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La Caída del Sistema

Mexican President Carlos Salinas is sworn in.

Mexican President Carlos Salinas is sworn in.

Prior to the 1988 Mexican presidential election, outgoing president Miguel de la Madrid selected his fellow Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) member Carlos Salinas de Gortari as his successor. Typically, that alone would have enough to ensure Salinas’ electoral victory, given the PRI’s hold on Mexican politics. But Salinas’ opponent that year was a high-profile PRI apostate named Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, himself the son of a former Mexican president. Running in opposition to his old party, Cárdenas represented a coalition of small, left wing factions called the Democratic National Front. Cárdenas was vying to become the first non-PRI president of Mexico since that party’s founding in 1929. As the election returns started coming in that night—and in spite all of the PRI’s deep, institutional advantages—it looked like Cárdenas would win. But the PRI controlled the government, and the government counted the votes.

In his 2004 autobiography, President de la Madrid admitted that his party rigged the 1988 presidential vote count, recounting the frantic advice of one top PRI official that election night: ''You have to proclaim the triumph of the PRI. It is a tradition that we cannot break without causing great alarm among the citizens.'' In the face of demands to publicize the election returns, the Mexican government claimed that the computer system used for counting the votes had crashed, and declared Salinas the winner. (Two years later, the PRI and the PAN agreed to burn the physical ballots, erasing the evidence of the ballot rigging). The episode, later referred to as “la caída del sistema,” (the crash of the system), became a kind of cynical, knowing shorthand for the rot at the heart of Mexican politics.

Viewed more broadly, Mexico’s PRI is a case study in the long term conservation of institutionalized political power. Over 9 decades, it never permanently lashed itself to any particular ideology. Founded as a paternalistic democratic socialist party, the PRI had evolved by the 1980s to champion a doctrinaire form of neoliberal capitalism. Variable ideology and bad governance notwithstanding, no organization outside the Iron Curtain was better at gaining, holding and using political power in the 20th century. Mario Vargas Llosa famously called it the “perfect dictatorship.” As Mexico’s “state party,” the PRI’s enormous will to power manifested as a patented formula of official graft, electoral fraud, political violence and demagoguery. Given its history, the PRI’s decision to blatantly rig the vote for Salinas in 1988 seems overdetermined. A political party bent on preserving power will use any tool available, including the machinery of the state.

The search for historical parallels and antecedents to current American political events keeps leading me to the histories of countries with weaker democratic traditions. Which seems ominous. But like the PRI of the 1980s, the GOP is ideologically incoherent, procedurally unmoored, and increasingly corrupt. Like the PRI, the Republicans’ control over the machinery of the state theoretically gives them the ability to alter the results of America elections ex post facto.

On the left, the rhetoric surrounding the stakes of the 2018 election borders on apocalyptic. Democratic voters are angry and motivated, and recent polls appear to show a clear path for the Democrats to retake the House, and possibly even the Senate. Even with the massive structural advantages afforded the Republicans by geography and gerrymandering, the Democrats appear poised for major gains.

But the stakes are just as high on the Republican side. The more entangled the Republican Party becomes in Trump’s efforts to cover up his Russian collusion and obstruction of justice, the more vulnerable rank-and-file Republicans become to political and even legal reprisal for having doing so. For Republicans, winning the next election may not simply be a matter of keeping their seats, but of preserving their personal wealth, social status, future employability, and felony-free criminal records. They’re in too deep to walk away now.

The Republican Party now controls all three branches of the federal government, and enjoys total legislative and executive control in 26 states. Republican secretaries of state preside over elections in 32 states. Like the PRI in 1988, the Republicans of 2018 face a choice: either leverage their undemocratic advantages or risk losing them. This fall, some in the GOP will be tempted to effect their own caída del sistema. We can only hope that their voices do not carry the day. 

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