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THE EVOLUTION OF MODERN POLITICAL STRUCTURES AFTER 1920

Why did the assassination of President-elect Alvaro Obregon alter Mexico's political future?

General Alvaro Obregon was president of Mexico from 1920 to 1924 and the first to complete a presidential term after the implementation of the 1917 Constitution. His administration was followed by that of Plutarco Elias Calles (1924-28), another northern revolutionary general. One of the central provisions incorporated into the Constitution in response to Porfirio Diaz's blatant abuse in maintaining himself in office for seven consecutive periods was Article 83, which prohibited a president from serving a term more than once, regardless of whether he had been elected or appointed previously. Obregon, politically ambitious and desirous of becoming president a second time, persuaded his supporters in Congress to amend the Constitution to permit nonconsecutive reelection, allowing him to run for the presidency in 1928. Many army officers, civilians, and students were strongly opposed to his running for reelection, and some were murdered by government forces in 1927. Nevertheless, Obregon won the election; but shortly thereafter, before taking office, he was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic. His unexpected death set in motion a series of crucial political changes.

Because Mexico does not have a vice president, in such a situation the Constitution provides a process whereby the Congress chooses a temporary president and then holds a new election. Anticipating the new election in 1929 and wanting to create stability in the postrevolutionary leadership, General Calles and other prominent military and civilian politicians established a national political party, the National Party of the Revolution (PNR), and ran a candidate for the presidency. Calles himself hoped to use the party to further his own ambitions, but he was unable to extend his influence beyond June 1935. This was when his former protege, General Lazaro Cardenas, who had won the 1934 election as the PNR's second presidential candidate, exiled his mentor to the United States. The PNR (later the Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI) became the essential political vehicle for legitimizing presidential and government nominees for political office, winning every gubernatorial race until 1989, most Senate and district congressional seats until the 1990s, and all presidential races until 2000. Popular opinion, strongly against presidential reelection, forced the Calles faction to reamend the Constitution in 1928 to reaffirm the principle of no reelection. This has been inviolable in theory and in practice since 1929. Obregon's death set in motion two features of Mexican politics that characterized most of the twentieth century. First, presidents could become powerful, personalist decision-makers, but only for the length of their terms. Second, self-perpetuating personal leaders like Diaz would be replaced by a perpetual political organization (later named the PRI) allowing a rotating pool of ambitious politicians to govern Mexico for seven decades.

 
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