The Institutional Revolutionary Party is described by some scholars as a "state party", a term which captures both the non-competitive history and character of the party itself, and the inextricable connection between the party and the Mexican nation-state for much of the 20th century. The current president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, is a member of the PRI.
At first glance, the PRI's name looks like a confusing oxymoron or paradox to English speakers since they normally associate the term "revolution" with the destruction of "institutions." As Rubén Gallo has explained, the Mexican concept of institutionalizing the Revolution simply refers to the corporatist nature of the PRI—that is, the PRI subsumed the "disruptive energy" of the Revolution (and thereby ensured its own longevity) by co-opting and incorporating its enemies into its bureaucratic government as new institutional sectors.
In 1990, Peruvian Nobel Prize laureate for literature, Mario Vargas Llosa, called the Mexican government under the PRI la dictadura perfecta ("the perfect dictatorship").
Even though the armed phase of the Mexican Revolution had ended in 1920, Mexico had continued to encounter political unrest. A grave political crisis caused by the 1928 assassination of president-elect Álvaro Obregón led to the founding in 1929 of the "National Revolutionary Party" (Spanish: Partido Nacional Revolucionario, PNR) by Plutarco Elías Calles, Mexico's president from 1924 to 1928.
The intent was to institutionalize the agreements result of Mexican Revolution. In the first years of the party's existence, the PNR was, above all, the only political machine existing. As 'President' of the government, the executive President continued to hold executive power as in an era known as the Maximato. The following presidents of this period, Emilio Portes Gil, Pascual Ortiz Rubio and Abelardo L. Rodríguez were from the same ideology as Plutarco Elías Calles.
This ended with the election of Lázaro Cárdenas, a candidate handpicked by the liberal PNR leaders. Though the now strongly conservative Calles thought he could control him, it quickly became clear Cárdenas would not accept a subordinate role like his predecessors did. After establishing himself in the presidency, in 1936 Cárdenas had Calles and dozens of his corrupt associates arrested or deported to the United States. Cárdenas became perhaps Mexico's most-popular 20th-century president and most renowned for expropriating the oil interests of the United States and European petroleum companies in the run-up to World War II. He was a person of leftist ideas who nationalized different industries and provided many social institutions which are dear to the Mexican people and had the party renamed the "Party of the Mexican Revolution" (PRM).
Cárdenas's successor Manuel Ávila Camacho gave the party its present name in 1946.
From 1929 to 1982, the PRI won every presidential election by well over 70 percent of the vote—margins that were usually obtained by massive electoral fraud. Toward the end of his term, the incumbent president in consultation with party leaders, selected the PRI's candidate in the next election in a procedure known as "the tap of the finger" (Spanish: el dedazo). In essence, given the PRI's overwhelming dominance, the president chose his successor. The PRI's dominance was near-absolute at all other levels as well. It held an overwhelming majority in the Chamber of Deputies, as well as every seat in the Senate and every state governorship.
After several decades in power the PRI had become a symbol of corruption and electoral fraud. Consequently, its left wing went on to form its own party the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in 1989. The conservative National Action Party (PAN) became a stronger party after 1976 when it obtained the support from businessmen after recurring economic crises. The growth of these two parties culminated in the loss of the presidency in 2000, won by the PAN and again in 2006 (won this time by the PAN with a small margin over the PRD.) Many prominent members of the PAN (Manuel Clouthier, Addy Joaquín Coldwell and Demetrio Sodi), most of the PRD (most notably all three Mexico City mayors Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and Marcelo Ebrard), the PVEM (Jorge González Torres) and New Alliance (Roberto Campa) were once members of the PRI, including many presidential candidates from the opposition (Clouthier, López Obrador, Cárdenas, González Torres, Campa and Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, among many others).
The PRI was criticized for using the colors of the national flag in its logo, something considered not unreasonable in many countries, but frowned upon in Mexico, while there is no law that forbids this act. Critics claim electoral fraud, with voter suppression and violence, was used when the political machine did not work and elections were just a ritual to simulate the appearance of a democracy. However, the three major parties now make the same claim against each other (PRD against Vicente Fox's PAN and PAN vs. López Obrador's PRD, and the PRI against the PAN at the local level and local elections such as the Yucatán state election, 2007). Two other PRI presidents Miguel de la Madrid and Carlos Salinas de Gortari privatized many outmoded industries, including banks and businesses, entered the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and also negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Greater economic stability since the last major economic crisis in Mexico (the 1995 peso crisis) was achieved in great part through economic reforms begun under Ernesto Zedillo, who was the last successive PRI-nominated president to serve since the Mexican Revolution, and whose tenure commenced just as the peso crisis was coming to a head. Subsequent administrations maintained stability with continued assistance from PRI members such as Secretary of Finance Francisco Gil Diaz and Bank of Mexico Governor Guillermo Ortiz.
The party was the result of Plutarco Elías Calles's efforts to stop the violent struggle for power between the victorious factions of the Mexican Revolution, and guarantee the peaceful transmission of power for members of the party. Lázaro Cárdenas (president of the party and, in 1938, president of Mexico) renamed the party the Party of the Mexican Revolution (Spanish: Partido de la Revolución Mexicana, PRM) whose aim was to establish a democracy of workers and socialism. However, this was never achieved and his main intention was to create the broad-based political alliances necessary for the PRI's long-term survival, splitting the party into mass organizations representing different interest groups and acting as the political consciousness of the country in a more realistic level (for example, the Confidential National, the farmer's group). His strategy with the party mirrored the balanced ticket approach of 1930s Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, characteristic of Chicago by balancing ethnic interests. Settling disputes and power struggles within the party structure helped prevent congressional gridlock and possible armed rebellions, but this style of dispute resolution also created a "rubber stamp" legislative apparatus.
The party, under its three different names, held every political position until 1946 when the PAN started winning posts for municipal president and federal deputies and senators, starting in 1946, after the party changed its name to its current name, the Institutional Revolutionary Party. By then, the party had acquired a reputation for corruption, and while this was admitted (to a degree) by some of its affiliates, its supporters maintained that the role of the party was crucial in the modernization and stabilization of Mexico.
The first four decades of government of the PRI are dubbed the "Mexican Miracle", a period of economic growth through substitution of imports and low inflation. Much of the growth was spurred by successful national development plans which, following the steps of the Soviet Union, provided for major investment on infrastructure. From 1940 to 1970 GDP increased sixfold and the population only doubled while the peso-dollar parity was maintained.
The improvement of the economy had a disparate impact in different social sectors and discontent started growing within the low classes. In 1968 Mexico City became the first city in the Spanish-speaking world to be chosen to host an Olympic Games. Using the international focus on the country, students at the National Mexican Autonomous University (UNAM) protested the lack of democracy and social justice. President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964–1970) ordered the army to occupy the university to suppress the revolt and minimize the disruption of the Olympic Games. On October 2, 1968 student groups demanding the withdrawal of the IPN protested at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. Unaccustomed to this type of protest, the Mexican Government made an unusual move by asking the United States for assistance, through LITEMPO, a spy-program to inform the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the US to obtain information from Mexico. The CIA responded by sending military radios, weapons and ammunition. The LITEMPO had previously provided the Díaz Ordaz government with 1,000 rounds of .223 Remington ammunition in 1963. During the protests shots were fired and a number of students died (officially 39, although hundreds are claimed) and hundreds were arrested. The President of the Olympic Committee then declared that the protests were against the government and not the Olympics so the games proceeded.
