Sunday, June 24 , 2018, 11:49 am | Overcast 65º


Michael Barone: What If They Held an Election and Nobody Came?

Sunday's vote in Mexico was a stark contrast from the country's last three presidential elections

What if they held an election and nobody came?

That’s more or less what happened last Sunday in Mexico, at least as far as most American journalists (including me) are concerned.

That’s a vivid contrast with the last three presidential elections in Mexico, which had enormous consequences for that country and for the United States.

I happened to be in Mexico on vacation in spring of 1994 when Luis Donaldo Colosio, the candidate of the ruling PRI party, was assassinated. I listened to the radio broadcast as Ernesto Zedillo, speaking shakily, accepted the party’s nomination to succeed him. As with every PRI candidate since 1929, he won the election in July.

In 2000, I was in Mexico to cover the election in which Vicente Fox, candidate of the center-right PAN party, was elected — the first opposition victory in 71 years.

I was there as the PAN crowd was celebrating at the Angel of Independence statue on the Paseo de la Reforma. As they jumped up and down in rhythm to a classic Mexican song, I felt the earth move — it turns out that the boulevard is built on spongy fill land that vibrates under stress.

And in 2006 I was in Mexico City as PAN candidate Felipe Calderón beat the left-wing mayor of Mexico City, Andres Manuel López Obrador, by 1 percent of the vote. AMLO’s followers protested the result for months, occupying the Reforma Boulevard and separating the capital in two.

These elections effectively ended the one-party rule of the PRI, whose very name — the party of the institutional revolution — suggested its peculiar nature.

It was established in 1929, after two decades of revolutionary violence. Each Mexican president would serve for a single six-year term, and in the last year would pick his successor — put his finger, or dedazo, on him — who would be nominated by the PRI. After a campaign of elaborate ceremony around the country, he would be routinely elected.

Bad things would tend to happen in each president’s sixth year, or sexenio, and after he left office he would be reviled and in many cases would leave the country altogether.

The PRI system appealed to an Aztec sensibility, containing as it did elements of elaborate ceremony, calendrical regularity and (in the expulsion of the former president) human sacrifice.

For about 35 years, the PRI system worked tolerably well. Mexico’s economy grew, and its centralized institutions — the government-owned Pemex oil monopoly, the favored Televisa broadcasting network — accommodated themselves to one handpicked president after another.

From 1968, when soldiers massacred several hundred protesting students in the weeks before the Mexico City Olympics, it worked less well. Carlos Salinas, the winner in 1988 in an election many considered fraudulent, saw that the system had to be changed.

Salinas negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement and ordered Televisa to conduct an exit poll to validate the next election. He nonetheless handpicked Colosio and then Zedillo to succeed him.

Zedillo declined to exercise the dedazo, and on election night in 2000, when the PRI candidate claimed fraud, went on television and said, “I recognize that Vicente Fox is the next president of Mexico.” That was the end of 71 years of one-party rule.

Six years later, Mexico narrowly avoided a victory by the leftist López Obrador, which would have undoubtedly held back its economy. Now it has better economic growth than the United States, and as former Foreign Secretary Jorge Castañeda points out, it’s a majority middle-class country.

And one with something like a normal politics. The winner in Sunday’s election was PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, who got 38 percent of the vote, to 32 percent for AMLO and 25 percent for PAN’s Josefina Vazquez Mota.

But Pena will not bring back the old PRI system. He won based on his record as governor of the state of Mexico and his fame as the husband of a telenovela actress.

He has promised to get rid of the law prohibiting Pemex from making contracts with private oil service firms, one of the hallmarks of the old PRI system.

It’s not clear whether he’ll keep that promise, or whether he’ll continue Calderón’s aggressive fight against drug traffickers. As for immigration, it appears that the flow of Mexicans to the United States has been reversed since 2007.

What is clear is that Mexico has become a neighbor much easier to live with.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. Click here to contact him. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelBarone.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Enter your email
Select your membership level

Payment Information

You are purchasing:

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >