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From Internal Regime Ruptures to the Transnationalization of Mexican Politics -- S. Mara Perez Godoy



February, 1999

This article discusses the activation of the vote movement, a social movement led by Mexican migrants residing primarily in the United States. Since 1988, these migrants have been demanding the right to vote during Mexican elections while residing outside of that country, with the support of the Partido de la Revolucion Democratica (PRD). The PRD is a Mexican opposition party that emerged in the late 1980s, following structural ruptures within the Mexican ruling party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI).

The fragmentation of the PRI represents a crucial element in the emergence of the vote movement since the formation of the PRD is a direct result of this conflictive domestic scenario. The conjunction of an embryonic vote movement in the United States with the emergence of the PRD and its activities on both sides of the US-Mexican border led to the unprecedented transnationalization of Mexican politics. Through this process of transnationalization, and with the PRD officially representing the Mexican diaspora's cause, it becomes possible to theorize about the institutionalization of mobilization, a process through which a segment of a nation's ruptured polity offers official representation to an insurgent population (Perez Godoy 1997; 1998).

Regime Ruptures in Mexico

Mexico's ruling party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), maintained centralized control of the executive and legislative branches of government for decades, following its establishment after the Mexican Revolution of 1810. Developing a corporatist system that restricted competition and governmental control of all electoral processes, the PRI basically encountered no serious opposition for over sixty years. The Party obtained consensus and legitimacy by creating dependency among the groups it controlled through the use of its co-optive apparatus. The PRI structured interest representation, monopolized different sectors of the nation and mediated in the articulation of societal demands. Thus, it created a political machinery that promoted acquiescence while advancing its corporatist agenda to perpetuate itself in government. Historically, the PRI received the support of three important segments of society which it successfully incorporated and controlled. These include the labor sector, the middle class and government employees. Rewards such as job tenure and promotions led to the collaboration of labor, business, and agrarian leaders within the Mexican government (Hansen 1971). Mexico's government offered continued economic growth from the 1940s until the late 1970s, as the salaries and social benefits of peasants, workers, and the middle class experienced gradual but consistent increases. Throughout these four decades, the Mexican economy grew at a rate of more than six percent per year, while per capita income rose at least three percent annually.

The PRI maintained control of the presidency and all governorships from the 1930s (as PMR) until the 1970s, and solidly led Mexico's two legislative bodies, the House of Deputies and the Senate (Hansen 1971). This dominance translated into percentages that ranged from 70 to 90 percent of all votes for any given election (Gomez Tagle 1992, Gonzalez Casanova 1990). However, the PRI's monopoly ebbed during the 1980s and continued to erode through the 1990s. In 1982 Mexico experienced zero economic growth as a result of a severe economic crisis. Mexico had designed a series of ambitious development plans that assumed a prosperous oil market (Gillen Romo 1990). While anticipating twenty-two billion dollars from the oil trade in 1982, Mexico received only fifteen billion dollars. The Mexican economic model which had promoted growth and development succumbed to the world oil crisis, and the resulting economic debacle ignited societal responses that fostered changes within the nation's political system. The presidential election of 1982 proved politically transformational, with the PRI registering only 69 percent of the vote. As Mexico was undergoing these crises, the country also suffered two earthquakes that devastated Mexico City, destroying the city's center. Coinciding with this unexpected and critical situation, banks were not granting new credit to Mexico and the IMF was freezing the country's funds as a result of its lack of compliance with pre-arranged conditions.

In 1987 Mexico experienced yet another economic tremor caused by a pronounced fall of the stock market. Interest rates rose markedly and the government's deficit, unemployment and inflation increased. This crisis created a difficult electoral scenario for the PRI as President De la Madrid's term neared its end, and the 1988 elections approached. In an unprecedented result, the PRI lost Mexico City in the 1988 presidential elections (Eckstein 1988). These elections were important no only because the PRI had to contend with this critically disturbing milieu, but also because the newly formed Frente Democratico Nacional (FDN) was participating in the elections for the first time. The FDN became the Partido de la Revolucion Democratica (PRD) shortly after the elections, and since then it has maintained its presence as an opposition force in Mexico. Following the crises of the 1980s, therefore, societal discontent, and a new political alternative began to challenge the PRI's historical dominion.