The government of Luis Echeverría (1970–76), secretary of interior during the Díaz Ordaz administration, increased social spending, through external debt, at a time when oil production and prices were surging. However, the growth of the economy came accompanied by inflation and then by a plummeting of oil prices and increases in interest rates. Investment started fleeing the country and the peso became overvalued, to prevent a devaluation and further fleeing of investments, the Bank of Mexico borrowed 360 million dollars from the Federal Reserve with the promise of stabilizing the economy. External debt reached the level of $25 billion. Unable to contain the fleeing of dollars, Echeverría allowed the peso to float for the first time on August 31, 1976, then again later and the peso lost half of its value. Echeverría designated José López Portillo, his secretary of Finance, as his successor for the term 1976-82, hoping that the new administration would have a tighter control on inflation and to preserve political unity.
During his campaign, López Portillo promised to defend the peso "like a dog", López Portillo refused to devalue the currency saying "The president who devalues, devalues himself." The discovery of significant oil sites in Tabasco and Campeche helped the economy to recover and López Portillo promised to "administer the abundance." The development of the promising oil industry was financed through external debt which reached 59 billion dollars (compared to 25 billion during Echeverría). Oil production increased from 94,000 barrels per day (14,900 m3/d) at the beginning of his administration to 1,500,000 barrels per day (240,000 m3/d) at the end of his administration and Mexico became the fourth largest oil producer in the world. The price for a barrel of oil also increased from three dollars in 1970 to 35 dollars in 1981.
The government attempted to develop heavy industry. However, waste became the rule as centralized resource allocation and distribution systems were accompanied by inefficiently located factories incurring high transport costs.
Mexico increased its international presence during López Portillo: in addition to becoming the world's fourth oil exporter, Mexico restarted relations with the post Franco-Spain in 1977, allowed Pope John Paul II to visit Mexico, welcomed American president Jimmy Carter and broke relations with Somoza and supported the Sandinista National Liberation Front in its rebellion against the United States supported government. López Portillo also proposed the Plan Mundial de Energéticos in 1979 and summoned a North-South World Summit in Cancún in 1981 to seek solutions to social problems. In 1979, the PRI founded the COPPPAL, the Permanent Conference of Political Parties of Latin America and the Caribbean, an organization created "to defend democracy and all lawful political institutions and to support their development and improvement to strengthen the principle of self determination of the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean".
López Portillo also freed political prisoners and proposed a reform called Ley Federal de Organizaciones Políticas y Procesos Electorales which gave official registry to opposition groups such as the Mexican Democratic Party and the Mexican Communist Party. This law also created positions in the lower chamber of congress for opposition parties through proportionality of votes, relative majority, uninominal and plurinominal. As a result, in 1979, the first independent (non-PRI) communist deputies were elected to the Congress of Mexico.
Social programs were also created through the Alliance for Production, Global Development Plan, el COPLAMAR, Mexican Nourishing System, to attain independence on food, to reform public administration. López Portillo also created the secretaries of Programming and Budgeting, Agriculture and Water Resources, Industrial Support, Fisheries and Human Settlements and Public Works. Mexico then obtained high economic growth, a recuperation of salaries and an increase in spending on education and infrastructure. This way, social and regional inequalities started to diminish.
All this prosperity ended when the over-supply of oil in early 1982 caused oil prices to plummet and damaged severely the national economy. Interest rates skyrocketed in 1981 and external debt reached 86 billion dollars and exchange rates went from 26 to 70 pesos per dollar and inflation of 100%. This situation became so desperate that Lopez-Portillo ordered the suspension on payments of external debt and the nationalization of the banking industry in 1982 consistent with the Socialist goals of the PRI. Capital fled Mexico at a rate never seen before in history. The Mexican government provided subsidies to staple food products and rail travel; this diminished the consequences of the crises on the populace. Job growth stagnated and millions of people migrate North to escape the economic stagnation. López Portillo's reputation plummeted and his character became the butt of jokes from the press.
The attempted industrialization had not been responsive to consumer needs. Therefore, unprecedented urbanization and overcrowding followed and so, substandard pre-fabricated apartment blocs had to be built in large cities.
