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Synthesis/Regeneration 15   (Winter 1998)

The 1997 Elections in Mexico and the Rise of the Greens

by Don Fitz, Gateway Green Alliance

The July 6, 1997 elections in Mexico were touted in the US press as a loss by the long-ruling PRI to Cárdenas and the left-leaning PRD. But few Americans are aware that the election brought the number of states governed by the center-right PAN to five. And there has been a virtual news blackout of the spectacular rise of the Green Ecological Party of Mexico (PVEM).

What's Really at Stake?

With a keen eye on Mexico's huge oil fields, US businessmen worry over the future of investments if power were lost by PRI, the world's longest-ruling party. Despite snipes at its 68 year reign, The Wall Street Journal reassures its readers that the PRI majority

helped Mexico's presidents push through a variety of key reforms that have reshaped Mexico's economic life. Mexico privatized billions of dollars in state-owned industries in the 1990's, and began a steady process or opening trade that culminated with the approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. (1)

The PRI has not always been so compliant to foreign interests. When it carried out extensive nationalizations during the presidency of General Lazaro Cárdenas (1934-40), conservatives created the PAN as an opposition. But the PRI has moved so far to the right that it recently worked with the PAN on neoliberal economic policies. In 1988, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas broke with the PRI and formed the mildly left PRD. Though he received the most votes for president, PRI issued its own count and declared itself the winner. During the 1997 campaign, many American investors were nervous that "Mr. Cárdenas, son of a Mexican president who nationalized Mexican oil in 1938, campaigned hard by promising to renegotiate NAFTA and to orchestrate greater involvement of the government in the economy in order to improve living standards." (2)

Mexican elections

Despite victories by the PRI in every national race since the 1930's, Mexico has a tradition of multiple parties' noisily competing in triennial elections. They are preceded by weeks of banners being hung across streets, walls being painted with slogans and speeches being given in public squares.

This competition intensified when Mexican political parties were guaranteed free access to radio and TV in 1973. In 1986, the Mexican federal government approved public financing of parties meeting registration requirements. In 1996, it stipulated that 200 of 500 members of the Chamber of Deputies (similar to the US House of Representatives) and 32 of 128 federal Senators would be chosen by proportional representation during the 1997 elections. (3)

Fearful of growth of an independent power within the huge capital, the national government prohibited Mexico City from selecting its own mayor for decades. One of the major changes in 1996 electoral laws determined that the capital city would both elect its own mayor, and, for the purposes of national elections, be treated as the country's 32nd state.

Held during the middle of a six-year presidential term, the 1997 elections selected all 500 members of the Chamber of Deputies, 32 of 128 Senators, governors of seven states (including Mexico City), and many state assemblies and local governments. Eight parties met requirements to be registered and appear on the ballot:

Were the '97 Elections Clean?

Though the American press described the elections with phrases like "the fairest in Mexico's modern history" (4), fraud was rampant. As an approved "International Observer" of the Instituto Federal Electoral, I observed over a dozen polling locations (casillas), saw many examples of voting irregularities, and heard dozens of stories of others.

The most serious (and rarely mentioned) "irregularity" was the murder of an estimated 200 PRD organizers since that party's inception. During a period of three weeks prior to the election, two PVEM members were murdered: Delfino Martínez in the State of Guerrero and Nemeslo Padilla in the State of Mexico.

Table 1: Votes for Federal Deputies by the Principle of Proportional Representation
Party % of votes difference
1994 1997 1994-97%
PAN 25.78% 26.62% 0.84%
PRI 50.31% 39.12% -11.19%
PPS 0.70% 0.34% -0.36%
PRD 16.72% 25.73% .01%
PFCRN/PC 1.14% 1.12% -0.01%
PARM 0.85%
PT 2.65% 2.58% -0.07%
PVEM 1.40% 3.81% 2.41%
PDM 0.44% 0.66% 0.22%
from Instituto Federal Electoral

Other incidents included robbery of party money designated to pay poll watchers, phone lines going dead, offers to pay for votes, threatening workers with job loss, threatening vendors with loss of market locations, selective loss of ballots, giving multiple ballots to some voters, attempting to influence voters in the booths, writing graffiti on polling booths, not opening polling places on time, transporting people to polling places (illegal in Mexican law), and creative computer listing of voters. (5) It was this very real intimidation and dishonesty that lead the Zapatistas to blockade roads to some casillas in rural Chiapas and burn all the voting materials in others.

The overwhelming majority of accusations were directed against the PRI and almost all the rest against the PAN. Thus, the results in Table 1 almost certainly overstate the extent of support for PRI and PAN.

Tabulation by votes for proportional representation gives a better picture than votes for winner-take-all seats, which are biased against smaller parties. By comparing the second column of Table 1 with the second column of Table 2, it is clear that PRI received more deputies than its share of the vote while the smaller parties received fewer.

