change. Pluralism resulting from electoral change has definitely shattered the political homogeneity of Mexico, the unity of the dominant party, the president’s control over it, and basically, the grounds on which the federal executive was allowed to be the leader of national politics. Pluralism has destroyed the elements ensuring institutional subordination to the president. Yet pluralism has had two different impacts: one on opposition governors who have focused on administrative rationalization, and the other-deeply political and thus more potentially important for Mexico’s future-represented by the PRI governors who have started to challenge the president, despite sharing a common party origin.

An additional important aspect of the governors’ political change are the measures implemented by the Zedillo administration to promote a process of decentralization to the state governments. In contrast to previous presidents, Zedillo consented to give back a number of responsibilities to the states, including public education and health services. Zedillo, moreover, decided to reorganize the Pronasol (Programa Nacional de Solidaridad), Salinas’s welfare program, and directly allocate resources to the states and municipalities (Ward and Rodriguez 1999). A major consequence of these measures was that governors had more opportunities to decide on local programs and were thereby forced to negotiate with mayors, many of whom were not members of the PRI. Both pluralism and the new economic resources furthered the autonomy of local politics and strengthened the governors’ role as mediators between the states and the president and federal government.


The origin and historical tradition of governors and their parties account for the different consequences of pluralism. As stated by democratic theory, alternation in itself is a major achievement, but to have a real impact on democracy it must bring about new political practices, including those purely administrative or governmental that, at least in the first stages, should clearly differ from those practiced by the authoritarian regime. Governments arising from the PAN or the PRD should make sure, both on the road to democracy and in the enforcement of political practice, that their efforts are clearly distinguishable from those identified with the PRI.

Up to 1997, opposition governments came only from the PAN. This is significant both in that it makes evident the PAN’s opposition tradition and experience and also establishes the grounds for its differences with the PRD, also a PRI opponent. Most of the PRD governors do not have a long history as activists identified with the party’s projects but are, instead, former PRI members who were not chosen by the party as candidates for state governments and therefore decided to resign and join the PRD to participate in the elections.5

Their PRI origin, their sudden change of party, and their short life as governors have all resulted in a performance not too different from the PRI’s traditional practices, from the members it has appointed as cabinet officials, and from the programs it has developed. Indeed, governors of the Federal District and Zacatecas have been the only ones to have political impact on the system. While Ricardo Monreal, governor of Zacatecas, took advantage of institutional facilities to build his own presidential candidacy, the successive governors of the Distrito Federal have reinforced their connections among the more numerous middle class in the capital, and especially their privileged position as the second-most important leader in the country compared to the president.

With the PRD’s wins in Michoacan and Chiapas (in coalition with the PAN) and the PAN’s victory in the presidency, the PRD governors have developed strategic alliances with their PRI counterparts. They created the Convencion Nacional de Gobernadores to resist the fiscal reforms of President Vicente Fox, although all of them have declared that this group has no other political intention than to design a new fiscal relationship among states and the federal government. If in Zacatecas and DF the governors’ political practices are very close to those of the old priistas, predominant in the Convencion is the leadership of PRI governors, who decide the agendas of the meetings. In the long run, irrespective of their partisan militancy, both kinds of governors share the same priista origin.

Perhaps the foremost of the PRD’s government experience can be found at the municipal level. Like the PAN, the PRD gained several municipal presidencies, but its performance passed unnoticed because of both the limitations imposed by PRI governors and the frequent internal conflicts that impeded the PRD from developing a distinctive politics in contrast to the other two parties (Bruhn 1999; Bruhn and Yanner 1995). In this sense, the PRD’s triumphs have more of a symbolic value, rather than being a practical democratic achievement. The PRD victories are additional evidence of the progress of pluralism and alternation, but they have not had an evident impact on the government’s way of ruling and practicing politics.

The PAN, in contrast, has a long tradition as an opposition party to the PRI and a historical legacy derived from the 1910 Revolution. It has been, since its founding in 1939, a conservative party, identified with the private sector; it openly rejects state intervention and has blamed the government for the economic crises and for official and political corruption (Loaeza 1999). Its long endurance, however, has not been enough for committed party activists to reach the most important electoral positions. On the contrary, their electoral successes, since 1985, have been associated with a decided involvement of entrepreneurs, who naturally shared the party’s agenda. Each PAN governor, including Francisco Barrio, leader of Chihuahua from 1992 to 1998, and the most important presidential candidates, including Vicente Fox, have been successful entrepreneurs whose activism in the party totals five years at most. In most cases, they have been candidates rushed into the elections by the PAN in the absence of true politicians among the available party members.