Miguel de la Madrid was the first of a series of economists to rule the country, a technocrat who started to implement neoliberal reforms, causing the number of state-owned industries to decline from 1155 to a mere 412. After the 1982 default, crisis lenders were unwilling to loan Mexico and this resulted in currency devaluations to finance spending. An earthquake in September 1985, in which his administration was criticised for its slow and clumsy reaction, added more woe to the problems. As a result of the crisis, black markets supplied by goods stolen from the public sector appeared. Galloping inflation continued to plague the country, hitting a record high in 1987 at 159.2%.
In 1986, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas (former Governor of Michoacán and son of the former president of Mexico Lázaro Cárdenas) formed the "Democratic Current" (Spanish: Corriente Democrática) of the PRI, which criticized the federal government for reducing spending on social programs to increase payments on foreign debt. The members of the Democratic Current were expelled from the party and formed the National Democratic Front (FDN, Spanish: Frente Democrático Nacional) in 1987. The following year, the FDN elected Cárdenas as presidential candidate for the 1988 presidential election which was won by Carlos Salinas de Gortari, obtaining 50.89% of the votes (according to official figures) versus 32% of Cárdenas. The official results were delayed, with the Secretary of the Interior (until then, the organizer of elections) blaming it on a computer system failure. Cárdenas, who claimed to have won and claimed such computer failure was caused by a manipulation of the system to count votes. Manuel Clouthier of the National Action Party (Mexico) also claimed to have won, although not as vocally.
In 2004, Miguel de la Madrid, Mexico's president at the time of the 1988 election, admitted to the New York Times that, on the evening of the election, he received news that Cárdenas was going to win by a majority, and that he and others rigged the election as a result.
Clouthier, Cárdenas and Rosario Ibarra de Piedra then complained before the building of the Secretary of the Interior. Clouthier and his followers then set up other protests, among them one at the Chamber of Deputies, demanding that the electoral packages be opened. In 1989, Clouthier presented an alternative cabinet (a British style Shadow Cabinet) with Diego Fernández de Cevallos, Jesús González Schmal, Fernando Canales Clariond, Francisco Villarreal Torres, Rogelio Sada Zambrano, María Elena Álvarez Bernal, Moisés Canales, Vicente Fox, Carlos Castillo Peraza and Luis Felipe Bravo Mena as cabinet members and Clouthier as cabinet coordinator. The purpose of this cabinet was to vigilate the actions of the government. Clouthier died next October in an accident with Javier Calvo, a federal deputy. The accident has been claimed by the PAN as a state assassination since then. That same year, the PRI lost its first state government with the election of Ernesto Ruffo Appel as governor of Baja California.
In 1990 Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa called the government under the PRI la dictadura perfecta ("the perfect dictatorship"). In 1994, for the first time since the revolution, a presidential candidate was murdered, Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta. His campaign director, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, was subsequently elected in the first presidential election monitored by international observers. A number of factors, including the 1994 economic crisis in Mexico, caused the PRI to lose its absolute majority in both chambers of the federal congress for the first time in 1997.
Prior to the 2000 general elections, the PRI held its first primaries to elect the party's presidential candidate. The primary candidates, nicknamed "los cuatro fantásticos" (Spanish for The Fantastic Four), were:Francisco Labastida Ochoa (former governor of Sinaloa and Secretary of the Interior)
Roberto Madrazo Pintado (former governor of Tabasco)
Manuel Bartlett (former governor of Puebla and Secretary of the Interior)
Humberto Roque Villanueva
The favorites in the primaries were Labastida and Madrazo, and the latter initiated a campaign against the first, perceived as Zedillo's candidate since many former secretaries of the interior were chosen as candidates by the president. His campaign, produced by prominent publicist Carlos Alazraki, had the motto "Dale un Madrazo al dedazo" or "Give a Madrazo to the dedazo" with "madrazo" being an offensive slang term for a "strike" and "dedazo" a slang used to describe the unilaterally choosing of candidates by the president (literally "finger-strike"). In the presidential elections of July 2, 2000, its candidate Francisco Labastida Ochoa was defeated by Vicente Fox, after getting only 36.1% of the popular vote. It was to be the first Presidential electoral defeat of the PRI. In the senatorial elections of the same date, the party won with 38.1%, or 33 out of 128 seats in the Senate of Mexico.
