Documents on Mexican Politics.

Why does the PRD lose?.

Why does the PRD lose?

by Vladimir Escalante Ramirez (


A short list of problems that have prevented the PRD from delivering a definitive blow to the PRI is presented. It is argued that the PRD is to a large extent a cathartic organization that has lacked the necessary organization to withstand the dirty political system. Furthermore internal problems due to a weak ideological basis, and lack of political involvement of the public has contributed to undermine PRD's electoral chances in an unfair competition with the ruling party.


The fury unleashed for the last six years against the personalities and ideas that currently form the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) has made objective criticism of this party nearly impossible. It is amazing that some predecessors of the PRD, like the PCM (Mexican Communist Party), and the PSUM (Mexican Unified Socialist Party) never took as much heat as Cardenas and his PRD despite the undeniable moderation of the PRD in its ideological postulates.

After the PRI-government lost its credibility in the 1988 elections by apparently stealing the victory of opposition candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the PRD founded by Cardenas after that, has become the favorite target of attack by the media and business sectors that feel especially indebted to 65 years of PRI rule.

The PRD-bashing campaign waged by the media and business sectors has caused that sharp and intelligent criticisms of PRD actions and development are often ignored, dismissed, or misinterpreted even when they come from honest and trustworthy media sources. Nevertheless, if we want to go beyond complaints over ballots, special casillas and the like, and want to truly understand why the PRI always wins, it is important to analyze Mexican political opposition.

Here is a sketchy list of PRD blunders and miscalculations of six years of struggle that have been noticed by many, but rarely acknowledged by even its worst enemies:

  1. The PRD is too much of a cathartic organization. It tends to grow out of resentment or disaffection of government or PRI decisions, but the PRD has been unable to educate the people on the issues. Election frauds and government corruption and repression have created a sizable but heterogeneous and unstable constituency for the PRD. In many cases this constituency is nothing but disgruntled PRI supporters or members who could not find their way into the PRI-government apparatus, and turned to the PRD as a means of pressuring the PRI rather than pursuing any worthy cause. In this respect the PRD is not much different from the other main opposition party, PAN, even though the PRD and PAN are at opposite extremes in the spectrum. For decades the PAN was the party people liked to vote for to express a no-vote for the PRI. The PRD has become only an alternative to the PAN.
  2. The PRD lacks a sufficient level of organization to face a repressive and unfair system of political competition. Since the repression in 1968 against student organizations, no political unarmed body in Mexico had suffered so much persecution as the PRD at the hands of the government. The repression against the PRD has gone from clear political assassinations of its leaders, some elected to public office, to smears, rumors and dirty tactics orchestrated by the media and the private sector. Part of the reason for the PRD unpreparedness for this offensive is the fact that many PRD leaders are seasoned politicos that made a career in the ruling party, the PRI. Thus they were not trained in the politics of resistance to overt repression by the government that other, now defunct, organizations like the Communist Party had to endure for decades.
  3. The integrity of some PRD leaders is definitely questionable. This is a little known problem of the PRD because the very same government efforts to cover up anti-PRD tactics often seek to hide from the public efforts to buy off or corrupt PRD members. For example, there have been a number of defections of PRD leaders to the PRI. In many cases these defections were presented as reconciliations or even cases of government pluralism when in reality they were more likely plain sell outs. Although a few important PRD leaders defected in this way, the most damaging betrayals involved local leaders that were closer and more familiar to the constituency [1].

    Another kind of problems has involved corruption of PRD members elected to public office. The PRD has managed to win local elections for municipal posts. Nevertheless the (world-wide) belief that government posts are a sure way to take advantage seems to have prevailed in some PRD members. They clearly did not understand that government corruption looked so normal in the hands of the PRI because the media and the legal system acted together to ignore it. Corrupt PRD governments experienced very different treatment from the establishment, lost the support of their party, and were easily dismantled by the PRI.