As might be expected, the combination of entrepreneurs and a party program based on opposition to government intervention has greatly determined the actions of PAN governors. As acknowledged by PAN analysts and followers, the party’s activities have focused on the modernization and administrative rationalization of the governmental structure (Guillen 1993; Mizrahi 1995; Rodriguez and Ward 1995). This trend has strengthened as the PAN governors, former entrepreneurs with few links to the party, have filled their cabinets mainly with business executives; these officials apply an administrative rationale aimed to achieve efficiency and eliminate or reduce corruption.

According to different analysts, the PAN included executives and focused on administrative matters because it lacked experience on governmental issues, and because it assumed that once it had made the public administration efficient, improved attention to citizens, and reduced corruption, the electorate would become aware of the advantages of voting for the PAN. In reality, its members do not consider politics a specific sphere of action or a different challenge apart from administrative matters. Thus, PAN governors do not seem to be very far from the technocratic generation style of politics that took hold of the PRI and the national government during the last 18 years. This misunderstanding, and the PAN’s similarity to the PRI, have created serious political problems for the PAN, which occasionally has been unable to retain its elected positions or to maintain voting levels.

PAN governors have focused on drawing up laws and regulations related to accountability; they have reorganized and thinned the ranks of public administration with the aim of reducing overall expenses, though for society the measure has just meant losing jobs. They have tried, sometimes unfruitfully, to redirect public policies that were previously developed. On several occasions, the PAN’s lack of experience has caused administrative mistakes that the PRI, now in the opposition, has exploited with some success. The most salient feature of PAN governments, the one that has had a real political impact and has shown a genuine difference with the PRI tradition, has been their insistent assertion of modifying the allocation of federal budgetary items, which represent the true sources of federalism (in terms of power and control). Again and again, both PAN governors and PAN mayors have promoted and even carried out actions to force the federal government to review the legal provisions and to allow for the collection of taxes or additional resources.

These measures have been consistently applied since the first PAN government in Baja California, headed by Ernesto Ruffo. The governor publicly demanded that the federal government revise fiscal agreements, arguing that the state received much less than it produced and needed to meet social demands. By threatening to withdraw from the federal agreement program on public finance, Ruffo managed to get what he asked from Salinas and the secretary of the treasury. When discussions became harsh, both parties agreed to create a group of academic specialists, with no links to the parties, who would assess the terms of the budgetary relationship and decide on the fairness of the allocations.

Contrary to Ruffo’s and his staff’s expectations, the commission’s resolution went against the state’s petition and favored the treasury secretary’s model. Even worse, the group of specialists presented evidence that Baja California had received more resources under the federal program than those it would obtain according to the program proposed by the state governor. Ruffo lost the battle; and what most affected political relations was a feeling that the governor had acted unwisely and lacked political and administrative experience (Guillen 1993, 24; Rodriguez and Ward 1994, 110).

In Guanajuato in 1995, the PAN governor also called for a debate on federalism, both on its constitutional rationale and on finance issues. Afterward, the PAN mayor of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, decided to close the tollbooths of the city’s border with the United States. International crossings are considered federal areas, and therefore the treasury secretary directly collects all the fees obtained. Obviously, the mayor’s decision involved a federal infraction that cost him a temporary imprisonment (Aziz 1996, 84).

Each measure, despite its fair motivation, has gone along with serious political mistakes and even, as in the mayor’s case, with federal infringements not justified by the claim. On the whole, the PAN has been unable to develop measures for the political protection of its governments; neither has it elaborated a set of congruent policies, in administrative and financing terms, through which its proposals could appear as fair revisions of federalism. On the contrary, PAN members’ lack of political ability has made their administrations look like governments with partisan interests and, especially, in search of revenge against the PRI.

Such mistakes, however, do not diminish a key factor concerning the renewal of the state governments’ institutional functions. Both administrative issues and, particularly, the attempts to restate federalism have significantly challenged presidential power. Simply not being a PRI member has been enough for the governor to elude all kinds of informal control, which typified the old political homogeneity, and to resort to the legal capacities required for reactivating functions of the state government. Despite its limited political scope, the source of countless criticisms of the PAN-which is accused of not having detached itself from the PRI tradition and even of not responding to the political-electoral persuasion that produces electoral defeats (as in the case of Chihuahua, whose government and legislature the PAN won in 1986, whereas it lost the local congress in 1989 and the state government in 1992 to the PRI)-the performance of PAN governors has set an important precedent in the subordinated relationship between local leaders and the federal executive. While the emphasis on administrative issues has hardly been beneficial, PAN rulers have established, first, that governorships are institutionally endowed with enough powers and autonomy to work with criteria and programs of their own; and second, that the only thing needed for acting differently is the termination of the system’s political constraints.