PRD and PAN Gain at Expense of PRI

The election left Ernesto Zedillo the first Mexican president since 1913 to have a Chamber of Deputies with an opposition majority. But PRD did not "win" the election any more than PAN or PVEM "won." PRI retains the presidency, a majority in the Senate, the largest bloc in the Chamber of Deputies, over two-thirds of the governorships and the overwhelming majority of municipal governments.

Figure 1 [not included here] illustrates that 69% of Mexicans live in a state governed by PRI. Most of the others [22%] live in a PAN-dominated state. [PRD 9%]. By 1994, PAN held governorships in the states of Baja California, Jalisco and Guanajuato. The 1997 elections added the economically important states of Nuevo Leon and Queretaro to that list.

Table 2: Federal Deputies Elected, 1997
Party No. of deputies % deputies
PAN 122 24.4%
PRI 239 47.8%
PPS 0 0.0%
PRD 125 25.0%
PFCRN/PC 0 0.0%
PT 6 1.2%
PVEM 8 1.6%
PDM 0 0.0%
Total 500 100.0%

While the PRD governs only Mexico City, the capital is the political hub of the country and the best location from which to launch a campaign for president in 2000. Though Mexico City officially is home to 9 million Mexicans, over 20 million live in the metropolitan area of the largest city in the world. Table 3 shows the commanding lead PRD took in the nation's capital, winning 38 of 66 seats in the governing assembly.

Growing Strength of PVEM

During the weeks leading up to the election, the Mexican paper Reforma repeatedly covered the four leading parties: PRD, PRI, PAN, and PVEM. The more than 1.1 million votes received by the PVEM nationwide made it the first Green Party in the western hemisphere to receive a Senator in the national government. The PVEM also won eight federal deputies: 1 each from the states of Mexico, Baja California Sur, Nuevo Leon, and Oaxaca and 4 from Mexico City. The Mexican Greens won local deputies in the states of Queretaro (1), Guanajuato (1), Tlaxcala (1),and Mexico (4). PVEM now has elected mayors in municipalities in Mexico, Puebla, Guanajuato, Oaxaca, and Vera Cruz. It is now one of the world's most influential Green Parties.

Between 1994 and 1997, PAN and PT had very little change in the proportion of votes, PRI dropped by over 11%, PRD went up by 9% and PVEM increased by 2.4%. Since PVEM had received only 1.4% of the 1994 votes, it grew by over two and a half times in three years, the most of any party. The daily La Jornada noted that "PVEM displaced PT (Labor Party) from its previous position as the fourth strongest political force of the country." (6)

Two messages were prominent in the PVEM's 1997 campaign:

1. "No votes por un político - vota por un ecologista!"

The posters saying "Don't vote for a politician-vote for an ecologist!" touched the heart of the contempt which Mexicans have for the fraud which permeates the political life of their country.

2. "México necesita más verde y menos rojo."

The slogan "Mexico needs more green and less red" with blood spots on wall paintings dramatized the violence which citizens suffer at the hands of the police and military. To hammer the point home, PVEM held its closing rally at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, where hundreds of students were murdered on October 2, 1968.

Table 3. Preliminary 1997 Election Results for Mexico City
Party Mayor* Legisl.
PRD 47.63% 44.55%
PRI 25.32% 23.36%
PAN 16.36% 18.95%
PVEM 6.94% 8.83%
PC 1.87% 1.81%
PT 1.26% 1.60%
PDM 0.40% 0.54%
PPS 0.22% 0.35%
* 52.0% of polls reporting.    † 50.3% of polls reporting.
from Excelsior, July 7, 1997, p. 14-A

Above Mexico's streets dangled untold thousands of plastic banners of the other parties. PVEM was alone in sacrificing name recognition to its pledge to avoid using plastic. Instead, the ecologists relied on wall paintings and smaller numbers of paper and cloth posters.

PVEM received over twice as much support in the capital as in the rest of the country. The PVEM was especially strong in some of the poorest areas, where it has worked gaining social services for citizens. One such area is District 4 of Mexico City, where the PVEM polled 14%. According to La Jornada, the PVEM drew 7% to 10% in almost all parts of the capital, falling below 5% in only one district. (7)

It may seem odd that Jorge Gonzales Torres, the best known Green in Mexico, received 6.9% while the less recognized legislative assembly candidates, received 8.8% in the same city. The reason is obvious to Mexicans: the desire to rid themselves of the PRI led almost a quarter of PVEM supporters to vote for Cárdenas for mayor. Clearly, 1 in every 11 voters in the most populous city on the planet preferred the Green slate.

The Mexican Greens found a very interesting fact when they divided the amount parties received from public financing by the number of votes received. Each vote received by the PVEM for national office reflected about 10 pesos ($US 0.80) of public financing, the lowest for any party. Votes for other parties varied between 17 pesos per vote for the PRD and 85 pesos per vote for the PT.