After much restructuring, the party was able to make a recovery, winning the greatest number of seats (5% short of a true majority) in Congress in 2003: at these elections, the party won 224 out of 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, remaining as the largest single party in both the Chamber of Deputies and Senate. In the Federal District the PRI obtained only one borough mayorship (jefe delegacional) out of 16, and no first-past-the-post members of the city assembly. The PRI recouped some significant losses on the state level (most notably, the governorship of former PAN stronghold Nuevo León). On August 6, 2004, in two closely contested elections in Oaxaca and Tijuana, PRI candidates Ulises Ruiz Ortiz and Jorge Hank Rhon won the races for the governorship and municipal presidency respectively. The PAN had held control of the president's office of the municipality of Tijuana for 15 years. Six out of eight gubernatorial elections held during 2005 were won by the PRI: Quintana Roo, Hidalgo, Colima, Estado de México, Nayarit, and Coahuila. The PRI then controlled the states on the country's northern border with the US except for Baja California.
Later that year Roberto Madrazo, president of the PRI, left his post to seek a nomination as the party's candidate in the 2006 presidential election. According to the statutes, the presidency of the party would then go to Elba Esther Gordillo as party secretary. The rivalry between Madrazo and Gordillo caused Mariano Palacios Alcocer instead to become president of the party. After what was perceived an imposition of Madrazo as candidate a group was formed called Unidad Democrática (Spanish: "Democratic Unity"), although nicknamed Todos Unidos Contra Madrazo (Spanish: "Everybody United Against Madrazo" or "TUCOM") which was formed by governors and former state governors:Arturo Montiel (former governor of the State of Mexico)
Enrique Jackson (federal senator)
Tomás Yarrington (governor of Tamaulipas)
Note: Yarrington is currently a fugitive being searched by the Mexican Government for proven crimes committed during his tenure as governor, the PRI has issued an apology and expelled him from their political party.)
Enrique Martínez (former governor of Coahuila)
Manuel Núñez (governor of Hidalgo)
Montiel won the right to run against Madrazo for the candidacy but withdrew when it was made public that he and his French wife had multi-million properties in Europe. Madrazo and Everardo Moreno contended in the primaries which was won by the first. Madrazo then represented the PRI and the Ecologist Green Party of Mexico (PVEM) in the Alliance for Mexico coalition.
During his campaign Madrazo declared that the PRI and PRD were "first cousins", to this Emilio Chuayffet Chemor responded that if that was the case then Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), candidate of the PRD would also be a first cousin and he might win the election.
AMLO was, by then, the favorite in the polls, with many followers within the PRI. Madrazo, second at the polls, then released TV spots against AMLO with little success, his campaign was managed again by Alazraki. Felipe Calderón ran a more successful campaign and then tied with Madrazo and later surpassed him as the second favorite. Gordillo, also the teachers' union leader, resentful against Madrazo, helped a group of teachers constitute the New Alliance Party. Divisions within the party and a successful campaign of the PAN candidate caused Madrazo to fall to third place. The winner, as announced by the Federal Electoral Institute and valuated by the Mexican Election Tribunal amidst a controversy, was Felipe Calderón of the ruling PAN. On November 20 of the same year, a group of young PRI politicians launched a movement that is set to reform and revolutionize the party. The PRI candidate failed to win a single state in the 2006 presidential election.
In the 2006 legislative elections the party won 106 out of 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 35 out of 128 Senators.
In 2007 the PRI re-gained the governorship of Yucatán and was the party with the most mayorships and state congresspeople in the elections in Yucatán (tying with the PAN in the number of deputies), Chihuahua, Durango, Aguascalientes, Veracruz, Chiapas and Oaxaca. The PRI obtained the most mayorships in Zacatecas and the second most deputies in the congressional elections of Zacatecas and Baja California.