It is worth noting that the new role of governors has not stemmed from a constitutional amendment increasing, or at least modifying, their powers. Strictly speaking, their capacities are the same as those bestowed on PRI governors. The difference is that PAN governors have broken the dependency relationship. Opposition governors, however, have lacked PRI members’ political capabilities and resources and, particularly, have not been equipped with that close relation with the party structure in each state. While PAN members have intentionally neglected to tie up their links with their local parties when they have taken over the government, PRI members have tightened those links, both to confront and defeat opposition and to evade presidential controls and even to detach themselves from ideological and governmental projects.


The impact of pluralism has not been limited to alternation. On the one hand, pluralism has led PRI governors to strengthen their relations with the party’s structure in each state for the purpose of challenging the opposition; and on the other hand, the distance between the president and the national PRI has allowed governors to increase their influence on the local party clecisionmaking structures. Since the early 1990s, and motivated by its worst electoral defeat in 1988, the PRI has strengthened local structures, which have been managed mainly by the governors. The party has made a return to the regions; a return that, even though it manages to resist the opposition, has also affected governors’ political functions and institutional autonomy.

As shown in tables 2 and 3, the opposition parties’ progress is more than evident in the states. They have won not only governorships but also municipalities and local congresses, where they have obtained control of 38 percent of the legislative bodies and have equalled the PRI in 9 percent of them. Opposition presence in the federal congress is, of course, relevant, and it has even surpassed the PRI in the latest legislatures, thus being able to demand negotiations with the federal executive, something unthinkable in the past (Lujambio 1996). That the opposition victories occurred mainly in the states and did not reach the presidency-at least until July 2000-means that the real challenge has been at the level of state governors and local party structures. This threat has imperiled the political unity and homogeneity that used to guarantee leaders control, but it has also questioned the governors’ ability to satisfy PRI demands and loyalties.

The local elites were the first to realize that their political future was seriously jeopardized by the opposition victories in governorships, congressional seats, and municipalities. Controlling not only the political institutions but also the party, the governor managed to maintain stability. As the opposition has advanced, the PRI elite has exerted pressure on the governor-as the party’s local leader-to ensure its position. This has ultimately strengthened the traditional relationship between governors and party structures.

A first consequence has been the gradual alteration of the governor’s profile. Anderson found that from 1940 to 1964, 59 percent of governors’ careers developed at the national level and 41 percent at the state level (Anderson, 1971, 158). The national prevalence was a result of the president’s selection of candidates, because applicants were forced to pursue their career in politics and federal posts in the capital of Mexico, not in the states, if they were to keep close to the president. For decades, having a local political presence was irrelevant; what counted was a combination of experience and closeness to decision-making centers. Once chosen by the president and nominated by the PRI, the politician’s electoral victory was assured, and being or not being involved in state affairs was virtually unimportant.

This practice reflects a total lack of political commitment. On the other hand, the governor’s personal links with local groups, in spite of which, most of the time, he succeeded in keeping stability, proved that there were institutional channels supporting the regulation of conflicts, both national and local. The interesting point here is that state governments operated with a certain autonomy from their chiefs, even to compensate for their lack of capacity. As Anderson stresses, the belief that an administrative governor was essential because eventually institutions and their joint relationships would resolve political problems has prevailed for decades (Anderson 1971, 8).

As political conditions have changed and opposition parties actually have been able to challenge the PRI, however, it has been necessary to discard that practice. To the extent that being postulated by the PRI is not enough anymore, applicants have been forced to seek local support and, what is even more interesting, the party itself and its current leaders have understood the need not to impose officers whose careers have developed at the federal level. Candidates have been compelled to change their profile to face the opposition successfully.

Table 4 demonstrates that PRI gubernatorial candidates have increasingly pursued state-level careers and, over time, fewer federal-level ones. These politicians are scarcely known in national politics, but since they have remained in their home states they have managed to build an interest network that serves to gain votes when candidacy and campaign time comes. Although during the last three presidential terms leaders with federal-level-only careers have been prevalent, this ratio reveals a clearly descending trend, from 55 to 38 percent.

