The fall of Mexico’s PRI party, a once-dominant political force

As the June 2 election nears, experts say the PRI remains weak, limping to a lacklustre result in the presidential race.

Xochitl Galvez waves a Mexican flag from the stage of her final campaign rally in 2024.
Xóchitl Gálvez, the presidential candidate representing a coalition that includes the PRI, waves a Mexican flag at her closing campaign rally on May 29 [Daniel Becerril/Reuters]

Mexico City, Mexico – Such a political turnaround would have been almost unthinkable a decade ago.

Since 2009, Alejandra del Moral had been synonymous with the conservative Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI, Mexico’s then-dominant political beast.

She was the youngest mayor in the country at the time and the first woman to lead Cuautitlán Izcalli, a prominent suburb of Mexico City. She later represented the party in the national Congress.

But on May 27, mere days before a pivotal election, an unexpected photo appeared on social media: del Moral, smiling arm in arm with Claudia Sheinbaum, a leader for the left-leaning Movement for National Regeneration or Morena.

Del Moral had resigned from the PRI. She had thrown her support behind Morena instead.

“The PRI that I knew, that I proudly represented and defended, is no longer the same,” del Moral wrote in a statement published that same day.

Sheinbaum, the expected shoo-in for June 2’s presidential race, applauded the move.

“I thank her for the decision to join our team for the benefit of the Mexican people,” Sheinbaum wrote on social media.

It was a sign of the shifting tides in Mexico’s politics. For much of the 20th century, the PRI held an iron grip on Mexican politics, running a single-party regime with a massive base that, at the same time, was accused of rigging elections and using widespread violence to maintain control.

But in 2000, the party lost control of the presidency for the first time in 70 years. In 2012, it staged a comeback, retaking the presidential palace for the next six years, but with the spectre of corruption looming over its candidates, the party soon dropped to single-digit poll numbers.

In 2018, its candidate placed a distant third in the presidential race. And in 2023, del Moral lost her bid for the governorship of the state of Mexico, marking the first time the PRI lost control of one of its stronghold states in 94 years.

Now, with June 2’s presidential race just days away, the PRI is once again trailing in the polls.

It has had to ally with its mortal enemies — the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the centre-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) — in order to rally votes. But the coalition’s candidate, Xóchitl Gálvez, has failed to challenge Sheinbaum in pre-election polls, lagging by 20 points or more.

What happened to this political powerhouse, and how did it fall so dramatically? Experts say it comes down to a history of violence and graft.

Alejandra del Moral is seated for an interview, her hands outspread in gesture as she speaks. A small table and painting are visible behind her.
Former PRI stalwart Alejandra del Moral announced her resignation from the party shortly before the June 2 elections [Henry Romero/Reuters]

Building a ‘well-oiled’ machine

Luis Herrán, a professor of Latin American history at the University of New Mexico, explained that, for much of its existence, the PRI kept losses at bay by managing a “well-oiled machinery” of political power. That control extended from the presidency down to the local level.

“The PRI had built this capacity to bring together all sorts of regional power,” Herrán told Al Jazeera.

“And at the national level,” he added, the PRI obtained support from “the military, industry and landed elites but also popular sectors” like unions and peasant groups.

The party traces its origins to 1929, when generals who had become wealthy from the Mexican Revolution founded the National Revolutionary Party in a bid to stabilise the country — and calcify their power.

That aim was largely successful. For decades afterwards, the PRI held not just the presidency but the majority in both chambers of Congress, plus all of the country’s governorships. It was only in 1989 that the party conceded its first defeat in a governor’s race.

In its appeal to voters, the PRI cultivated a mythology of revolutionary nationalism: It even briefly changed its name to the Party of the Mexican Revolution, before settling on PRI in 1946.

Though it was ostensibly centre-left in its origins, the PRI was first and foremost pragmatic, a political chameleon.

Over the decades, experts say it consolidated a sprawling system of thousands of local power brokers and political offices, allowing it to answer voter demands while keeping hold of political power.

Homero Campa Butrón, a journalist and academic who edits the magazine Proceso, told Al Jazeera that broad, pervasive system created a direct channel between the presidency and voters.

“Through the PRI, social benefits came to the population. Through the PRI, demands from the population came up to the president,” Campa Butrón explained.

But that system was also “a political instrument”, he added, “at the disposition of the president”.

Alejandro Moreno speaks into a microphone at a podium. Behind him is the logo for the PRI party.
PRI leader Alejandro Moreno has faced internal party criticism for his management [Henry Romero/Reuters]

A steep decline

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, the PRI was overseeing a “dirty war” against dissidents that killed thousands of left-wing fighters, peasants and student activists.

One of the most blistering episodes from that period came in 1968, when students rallied in a plaza in the Tlatelolco neighbourhood of Mexico City, just days before the city was set to host the Olympic Games.