  4. The PRD has failed to get people involved enough in politics. The PRD seems to trust the reliability of the electoral system much more than what it appears. This is another fact that has been obscured by the PRD-bashing campaign of the media in its attempt to present PRD supporters as unreasonable critics. In reality there was a belief in the PRD that because of all the fraud-prevention measures in the August 21 election, the government would be unable to rig the election as as done so many times to favor the PRI, and another fraud would not be repeated. The PRD has not acknowledged the fact that the PRI has won and lost many elections honestly in the past. Instead the PRD insists in centering its politics on preventing vote fraud, and neglected important problems in the field. By 1991 the PRD had lost most of the terrain that it won in 1988. The state elections in Morelos in March of this year (1994) --only five months before the August 21 federal election-- did not show a good outlook for the PRD. In all cases the PRD attributed its defeat to irregularities and vote rigging. Why did the PRD suppose that the election of August 21 was going to be different?
  5. The strategy of the PRD of watching the ballot box seems to be taking too much effort and giving little results. Worse, it sounds like a very passive attitude for PRDistas. Democratic politics is an everyday affair that must involve many activists, and relay on the ability of persons to do politics independently [2]. That's the only sure way to sense the environment, and transmit a political message to the public that the government controlled TV --the main source of information nowadays-- refuses to carry.
  6. The PRD should look back to its predecessors. The first time in recent history that the PRI was defeated by the vote of the people was in Juchitan, Oaxaca, in 1980 by a grassroots peasant-student organization called COCEI (Coordinadora Obrera Campesina Estudiantil del Istmo). COCEI had been patiently organizing the peasants in the Tehuantepec Isthmus for many years. No need for voter id cards with photo, no need of international observers. It was plain hard political work what did the trick [3]. In fact the vote percentages obtained by the PRD in August 21, 1994, are not too far from those that the Communist Party got the first time it was allowed to participate in elections after 35 years in the underground. That was the year of 1979 when fraudulent elections were normal.
  7. The left has left the PRD without a program. Besides the group of politicians that followed Cardenas in leaving the PRI, the PRD was formed by nearly all the left in Mexico in 1988. But after the destruction of the Soviet Union, the Mexican left has been unable to offer a single coherent theoretical alternative to neo-liberalism. This ideological disarray has contributed to costly internal fights among very heterogeneous and uncompromising groups within the PRD.

    The main positions of the left in 1988 with respect to the external debt, open markets, privatizations, and other important reforms of the Salinas administration had been abandonded by 1991. In a desperate attempt to gain some support among Mexican capitalists and the private sector, Cardenas tried to distance himself from past positions in his 1994 campaign by saying that it was erroneous to attach leftist labels to the PRD. He also tried to court investors in what appeared to be a reconciliating attitude. The move of the PRD to the right was noticed by all. Subcomandante Marcos said: ''Yesterday they were on the left, today they are on the center, where will they be tomorrow?''

It is important to say that many of the above problems with the PRD are actually shared by many other opposition and independent groups of right and left in Mexico. Politicians selling out to the system and betraying their constituencies is perhaps one of the most suffered problems, and one that causes the most cynicism among people. The obvious antidote --getting more people committed on the issue to fend for themselves-- is the least common situation. It is precisely for this reason that Cardenas' and the PRD's refusal to compromise with the PRI is their most outstanding achievement to date, and one that has won them a lot of respect and support among Mexicans. All other existing Mexican opposition parties have sold out at one point or another in their history.

Vladimir Escalante Ramirez.


  1. One very outrageous case involved a union leader who had created an important independent movement at Universities during the 1970's in defiance of 30 years of a tight PRI control of labor unions in Mexico. After becoming a nation-wide respected union leader after 15 years of struggle against government repression, he surprised everybody by announcing his designation as an advisor to President Salinas. He later was allowed by the PRI to win the municipal presidency in his native city. Needless to say that the union movement he founded is now in shambles.
  2. As an example I can mention the failed attempt to organize employees at the University, who had been strong supporters of left politics for two decades. It took two visits by Cardenas to the University to get something going, and even then apathy prevented the formation of a strong PRD movement at the University.
  3. The Communist Party allowed candidates of COCEI to ride on its recently acquired legal status to run for office in the city of Juchitan in Oaxaca in 1980. A traditional electoral fraud was attempted by the PRI, but it was nullified when the highly politicized and militant people took over the city hall, and forced a second election that was won by COCEI. The COCEI government of Juchitan was accused of abuses of power by the PRI state government, and the army was sent to dislodge COCEI members from the government and reinstate a PRI government in this city of Oaxaca in 1982. You may be tempted to say: ''So, they lost after all''. Not quite. The PRI imposed government had to pour money over Juchitan to build schools, hospitals, streets, sewage, and other social developments, and also agreed to form a coalition government with COCEI in order to regain peace and order in the city.

    The story of Juchitan, as the first city in which the PRI had lost in recent times, and the way the PRI recovered the city government, was so embarrassing to the PRI, that American ambassador Negroponte decided not to approve the visit of a Harvard Fulbright scholar to Mexico to study the case in 1988.