The table identifies candidates whose careers have largely a federal or a local character. When adding the two federal categories, the federal primacy remains, but also its downward trend (from 75 percent to 41 percent). State-profile candidates, mainly state, or mixed federal and local experience (adding three columns) show a substantial increase, from 23 percent in the 1982-88 term to 56 percent between 1994 and 2000.

A relevant aspect of these data is the increase in the number of candidates following careers at both the federal and local levels (“Mixed”). The ratio in these cases doubled, from 13 percent in 1982-88 to 26 percent in 1988-94, and reached 47 percent during Zedillo’s administration. These figures reveal a significant change in the PRI’s candidate selection criteria, which sought officers who were technically skilled but had political expertise that would ensure their administrative performance without losing local legitimacy. Change has also been evident in the political actors who decide on the candidates. It is clear from these trends that governors are likely to become more independent of the federal authority and that they are strengthening their local links.

This change has produced three basic effects in terms of the governors’ autonomy. The first is that the local party structures-also identified with ii local candidate, thus knowing the political problems, including the needs of the party itself-have been reinforced. The second is that the outgoing governor has an active local involvement, as well as the power to select the candidate to succeed him; and, according to the tradition aimed at ensuring the stability of the state, the governor may choose the candidate he considers best suited for winning the election, even though the decision may not agree with the federal view.

The third effect is that the gains of state governors and local structures represent net losses for presidential power. The president is forced to accept them so as not to lose jobs held by party members or put the country’s overall political stability at risk. As the president loses influence, governors gain loyalties both from the party and from successors who, objectively, have no debt whatsoever to the president. Obviously, the rationale for this change has not been a deliberate search for participation but the need to face opposition parties. Again, the traditional resources of governors are involved in this change. As in the case of opposition governors, no additional faculties are used, nor is the goal to accomplish constitutional change. Governors simply make use of the powers and mechanisms they have always had but could not use. The difference is that PRI governors now have an exceptional tool: the PRI machinery in each state. Thus pluralism is certainly a critical concept for PRI governors, though not because they are willing to extend it, but because they are prone to contain it.

The role of governors in politics has also been favored by the increasing detachment of the president as leader of the party. The president’s traditional leadership, over both the political elite and the PRI, which made it possible to impose a political behavior consistent with the president’s governmental programs by establishing the candidates’ profile and controlling the system’s institutional network, has been seriously damaged in the last 12 years. The president’s detachment has been affected by two factors. One is an ideological definition of the new elite ruling the country since the 1980s, conventionally called technocratic, that has privileged governmental rationalism, both in administrative and financial issues, and has underrated political activities. The other factor is the PRFs reaction to the increasing political competition and the strengthening of opposition parties.

The advent of the new elite, highly specialized in financial and economic issues, resulted from the worsening of the economic crisis and the old politicians’ failure to control it. Those young bureaucrats who had never handled political activities before accused the former PRI governments of generating the economic problems, arguing that the earlier leaders had used public expenditures to attain political goals. In their view, the PRI was an example of the whole system’s errors: the trade union control that promoted the primacy of cacique leaders, which prevented firms from improving their productivity; the administrative and economic muddle of governments, and the lack of democracy (Smith 1979; Centeno 1994). Under these circumstances, it was obvious that the new elite would try to break away from the party and its actions.

The separation, however, transcended the governmental sphere and affected the PRI’s internal and electoral functions. For many PRI members, the new elite had overtly attacked the party, even helped the opposition. What started as a differentiation of roles became a fight between two different views of what the party, and, of course, politics, should be. The relationship became increasingly harsh; PRI regulars believed that party leaders looked to them only when they needed help to pass federal laws and programs at state congresses or support in their bids to gain power. This distance damaged the president’s traditional authority over the PRI, which had included institutional control. The party leadership has thus gradually been filled with politicians whom PRI activists consider committed to the party and its future. As states have become the main battlefield with the PAN and the PRD, the PRI has reinforced its electoral machinery, and governors are perceived as the closest authority, and the most experienced, in the fight against the opposition.

The governors’ increasing weight in PRI decisions has appeared simultaneously with the recent attempts to reform the party. In 1989-90, under the official direction of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the PRI began the most significant reform since the one promoted by Carlos A. Madrazo in 1965. In 1990, during the party’s 14th National Assembly, a proposal was made to eliminate the control exercised by corporations in order to establish a democratic mechanism for the selection of candidates. In the face of opposition from corporatist groups within the party, such as the CTM (Confederation de Trabajadores cle Mexico), the CNC (Confederation Nacional Campesina), or the SNTE (Sindicato National de Trabajadores de la Education), Colosio decided to look for the support of the directive committee leaders of each state, all of them controlled by state governors.

One of the major changes was the rearrangement of the National Political Council (CPN), which ceased to be a formal agency and became a collegiate body empowered to select the presidential candidate. The former council was formed by the national and state directive committee leaders and by representatives from corporatist sectors. In contrast, the CPN, created in 1990, reduced corporatist representation to its lowest possible level and increased representation of municipal and state leaders. Six years later, in the context of President Zedillo’s concern about the necessary separation between the party and the interests of the federal government, a new national assembly took place in which the reforms frustrated in 1990 were completed.

The 17th National Assembly reinforced the CPN’s authority as an internal decisionmaking body by according it a spectrum of activities, ranging from the responsibility of allocating the party’s financial resources and real estate to the appointment of both the president and the general secretary of the National Executive Committee (CEN), and of the presidential candidate. This time, delegates decided not only to increase the so-called territorial representation (that is, that of local and state ruling bodies), but also the representation of governors themselves, who were allowed to attend and vote at the National Assembly.

Although the 1990 CPN acted under strong influence from the governors, the one created after the 1996 meeting was thoroughly controlled by the governors and their local allies. The governors’ influence attained such significance that the CEN had to create five secretaries to oversee political and electoral activities in the states, supported by local committees. Although the appointment of head officers is a prerogative of the party’s president, it obviously cannot be done without discussion with and approval of the governors, who have the control of state ruling bodies (PRI 1990, 1996).

With the president’s resignation as the party’s “natural” leader, the 17th National Assembly imposed two requirements for candidates, heretofore inconceivable: a background of ten years of activism, and experience as a party officer and in publicly elected posts. These conditions were directed primarily toward the president and his cabinet, most of whose members did not fulfill either of them. The president’s authority had never been exposed to such an utter challenge, and though the measures received spontaneous support from PRI members-thus revealing their dislike for technocrats-they were prepared and proposed by the state delegates, clearly controlled by governors.

Thus the governors’ presence has gradually extended from local to national scope and has gained control of the candidate selection process-which means that they have snatched from the president the traditional power to select a successor. The constraints imposed by the PRI and the increasing influence of governors encouraged the involvement of those who were most active and committed to the party, even those critical of the president and his actions, such as Manuel Bartlett, governor of Puebla, and Roberto Madrazo of Tabasco. For the first time in Mexican modern history, the president could not freely select his successor, as had been a customary practice in national politics. Instead, he witnessed a competition in which actors received local state support not completely controlled by him.

Although these events form the clear background of the PRI governors’ increasing influence, their ability to challenge the president was also based on a series of abuses committed during the previous presidential term that moved the party away from tolerating the president’s intrusion. As shown in table 1, Carlos Saunas removed more governors than any other president, either to resolve political conflicts or to appoint them to federal jobs. In general, his dismissal of 12 governors sought to solve serious political problems in their states, a procedure not unlike previous practices. The difference was that all the conflicts were generated by the PAN and PRD, which ignored local authorities and always appealed directly to the president so that he could give them immediate solutions. Thus, governors’ removal did not answer the need of working out local conflicts, but instead prevented pressure on the president.

As Ward and Rodriguez stress, moreover, Salinas’s goal of reducing governors’ opposition to federal policies often went along with political and electoral motivations. Salinas implemented a series of programsespecially the Pronasol-that bypassed the governors’ historical control of communities and therefore nullified their political influence. As a result, the implementation of programs was continuously hindered. Salinas actually did not trust in the governors’ willingness to implement his political modernization projects (Ward and Rodriguez 1999, 677). But in any case, the president’s direct involvement in the resignations-because of pressure from opposition parties-of three governors in 1991-92 (Fausto Zapata Loredo in San Luis Potosi, Ramon Aguirre in Guanajuato, and Ecluardo Villasenor in Michoacan) who had formally won their elections had an immediate and costly impact on the PRI. Clearly, dismissals were considered a compelling means to calm the parties down and silence criticism, irrespective of the formal PRI wins and the sovereignty of the states (Prud’homme 1999; Hernandez Rodriguez 1994).