The protest was peaceful, with speeches denouncing government violence and PRI leadership.

But the government responded by positioning at least 360 snipers atop buildings overlooking the plaza and firing upon the protesters, killing at least 44. Some unconfirmed estimates put the number of dead as high as 300.

The incident, known as the Tlatelolco massacre, continues to echo into the present day.

Sheinbaum, for instance, has referred to herself as a “daughter of ’68” on the campaign trail, saying the “heirs” of the protest movement “will build a fairer country”.

On top of the incidents of violent repression, the PRI faced growing accusations of voter fraud as its time in power stretched on.

In 1988, for instance, the party was suspected of stealing the election from Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, a popular presidential candidate from the rival PRD party.

Representatives from rival parties claimed “irregularities” at the polling stations, and that night, as early tallies started to show Cárdenas in the lead, the system for tabulating votes allegedly crashed, leading to widespread outcry.

Days later, the election commission would declare the PRI candidate the winner. The phrase “the system crashed” — “se cayó el sistema” — has since become a byword for election fraud.

Over the next decade, hundreds of PRD candidates and activists would be murdered, largely in election-related violence, while the PRI’s power slipped.

At the same time, the PRI implemented radical neoliberal reforms, which reached their apex with the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). That deal was accused of undermining rural farmers and expanding Mexico’s low-wage manufacturing — or maquiladora — industry.

“Ironically, neoliberalism has swept from under the party’s feet the social system that was the electoral backbone of the party in the 20th century,” Edwin Ackerman, a professor of Latin American history at Syracuse University, told Al Jazeera.

The party, he said, “was never able to stop that haemorrhage, to substitute that with a new type of constituency”.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador hands a staff — decorated with a carving of a bird and blue, red and yellow ribbons — to his successor, Claudia Sheinbaum.
The Morena party, led by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, left, and Claudia Sheinbaum, right, has become the leading political force in Mexico [Henry Romero/Reuters]

A new dominant party

The election of President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2012 marked a brief comeback for the PRI.

Experts have credited the public’s frustration with rising violence for propelling the PRI back to the presidential palace — and Peña Nieto was seen as a fresh young face for the party.

But his administration was plagued with repeated corruption scandals and continued violence in the country.

Presidents in Mexico are limited to a single term, and by the time the 2018 race rolled around, Peña Nieto’s approval ratings were abysmal.

The perceived failure of his administration paved the way for another dominant force to take over Mexican politics: the Morena Party, led by popular left-wing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known by his initials AMLO.

Morena is expected to sweep the June 2 election, winning races up and down the ballot. López Obrador’s successor, Sheinbaum, is also predicted to have a clear path to victory.

Meanwhile, the PRI’s coalition, “Strength and Heart for Mexico”, has struggled at the polls.

“Nobody is proud of going in a coalition with the PRI,” Ackerman told Al Jazeera. “There’s a lot of negative associations with it. And this has accentuated internal party conflicts.”

Some experts, like Herrán, point to the leadership of PRI director Alejandro “Alito” Moreno as causing further fractures in the party.

Moreno has been accused of alienating factions of his own party with alleged influence peddling and mismanagement, leading to high-profile figures like del Moral “jumping ship” in favour of Morena.

“After the election,” Campa Butrón said, “there will be a flourishing of internal dissent and probably more flights towards Morena.”

Campa Butrón believes Morena will continue Mexico’s tradition of one-party leadership — albeit under a different banner.

“The local power elites who once aligned with the PRI are now aligned with Morena,” he said.

They “don’t care” about “principles or ideologies but rather, the party that guarantees the continuity of their influence”, Campa Butrón explained.

“In fact — by its conduct, by the manner in which it operates, for the project of power it embodies, for its political culture, the personalities that represent it — for many people, Morena is a reconverted PRI.”

The only difference, Campa Butrón added, is that Morena proclaims to be left-wing, while the PRI has drifted rightwards.

Herrán likewise noted a similarity between Morena and the power structure the PRI formerly cultivated.

Like the PRI, he said, “Morena has become this very heterogeneous party, absorbing these local and regional political groups and launching them onto the national scene through candidacies.”

But he questioned whether Morena will retain its popularity after López Obrador leaves office this year. “It remains to be seen what happens with Morena after AMLO leaves power.”

In the meantime, experts say the PRI has pinned its hopes on becoming a minority party that can claim key swing votes in Congress.

The Mexican political system requires a party to receive only 3 percent of the nationwide vote in order to earn state funding, meaning the PRI will likely endure, if but weakened.

“In Mexico state, Veracruz, Chiapas, they will remain a political force,” Herrán said, “trying to stay alive within the ecosystem of Morena-dominated politics.”

Source: Al Jazeera