Table 4. Public Financing and Number of Votes in the July 6, 1997 Mexican Elections
Party Public financing* Total vote† Cost/vote‡
PAN 527,248,111,07 23,466,925 22.47
PRI 892,112,657,27 34,171,163 26.11
PRD 391,336,040,46 22,628,257 17.29
PT 189,937,518,02 2,258,419 84.10
PVEM 34,727,647,00 3,413,879 10.17
PC 37,824,779,29 995,824 37.98
PDM 17,720,911,04 582,196 30.44
PPS 17,720,911,04 295,334 60.00
Total 2,108,628,575,19 87,811,997 24.01
* Number of pesos paid by Mexican government to the party.
† Sum of votes for Federal Deputies selected by majority votes, Federal Deputies selected by proportional representation, and Federal Senators.
‡ Number of pesos per vote.

Whither Mexican Politics?

When the first post-election congress convened on Saturday, August 30, 1997, all 239 PRI deputies boycotted it. The four opposition parties (PAN, PRD, PVEM, PT) opened the session and elected a Chamber leader and committee members without the PRI's help. When PRI denounced the congress meeting as illegal and threatened to hold its own opening session, the press announced that Mexico was on "the verge of a political crisis." (8)

But claims by US observers that the feud threw "the nation's newborn democracy into turmoil" (9) proved to be journalistic melodrama. PRI soon returned to provide the legislative stability necessary to make the country safe for investment.

One of the greatest difficulties for future development of Mexican politics may prove to be international trade. Increasing surrender of the Mexican economy to US control led to the Zapatista uprising of 1994. Cárdenas is often asked if he would shelve NAFTA.

At a forum for international observers which I attended the day before the election, Cárdenas repeatedly said that PRD would not withdraw from NAFTA, but only wanted to renegotiate it. There being no indication that US industry has any interest in giving up what it fought so hard to get, it seemed like Cárdenas was skirting the issue. So I asked him how he would protect Mexico from the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), a sort of "son of NAFTA and GATT," which is being planned in secret by the world's big economic powers. Among its more draconian measures, MAI would allow multinational corporations easier access to natural resources, such as Mexico's coveted oil fields, and prohibit participating countries from requiring foreign investors to create domestic jobs.

Cárdenas responded that he was strongly against such provisions, but that he was unfamiliar with MAI. This seemed an amazingly weak answer to a topic which looms so heavily over Mexico's future.

One big question for Mexico's future is: Will Cárdenas and the PRD be able to consolidate their victory and ensure a minimum level of fraud in 2000? But another question is: Will it make any difference if PRD does unseat PRI?

The US business class is not terribly concerned, seeing the recent election as "a positive event for investors in the long term" which would "provide more social stability for Mexico." (10) Mexico's progressives often perceive Cárdenas as merely feigning opposition to international control of Mexico's wealth. They feel that he broke with the PRI and learned to mouth leftish rhetoric only because the party could not award him his birthright of the 1988 presidential nomination. His governorship of the state of Michoacán was certainly not marked by massive redistribution of wealth. Many Mexicans, including PVEM, are skeptical of Cárdenas' 20 year history in PRI and his personal riches and numerous homes throughout Mexico.

Those dubious of the PRD need to plot a course for 2000. The three parties which received less than 1% of the national vote on July 6 (PC, PDM, PPS) will not have members in the Senate or the Chamber of Deputies or receive money for publicly financed campaigns. This will make it unlikely that they will survive until the national elections in 2000.

But they have dedicated members who are accustomed to working outside of the political establishment. Their supporters could back the PT, even though it did not grow between 1994 and 1997. Or they could undertake the very difficult chore of registering a new party.

If, however, Mexicans from other parties join with the Greens, PVEM could sharply increase its tally again in 2000. Increasingly, progressives throughout the world are becoming aware of the devastation that environmental damage wreaks on human health.

In the early 1980's, the group which would later become PVEM began environmental politics by opposing the nuclear power plant planned for Vera Cruz. During the next few years, US efforts to dump toxic and nuclear waste in northern Mexico would convince even more of its citizens to organize resistance and throw their support to the environmental party.

The author would like to thank Arnold Ricalde de Jager for providing many of the statistics reported in this article.


1. C. Torres & D. Solis, "Mexican Election Bolsters Stocks, Peso," The Wall Street Journal, July 8, 1997.

2. "Mexicans Hand Major Electoral Defeats to Ruling Party," The Wall Street Journal, July 7, 1997, p. A10.

3. Instituto Federal Electoral, The Mexican Electoral Sistem [sic] and the Federal Election. (June, 1997), Office of International Affairs.

4. C. Torres & D. Solis, op cit.

5. For a more extensive description of fraud, see D. Fitz, "Mexico's Elections," Green Politics, Summer, 1997, pp. 1,8.

6. La Jornada, July 7, 1997, p. 3.

7. Ibid, p. 59.

8. D. Monjaraz, "Crisis Averted in Mexico as Ruling Party Retreats," The Boston Globe, September 1, 1997, p. A10.

9. "Deputies Defy Mexico Boycott," International Herald Tribune, September 1, 1997, p. 6.

10. The Wall Street Journal, July 7, 1997, p. A10.

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