This way of using state governorships to maintain stability or to fill a post in the presidential cabinet not only broke up an institutional view of the governor’s functions that had been thoroughly respected even by the most authoritarian presidents; it also implied an insult against the PRI state structures, which felt betrayed after having won elections. During the Salinas administration, a historically rooted feeling of rejection by the federal government gradually increased among PRI members in the states. This had an immediate impact on the Salinas administration’s conclusion, because it bolstered local communities’ autonomy and their rulers’ authority. During the Zedillo administration, four governors challenged the presidential authority. Two of them (Ruben Figueroa of Guerrero and Jorge Carrillo Olea of Morelos) had been involved in serious crimes-the assassination of several peasants and the cover-up of police officers accused of kidnapping-but Zedillo could never find enough evidence legally to remove them from office. Despite the potential governability problems faced by those states, Zedillo always stayed at a distance to prevent his democratic will and respect for the law from being questioned. The position of governors became untenable because of pressures from social organizations and political parties, rather than as a result of the president’s authority.


In contrast, Roberto Madrazo in Tabasco and Manuel Bartlett in Puebla managed to uphold their political and administrative actions as they sought the support of the local PRI apparatus, congresses, and some important social sectors. They also had a consistent defense strategy of state sovereignty. When President Zedillo took office, he tried to remove Madrazo with the same methods his predecessors had used, not realizing the power that governors had gained. The election of the governor of Tabasco, simultaneous to the presidential election, had been strongly questioned by the PRD, and by January 1995 that party was demanding that it be annulled. Zedillo wanted to exchange the governor’s removal for the PRD’s approval of a new electoral reform that was included in the president’s program.

In other circumstances the proposal would have been approved with no problems, but in 1995, Governor Madrazo managed to mobilize remarkable social support-in the organization of which the local PRI played an essential role-that forestalled his removal. While the federal government announced the governor’s resignation in the capital, numerous public demonstrations in Tabasco demanded that the state’s sovereignty be respected and that the president not void an election process that had been sanctioned by the relevant legal authorities. This was the first time in Mexican history that a governor-a governor of PRI origins, moreover-managed to prevail over the will and even the political resources of the president (Eisenstadt 1999).

In a manner less dramatic but equally significant, the governor of Puebla, Manuel Bartlett, resisted the negotiations between the PAN and the secretary of the interior to recognize the PAN’s electoral triumphs, and also enacted a state law by which his government could allocate federal poverty funds according to criteria different from those established by the national government. The law not only reversed the accepted notion that the federal government could decide how to use each state’s budget, but helped the governor to win votes for the PRI, which was threatened by the PAN.

The law, known ever since as the Bartlett Law, stipulated that the main criterion for allocating resources would be not the number of inhabitants but the level of poverty in each municipality. It was possible to enforce this measure because the grounds had already been set, paradoxically, by the PAN governors, evidence of their lack of skill. But the worst aspect was that it proved the social commitment of a PRI government and demonstrated that social benefits did not depend on political alternation. The law’s main impact, however, was that the new allocation of resources reduced the funds for the urban, middle-class, and, of course, heavily populated PAN-ruled municipalities while it benefited those governed by the PRI, most of which were rural and had a greater number of more deprived inhabitants (Vanderbush 1999). It was a measure totally independent of the state government; and while it was salutary for the PRI, it faced strong opposition and broke the historical constraints imposed by the federation and the president.6

In both cases, what is worth stressing is that the PRI governors overtly challenged the intrusion of the president and could defeat him without committing legal infringements that would have facilitated their removal. In accordance with the law and within the boundaries of their powers, they looked for the support of their local congressional representatives, mayors, and partisan structures to resist the until-thenunchallenged presidential power. Therefore it was not surprising that Maclrazo and Bartlett subsequently sought the presidential candidacy, profiting from the ascendancy they had gained in the PRI. Because the party was not going to modify the conditions it had set forth, the president’s selection options were drastically reduced: the candidate could not be an official with a technocratic profile, as were the last three presidents. Interior secretary Francisco Labasticla was the only one who could challenge the two leaders who had already displayed their ability to mobilize the party and defeat the president.

Labastida had been governor of Sinaloa, a prosperous northern state, from 1987 to 1993, after several years’ service in the federal government. This background favored him both formally and actually, but not enough to assure victory, because he could not depend, as before, on presidential support to win over two current governors. Therefore, he recruited as his undersecretaries a number of governors whose terms had concluded just a few months before. In January 1998, when he took office as interior secretary, he had already recruited two former governors, Ausencio Chavez from Michoacan and Rafael Rodriguez Barrera from Campeche, and later added Guillermo Morales Jimenez, a former governor of Puebla. In October of that year, he appointed the governor still in office in Hidalgo, Jesus Murillo Karam, and in December he called Diodoro Carrasco, the former governor of Oaxaca. What Labastida wanted through these appointments was not the skills of the former governors but their understanding and, maybe, control of the partisan machinery of their states. This thinking implicitly reveals that the genuine hub of political decisionmaking had moved from the federal government to the states.