According to the PRD leadership, many Mexicans and most Mexicanists, fraud tainted the 1988 presidential elections. The controversial results illuminated a fragile victory as the PRI only managed to gather approximately 50 percent of the vote. Senatorial and congressional elections in 1988 mirrored the presidential results by again yielding about 50 percent of the votes for the PRI. As a result, the opposition experienced an expansion of the political space in which it could operate. The PRD was a chief beneficiary of this change. Since then, the political landscape has become more sinuous, offering even greater opportunity for divergent policy positions and therefore establishing a more diversified political arena.

Establishment of A Transnational Coalition and the Activation of the Vote Movement

The presence of the PRD as an opposition force marked the start of a transformational phase in Mexican politics. As an alternative voice on foreign affairs, the PRD became a transnational party from its inception, establishing long-lasting connections with Mexican migrants north of the border. Additionally, the PRD incorporated the vote demand into its official political agenda. PRD representatives and migrant political activists worked jointly to successfully mount their transnational venture. These two political actors became so closely allied that it often became difficult to distinguish them. Migrant vote activists were themselves US-PRD representatives and party members, thus creating a seamless extension between this transnational party and migrant activists (Perez Godoy 1997; 1998).

The coalition established between the PRD and Mexican migrants operated throughout the United States, beginning in California and spreading to Illinois and other states, while in Mexico it has been mostly centralized in Mexico City. From the capitol city, both PRD legislators and party supporters planned the establishment of several vote movement's leading organizations and formalized PRD Executive Committee offices throughout the United States. There, Mexican activists have continuously acted as PRD members and vote movement leaders since 1987. Prior to 1987, sporadic, fleeting references to the right to vote from abroad had been advanced by migrants and the Partido Mexicano Socialista (PMS), a Mexican opposition party. However, these demands never developed into any type of formal, organized, and sustained demand or social movement. Only following the rupture of the PRI and the subsequent emergence of the transnational PRD, did the vote movement become active, gaining official representation within Mexico's policy debate forums (Perez Godoy 1997; 1998).

Official Representation

Above, I documented the web or relations that connected the vote movement and the PRD. Featuring an interwoven mesh of transnational political relations, the vote movement erupted simultaneously in the United States and Mexico. In Mexico, the movement made its historical entry into official discussion forums via its mediator, the PRD in 1988. I refer to this mediation process as the institutionalization of mobilization (Perez Godoy 1997; 1998).

A systematic analysis of Mexican Congressional records on migration-related debates shows that legislators rarely discussed matters related to the nation's diaspora between 1968 and 1988. When doing so, congressmen repeatedly focused north of Mexico's border, pointing mostly to the failures of the United States in the treatment of migrants. Legislators discussed the human, economic and political rights to which migrants should be entitled in the receiving country. Therefore, congressmen systematically presented migration issues as a US rather than a Mexican problem, and deflected attention away from the conditions at home. This approach constitutes Mexico's unilateral position on migration affairs (Perez Godoy 1998).

The composition of Mexico's Congress shifted following the regime crises of the 1980s, and by 1988 approximately fifty percent of all congressional and senatorial seats were occupied by opposition parties. Thenceforth, and coinciding the emergence of the vote movement north of the Border, Mexico's Congress became the leading setting of official transnational debates, addressing the fate of the Mexican diaspora. The PRD led these debates, demanding the recognition of the diaspora as a legitimate, transnational political participant. Breaking with the historical unilateralism of the formerly hegemonic Congress, the PRD began to address migration as a problem that pertained to the Mexican natio (Perez Godoy 1998).