In 2009, the PRI re-gained plurality control of Mexican congress. This is the first time congress will be controlled by the PRI since the first initial victory by the opposing party PAN in the year 2000.
Under Enrique Peña Nieto and after ruling for most of the past century in Mexico, the PRI returned to the presidency as it had brought hopes to those who gave the PRI another chance and fear to those who worry about the old PRI tactics of making deals with the cartels in exchange for relative peace. According to an article published by The Economist on June 23, 2012, part of the reason why Peña Nieto and the PRI were voted back to the presidency after a 12-year struggle lies in the disappointment of the ruling of the PAN. Buffeted by China's economic growth and the economic recession in the United States, the annual growth of Mexico's economy between 2000 and 2012 was 1.8%. Poverty exacerbated, and without a ruling majority in Congress, the PAN presidents were unable to pass structural reforms, leaving monopolies and Mexico's educational system unchanged. In 2006, Felipe Calderón chose to make the battle against organized crime the centerpiece of his presidency. Nonetheless, with over 60,000 dead, many Mexican citizens are tired of a fight they had first supported. The Economist alleges that these signs are "not as bad as they look," since Mexico is more democratic, it enjoys a competitive export market, has a well-run economy despite the crisis, and there are tentative signs that the violence in the country may be plummeting. But if voters want the PRI back, it is because "the alternatives [were] weak". The newspaper also alleges that Mexico's preferences should have gone left-wing, but the candidate that represented that movement – Andrés Manuel López Obrador – was seen with "disgraceful behaviour". The conservative candidate, Josefina Vázquez Mota, was deemed worthy but was considered by The Economist to have carried out a "shambolic campaign". Thus, Peña Nieto wins by default and was considered by the newspaper as the "least bad choice" for reform in Mexico.
The return of the PRI, however, is not welcomed by everyone. When it was tossed from the presidency in the year 2000, few expected that the "perfect dictatorship", a description coined by Mario Vargas Llosa, would return again in only 12 years. According to the Statesman Journal, "history books will tell you" that for more than seven decades, the PRI ran Mexico under an "autocratic, endemically corrupt, crony-ridden government". The elites of the PRI allegedly ruled the police and the judicial system, and justice was only available if purchased with bribes. During its time in power, the PRI became a symbol of corruption, repression, economic mismanagement, and electoral frauds, and many educated Mexicans and urban dwellers worry that its return may signify a return to Mexico's past. People are also afraid that democracy will no longer exist when the PRI comes to power. Associated Press published an article on July 2012 noting that many immigrants living in the United States are worried about the PRI's return to power and that it may dissuade many from returning to their homeland. The vast majority of the 400,000 voters outside of Mexico voted against Peña Nieto, and said they were "shocked" that the PRI – which largely convinced them to leave Mexico – has returned. Voters that favor Peña Nieto, however, believed that the PRI "has changed" and that more jobs will be created under the new regime. Moreover, some U.S. officials are concerned that Peña Nieto's security strategy meant the return to the old and corrupt practices of the PRI regime, where the government made deals and turned a blind eye on the cartels in exchange for peace. After all, they worried that Mexico's drug war, which has cost over 50,000 lives, would make Mexicans question on why they should "pay the price for a US drug habit". Peña Nieto denies, however, that his party would not tolerate corruption and stated he would not make deals with the cartels.
In early 2016, a controversy arose when all the Senate disputes from the PRI, voted against the "Ley 3 de 3 (Law 3 of 3)". A law that would have obligated every politician to declare three things: make an obligatory public patrimonial declaration, interests declaration, and fiscal. A light version of the law was accepted but it doesn't obligate politicians to declare. While it was completely legal for the deputies from the PRI, to vote against such law, some news media outlets interpreted the votes against the promulgation of such law as the political party protecting itself from the findings that could surface if such declarations were to be made.