In his extraordinary book on Quetzalcoatl—the Aztecs’ Plumed Serpent—and the Virgin of Guadalupe, Jacques Lafaye affirms that all Mexicans are Guadalupanos, even the atheists. One can almost add to this that all Mexicans are PRIsts, even the PANists.
The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is the origin of practically all of the political history of modern Mexico. It came into being in 1928 to incorporate the entire politically active society of the epoch in order to channel their demands and to control it, as well as to convert it into a mechanism for the transmission of information and political participation. At the time of its creation, after the feat of the Mexican Revolution, the leaderships of all types of organizations, political parties, unions and militias, and, some years afterward, the organizations themselves came on board. The institutionalization of Mexican politics arose within the PRI.
Basically all political activity in the country from that moment on took place within the fold of the PRI or in reference to it. Many organizations and political parties were born during the successive years, but (almost) all in coordination with or in opposition to the PRI. The National Action Party (PAN), perhaps the most notable organization in this context, was conceived to oppose the Party of the Mexican Revolution (the PRM), the second PRI predecessor; the historic Left, as it called today—beginning with the Mexican Communist Party (founded in 1917) and others of Trotskyite affiliation—grew in parallel fashion.
In the political history of post-revolutionary Mexico, the PRI (and its predecessors) has not only been the heart of, but also the reference point of, national politics.
Later would come the groups that were offshoots of the "official party," i.e., the Authentic Party of the Mexican Revolution (PARM), the Popular Socialist Party (PPS), those created from the power itself, such as the Labor Party (PT), and many of the key actors in PRD and Morena are of PRI origin. The point is that, in the political history of post-revolutionary Mexico, the PRI (and its predecessors) has not only been the heart of, but also the reference point of, national politics. Although much has changed as a result of alternation of parties in the presidency, the essence endures therein.
From its creation in 1939, the PAN comprised opposition: its history and philosophy were anti-PRIist. Born during the pre-WWII era, it possessed scantily commendable liaisons, hauling the latter along throughout its first decades. However, little by little, it assumed the forms of the European Christian Democrats, becoming the prototypical Center-Right opposition party. The PAN, party of the professionals, contrasted with the PRI’s social base and was always distinguished by its pursuit of ideological purity, ethical values, and its rejection of PRI ways of operating. Over time it became the loyal party in the Duverger concept (in that it did not attempt to overthrow the regime, but rather to defeat it electorally), to the degree of being the socio-legislative key in the first wave of economic and electoral reforms in the 1980s and 90s.
All of those attributes turned the PAN into the emblematic opposition party, which earned it the presidential win in 2000. That was no small achievement given the history of the power monopoly that distinguished Mexico, but it was devastating for the PAN itself. Rather than substituting for the PRIist regime, it preserved it, and instead of decidedly advancing its agenda against corruption, nepotism, and authoritarian control, it imitated the old system and blended with it. On not changing the institutions and the mechanisms typifying them, the PANists exhibited a similar propensity for corruption to that of its predecessors—to the point of introducing innovations in this fashion with their (in)famous "moches" (cuts)—and were only prominent in their form of governing on exception. After two mediocre presidential terms-in-office, the PAN ended up proving their forerunners’ warning: it procured the power, but lost its reason of being.
Vicente Fox had six long years of missed opportunities. Perhaps the greatest of all of these: the political transition that Mexico is yet to accomplish.
The PAN has not recovered from its presidential years. Much worse, its leaderships do not recognize, and maybe do not understand, the contradiction that has become their signature: a party dedicated to ethics and the struggle against corruption and abuse cannot continue to present itself as the epitome of pulchritude. It also cannot aspire to the presidency with the same discourse that failed the citizenry on two occasions. It advocates the country’s reform, but it does not reform itself.
Nothing better illustrates the crisis of the PAN than the manner in which its ex-presidents have turned toward the PRI. Vicente Fox was not profoundly nor particularly PANist: he distinguished himself for his pragmatism but above all for arriving at the presidency (an enormous achievement) to later just sit there. Like Caesar, veni, vini, (but did not) vici: he came, he saw, but he did not conquer. Instead, he did the dead man’s float for six long years of missed opportunities. Perhaps the greatest of all of these: the political transition that Mexico is yet to accomplish. However, no sooner did he move out of the Los Pinos presidential residence than he became the First PRIist of the nation: he supports its candidates, lives off its governors, and enjoys their benefits, even if he never learned from their political sophistication.
Felipe Calderón comes from the hard PAN and is characterized by his deep anti-PRIism. However, bold as brass, as soon as he saw the end coming, he negotiated with the PRI and, in the best of that party’s style, acts in ways that are functional to it. Circumspect and untrusting by nature, he is in constant conflict with his party, handles his wife’s presidential candidacy, and, most likely, as do his acolytes in the Senate, drives bargains in the wings. One of life’s paradoxes: from rancid PAN to pragmatic PRI. Must be seen to be believed.
Luis Rubio is a Pacific Council member and president of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI).
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.