Within this emerging pluralistic milieu, the PRI and other oppositions parties began to discuss the migrants' rights in their sending country, thus incorporating bilateral elements into their agendas. Still restrictive in comparison to the PRD's bilateralism, these parties emphasized the migrants' rights associated with the "no loss of Mexican nationality." This was a constitutional amendment advanced by the PRI and designed to grant the maintenance of Mexican nationality to those Mexicans choosing to obtain the citizenship of another country. While bilateral in nature, this PRI proposition neglected to consider the political rights of the diaspora, even though it granted property ownership rights to Mexicans obtaining citizenship elsewhere. The PRD approved this proposition, although it criticized its narrow scope. Furthermore, the PRD continued to advocate the expansion of political rights in the sending country, highliting the clear contrast between its positions and those taken by the PRI and other opposition parties. Nonetheless, at this historical juncture the PRI, the PRD and other parties all sought to advance transnational agendas of one form or another (Perez Godoy 1998).

In addition to the unprecedented changes occurring in the Mexican Congress after 1988, the vote movement demand was raised in other forums of debate within Mexico. Addressed at the Chapultepec Seminar and the Bucareli Tables, the demand became not only an element of Congressional migration debates, but also of unofficial and subsequently official electoral reform policy discussions.

Following years of debate, the vote demand was approved in 1996. Although the approval was revoked shortly after, the PRD and vote movement leaders have continued to formulate vote demands and have engaged Mexico's Instituto Federal Electoral (Federal Electoral Institute) in the debate. According to movement leaders, the diaspora is highly likely to participate in the upcoming Mexican presidential elections of the year 2000. As shown, the PRD, acting as a transnational political party, officialized the vote demand within Mexico's debate forums, and successfully carried out the institutionalization of mobilization (Perez Godoy 1997; 1998).


In conclusion, the Mexican political scenario has ranged from a strong hegemonic domination by the PRI to escalating national conflicts. The political ferment of the time resulted in the rupture of the ruling party, precipitating the emergence of the PRD. Subsequently, I showed that the PRD, acting as engine of movement activation, sparked the vote movement's transnational campaign. It is, therefore, the regime ruptures unfolding in Mexico during the 1980s, and their accompanying domestic political developments (the emergence of the PRD) that propitiated the activation of this transnational movement, propelling its two leading actors to coalesce and to engage in sustained, institutionalized activism. Moreover, through the actions of its institutional representative, migrants gained recognition in Mexico, negotiated their transnational rights within the nation's Congress, and fruitfully generated significant policy shifts and transformation.

Finally, as Mexican migrants engaged in sustained transnational mobilization, they symbolically enacted their return to Mexico. While details regarding the right to vote from abroad were still being debated throughout 1997 and 1998, the diaspora's success transcended discrete policy details. Defending their Mexican heritage and gaining representation within official debate forums, migrants legitimized their membership in Mexico.



Collier R. and Collier, D. 1991. Shaping the Political Arena. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gomez Tagle, S. 1992. La Ruptura en las Elecciones Mexicanas: 6 de Julio de 1988. In Alonso, J. et al (eds). 1992. El Nuevo Estado Mexicano-II, Estado y Politica. Guadalajara, Mexico: Nueva Imagen.

Gonzalez-Casanova, P. 1970. Democracy in Mexico. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Hansen, R. 1971. The Politics of Mexican Development. Baltimore, MD: Te John Hopkins University Press.

Perez Godoy, S. Mara. 1997. Transnational Migration and the Institutionalization of Mobilization: The Role of a Political Party in a Social Movement. Revista Interamericana 27(1-4) 715-731.

Perez Godoy, S. Mara. 1998. Social Movements and International Migration: The Mexican Diaspora Seeks Inclusion In Mexico's Political Affairs, 1968-1998. Dissertation. The University of Chicago.

Rodriguez Lapuente, M. 1992. El Estado y el Partido. In Alonso, J. et al (eds). 1992. El Nuevo Estado Mexicano-II, Estado y Politica. Guadalajara, Mexico: Nueva Imagen.