This was the context that defined the design of the first PRI internal elections, in November 1999. The CPN, under the control of the governors, approved the candidates and established the voting system, based on two main provisions: the vote would not be limited to the PRI members but would be open to any citizen certified to vote; and the winner would be the candidate who won the greatest number of districts, not ballots. The system was accepted, although conflict could arise if the election showed two winners-either by the total number of votes or by the majority of districts-not only because it adopted the model of U.S. primary elections but because district voting favored the partisan control of governors.

Therefore Labastida, supported by the PRI national leadership, sought the support of the greatest possible number of governors in order to ensure his victory in the electoral districts. Ultimately there was no conflict, because Labastida won an overwhelming majority-from a total of almost ten million ballots, 55 percent went to Labasticla, 28 percent to Madrazo, and 6 percent to Bartlett. But the relevant point is that the experiment was imposed and controlled by the governors, not by the president or the federal government, as in the past. In the end, Zedillo’s candidate won the process, but this time it was necessary to count on the state governors’ explicit support.7


Primary elections, in spite of their shortcomings, represent progress in the PRFs reform, as well as an additional defeat for the president, who suffers a new constraint to his power. The presidential institution is no longer the one to decide thoroughly the politics of the country; now other institutions are involved. These institutions, specifically the state governorships, have profited from the changes in the political context.

One must bear in mind, however, that this change does not necessarily imply an increase in democracy. Although the PRI governors benefited the most and not those who belonged to the opposition, this was the result of the PAN governors’ tendency to focus on administrative issues, and of the PRFs skillful use of the partisan network that had been in place since the beginning of the regime.

The first effect of this change has been the curtailing of the president’s influence on politics, an impact that, while it has certainly been positive for the country by laying the party’s control in the governors’ hands, has moved a key element to a sector not inherently homogenous and, in addition, conservative and deeply identified with the authoritarian regime. The risk is that this change may reactivate old cacicazgos and develop a practice aimed at blocking the policies of the federal government. As in other countries that have experienced political change, in Mexico the situation is favorable for the conservative sectors to gain further capabilities to hinder the process.

This is where the resilience of the old regime is fully displayed, in that some institutions that could well be vised both by actors linked to the previous regime and by the new ones committed to the change are still standing. Nevertheless, the PRI governors’ ability to coexist with opposition governors means that what is at stake are the institutional functions of local executives, rather than their personal skills or their partisan origins. Thus a regulated change has remarkably reactivated some institutions of the past, which may be useful for extending the boundaries of participation and pluralism.

This situation could change in the next few years, because the principal relation between the governors and the president has been broken dramatically by an opposition party’s achievement of the presidency. The PRI governors could be forced to adopt institutional behavior, or they might strengthen their ties with the local party structures, and some of them could decide to form an exclusive conservative group. While the first circumstance supports stability in the next stage of the transition, the last could put the next administration at risk. On the other hand, the PAN governors could give in to the temptation to renew the old close relations among local and national executives. In this case, the political alternation would be an enormous failure in the present, difficult stage of the transition process. Whatever happens, political actors cannot ignore the governorships.


Like other countries, Mexico underwent a political liberalization process aimed at promoting democracy, starting in the 1980s. The change focused on establishing an electoral system that would ensure fairness in electoral and political competition and thereby foster alternation. As in other cases, electoral issues and, in particular, the defeat of the PRI in the presidential contest were the goals on which the activities of the political actors totally focused, and by extension, they became the proof of democratization.

The process was long, and many people were disappointed as, although pluralism was enlarged, the alternation so much desired was not yet attained. Basically, it was assumed that because the system was presidential, only when a party different from the PRI reached the executive seat would the system be democratized (Cornelius 1999).

The process of democratization generated deep changes that affected the institutional functioning of the system. Pluralism was not limited to electoral competition and, accordingly, to increasing the involvement of parties. Pluralism also made it possible for basic institutions, such as the federal and state congresses and the governorships, to enhance their constitutional powers, after the political homogeneity resulting from the PRI’s national dominance hacl disappeared. Pluralism put an end to the compulsory discipline under the executive and enabled both the legislative branch and the governorships to become efficient political counterweights to balance the executive and revitalize federalism. This process changed many traditional political practices before alternation finally reached the presidency of the republic in july 2000.

