Mexico’s Institutional Crisis

In the New Left Review, Al Giordano on the Mexican Presidential elections.

For Mexicans, the events of this summer inevitably recalled another stolen election, eighteen years ago. In July 1988, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas—son of the populist president Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–40), who had instituted land reforms and nationalized oil—ran for the presidency against the pri’s Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Cárdenas and his left-reformist supporters within the party had broken from the pri in 1987, having despaired of reforming the priísta machine from within. Together with former pri chairman Porfirio Muñoz Ledo and a range of small left parties, he founded the National Democratic Front (FDN) early in 1988 to contest that year’s election. When the returns came in on July 6th, Cárdenas was in the lead: the 55 per cent of tally sheets in the possession of FDN poll workers showed Cárdenas with 40 per cent to Salinas’s 36; government tabulations showed similar results. But then came the moment that has defined public responses to the current electoral crisis: the pri interior minister announced on national tv that the vote-counting computer had crashed. When the system was back up again later that night, suddenly Salinas was ahead.

Millions took to the streets to protest the fraud. The PRI regime flatly refused to make the remaining precinct tally sheets public, but when 30,000 ballots marked for Cárdenas were found dumped in rivers and forests in the southern state of Guerrero, popular anger erupted. During a demonstration in the Zócalo attended by upwards of three million people, some of Cárdenas’s aides pressed him to seize the National Palace. But he recoiled from such a radical course, opting to negotiate with Salinas in private. In exchange for some concessions, including the formation in 1990 of the Federal Electoral Institute, Cárdenas dropped his challenge, prompting bitter divisions within the fdn that continue to haunt the party formed from its demoralized components in 1989, the PRD.