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MEXICO’S DEMOCRATIC TRANSITION

How did Carlos Salinas alter the Mexican political model?

Carlos Salinas de Gortari became president of Mexico in 1988, after a highly contentious and fraudulent election. His predecessor, Miguel de la Madrid, selected his former secretary of programming and budgeting as his successor in order to keep his own internationally oriented, neoliberal economic strategy in place. Salinas surrounded himself with political technocrats, many of whom, like the president, had undergraduate degrees in economics boasted a graduate education abroad, typically at Ivy League schools in the United States, but few of whom had any experience in electoral politics. Salinas also appointed an increasing number of graduates from private universities in the capital, especially the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM), to top political posts.

Salinas, in pursuing his predecessor's economic strategy, made significant changes in the political landscape, which inadvertently created a positive setting for a democratic transition from the one-party dominance of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Among the changes he made, four stand out for their impact on the historic semiauthoritarian model. First and most strongly linked to his economic philosophy, he sought to integrate Mexico into a new economic bloc to increase its competitiveness in the global economy, proposing a North American free trade agreement with the United States, its largest trading partner, and Canada. The NAFTA treaty, which went into effect during his last year in office, moved Mexico away, for the first time, from an isolationist stance in the region to coming under the influence of multiple foreign countries. For example, it received increased attention from various US institutions and constituencies. Ultimately, this foreign influence encouraged democratization within Mexico. Second, on his own initiative, and in part to, in effect, bring Mexico into the end of the twentieth century in terms of its international human rights agreements (which contradicted constitutional restrictions on clergy in Mexico), he eliminated a number of provisions regarding relations between church and state, even though he faced opposition by many members of his own party. The elimination of these longtime restrictions encouraged activist bishops and clergy to publicly support civic organizations and electoral democracy through numerous diocesan missives. Third, in order to cultivate support from Wall Street and the US Senate, Salinas intervened in the outcome of some important state elections, including races for governor, permitting an opposition party candidate to win a governorship for the first time since 1929, sixty years after the party was founded. These state and local victories encouraged the growth of both the National Action Party (PAN) and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Fourth, Salinas's excessive reliance on bureaucratic technocrats from the PRI, rather than on politicians with roots in elective offices and party organizations, produced a reaction within the PRI. The party changed its internal rules to require that its presidential candidate have electoral and party experience, ushering in a generation of politicians with such credentials and preparing the PRI in the long run for participation in a competitive electoral setting.

 
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