The transformation of the governorships has been significant, for it has opened up numerous political opportunities. Those opportunities, however, depend on both the governor’s personal abilities and party origins. Administrative, budgetary, or political gains vary, depending on the PRI or PAN origins of governors-the two parties having obtained the majority of state governments and gathered the greater expertise in office. PAN governors have consistently developed a routine related to administrative modernization and financial rationalization. Although these practices have generated friction with the president and the federal government, they have not caused any serious political impact that could affect the overall functioning of the system. PRI governors, by contrast, have been able to develop a series of administrative and economic programs of their own and to implement political measures contravening those of the federal government. As a result, a series of conflicts have led to a gradual presidential weakness that was unthinkable before. In contrast to PAN governors who developed the same kinds of programs, the PRI leaders have operated in a different way and have sought different goals.

During Zedillo’s administration-the last PRI presidency-while the PAN governors focused on the debate over the federal budget allocation system, four PRI governors challenged the old presidential power to alter arbitrary actions or local autonomy efforts. Whether it was a question of felonies and corruption or political programs different from the federal ones, the four governors relied on local resources and state sovereignty to challenge the president’s authority, even in a formerly exclusive domain, such as the selection of the presidential candidate.

Regardless of party origins or personal abilities, each leader could act with more autonomy since the institutional transformation of governorships took place. That is, the governorships are basically the same institutions as in the previous authoritarian system, but these institutions have regained their fundamental functions because of the enlargement of pluralism. Under these circumstances, the process of democratic consolidation in Mexico will face not only the problems peculiar to every transition-such as the new government’s inexperience and the endurance of old political practices-but also the persistence of solid and function-renewed institutions, such as the governorships, with enough capabilities to restrain presidential initiatives. One risk of new democracy is that state governments can become a democratic driver by balancing federal executive power, but they can also represent a serious obstacle if traditional cacicazgos-which, paradoxically, were successfully controlled by authoritarian centralism-are recreated.

The Mexican political transition shows that the enlargement of pluralism not only paves the way for democratic forces to attain power, but also redirects or endows with new functions the basic institutions of the previous regime; and these institutions, once the change has been attained, become crucial for its consolidation.


I acknowledge the comments of two anonymous referees and my colleague Jose Luis Reyna on earlier versions of this article.

1. As Huntington wrote, “someone who wishes to protest in Mexico might join a minor party, but someone who wishes to exert pressure would operate within the PRI” (1970, 6).

2. To date, Mexico has had just two women governors: Griselda Alvarez (Colima, 1980-86) and Beatriz Paredes (Tlaxcala, 1987-92).

3. Contrary to expectations from july 2000, the PAN and PRD have not won more state governorships. Until November 2001, the PRI was defeated only in Yucatan, Chiapas, and Michoacan.

4. Finally, after years of expecting the change, the alternation was achieved in July 2000 when the PAN won the presidential election with 42 percent of the vote. Despite the importance of this event, it does not affect the central concern of this paper.

5. The only exceptions are all in Mexico City government: Cuauhtemoc Cardenas and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, both ex-priistas, founders of Corriente Democratica and Frente Democratico Nacional in 1988; and Rosario Robles, a former leftist activist. Only in November 2001 did the PRD win its first governorship with an authentic militant: Lazaro Cardenas in Michoacan.

6. Because of reforms in the criteria for distribution of federal resources, the state congresses had gained influence in the design of local fiscal laws. In Puebla, however, this role was limited by the PRI’s permanent control of the legislative body. This control made it easy for the governor to obtain the necessary support to approve the Bartlett Law and later to win the legal controversy in the Supreme Court (Ward and Rodriguez 1999, 699; Vanderbush 1999, 12).

7. Although Madrazo lost the presidential candidacy, in the party his star was still rising. In 2001 he became the PRI’s national leader in a tough contest with Beatriz Paredes (herself a former governor of Tlaxcala and current PRI legislative leader). His high standing was not enough, however, to overcome the power of the governors, who divided their support for each candidate. Ultimately, Madrazo had to make an alliance with Elba Esther Gordillo, the leader of the National Teachers’ Union (SNTE) and an example of the PRI’s most manipulative politicians. It is obvious that Madrazo seeks control of the PRI to build his presidential candidacy, but he will have to offer much to many actors before he reaches his goal. The most probable outcome is that Madrazo will lose his influence in the negotiations with governors, because he now is only the leader of the PRI and is dependent on the governors’ support; and they could seek any other candidate who offers better opportunities for electoral success.


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