Stepan, A. 1978. The State and Society: Peru in Comparative Perspective. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


 With the conclusion of the Mexican Revolution, efforts to consolidate power became part of the "incorporation period." By the mid-1920s president Calles had successfully established a populist system whereby the labor sector supported the government and in return received material benefits. Although Mexico's bourgeoisie and the agricultural sector opposed the emerging regime, the nation's presidents further advanced corporatism throughout the 1930s and 1040s. The ruling party during this time was the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (PNR), established in 1929. By 1938 this party became the Partido Revolucionario Mexicano (PRM). The PNR and the PRM are the precursors of the modern PRI which was first established in 1946. As PRI, the party further centralized power by imposing a rigidly controlled internal candidate-nomination system that replaced a more open one that allowed the incorporated sectors to act as nominators. From this time onward, the active role of the incorporated sectors was severed, their direct participation restrained and their autonomy dismantled. In sum, the PRI fostered the subordination of the sectors to the party and to the government. For greater details refer to: Collier Ruth and David Collier. 1991. Shaping the Political Arena. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

 Through the creation and regularization of interest groups which are tied to the state apparatus, corporatist regimes control forces which otherwise would operate independently, hence threatening the political system. Demands, conflicts and potential confrontations are limited in a corporatist nation. Corporatism grants representation to noncompetitive organization in exchange for their acquiescent support. For details refer to : Stepan, Alfred. 1978. The State and Society: Peru in Comparative Perspective. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

 This good fortune was not spread evenly over the Mexican population. For example, landless agricultural workers, whose numbers increased between 1950 and 1960 from 2.3 to 3.3 million could not find employment within the industrial and service industries due to the slow growth of these. Additionally, while the Mexican government expanded coverage of services such as free education and healthcare, it did so narrowly. In 1950 the budget allocations to education represented only 1.4 percent of Mexico's GNP. For details refer to Hansen, Roger. 1971. The Politics of Mexican Development. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University. Also see: Rodriguez Lapuente, Manuel 1992. El Estado y El Partido. In Alonso, Jorge, et al (eds). 1992. El Nuevo Estado Mexicano-II, Estado y Politica. Guadalajara, Mexico: Nueva Imagen.

 The emergence of the FDN was the culmination of years of controversial discussions within the PRI between conservative party factions committed to maintaining the Party's traditional operative mechanisms, and a dissident voice, the Corriente Democractica. The Corriente Democratica's lead figures, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas and Porfirio Munoz Ledo spoke critically about the economic situation of the 1980s, indicating that the government was failing to promote the well being of many Mexicans. Additionally, they argued that the government was authoritative and non-democratic. Although Cardenas and Ledo emphasized that they were reformists within the PRI, by mid-1987 the PRI was officially and energetically condemning and repudiating the activities of Corriente Democratica. Even though Cardenas and Ledo continued to emphasize their allegiance to the PRI, months later the Mexican political scenario radically changed and the party fragmented. The newly formed FDN and later PRD, led by Cardenas and Ledo, indicated that it was the promoter of a "democratic revolution" to bring about an equitable distribution of wealth among Mexicans, to eliminate corruption and impunity in the political system, to guarantee freedom of expression and human rights and to broadly generate a democratic transformation within the state apparatus. For details see: El ABC de la Revolucion Democratica. Mexico: Instituto de Education para la Democracia, Partido de la Revolucion Democratica, 1993.

 The Partido Mexicano Socialista (PMS) advanced vote demands as early as the 1980s, but these were short-lived. Moreover, the PMS joined the PRD once the vote movement became active (Perez Godoy 1998).

 Mexico's Constitution differentiates between the rights associated with citizenship and nationality, linking political rights to Mexican citizenship.

 In 1995 a group of Mexicans who had served as civilian advisors during the 1994 presidential elections organized an unofficial forum for political debate, known as the Chapultepec Seminar, that brought the PRD, PRI and other opposition parties together to privately discuss electoral reforms. In 1996 negotiations stemming from the Seminar entered official debates at the Bucareli Table. These discussions took place at Mexico's Secretaria de Gobernacion (Government Secretariat), located on Bucareli Street, in Mexico City; ergo the name of the discussion sessions.