Political Stability and Democracy in Mexico: The "Perfect Dictatorship"?

By Dan A. Cothran | Go to book overview

tion of economic benefits. Yet it seems that Cárdenas valued democracy, and so a major mystery is why he did not insist on fair elections in 1940. Apparently he simply could not stomach the idea of an antirevolutionary group gaining power after all the bloodshed that was required to dislodge them from power.

In important ways, the political institutions created by Cárdenas and his generation have been remarkably adaptable. They were broad enough to include people from socialists to conservatives and adaptable enough to respond to the dominant pressures of the moment, such as Avila Camacho's move to the right in 1940 and Echeverrfa's move to the left in 1970. But as of the early 1990s, they had not demonstrated enough flexibility to allow truly fair elections or to contemplate turning national power over to an opposition party. Can the regime that Cárdenas built contemplate the possibility of allowing real political participation and fair elections that might result in the regime's loss of numerous local and state governments, control of the Congress, and even the presidency itself? It remains to be seen whether the Mexican political system will successfully meet the next challenge -- the transition to fair elections and multiparty democracy, which a large majority of the population seem to want. Mere institutionalization is not enough. Institutions trust be congruent with the values of a people at a particular time. Institutions that were in harmony with these values at one time may be out of tune with that society's values at another time. Regular presidential succession may no longer be enough to satisfy a majority of the population if that succession is always within the same party. Thus Cárdenas's resolution of these problems helps to explain the stability of the political system for several decades, but it is uncertain that these institutional arrangements can continue to satisfy a majority of Mexicans today.

Today Mexico is facing the most severe test of its unique political system since 1940. Parties from both the right and the left are challenging, as never before, the structure that Cárdenas put in place in the 1930s. It is ironic that Cárdenas's son is the major opposition candidate challenging the institutionalized one-party system created by his father, but whatever happens, that system laid the foundation for a remarkably resilient political arrangement. The political system of Mexico has continued from 1920 to the present without a violent change of government; no other Latin American government has approximated that length of time. The institutionalization of certain aspects of the Mexican political system in the 1930s was a major factor contributing to that stability. Cárdenas thus laid the foundations for the "perfect dictatorship," a relatively legitimate "benign authoritarianism" in which the leaders changed regularly and most social forces were incorporated into the regime. 94


NOTES
1.
For Washington, see Glenn Phelps, George Washington and American Constitutionalism ( Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993). For Atatürk, see Robert Ward

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