In 1987, de la Madrid chose as his successor Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who as secretary of planning and budget had been a principal architect of the president’s neoliberal assault on the social contract inherited from the Revolution. A member of the PRI’s quasi-hereditary leadership class—his father, a Harvard graduate, had been a secretary of commerce in the l960s—Salinas finished his Harvard PhD in political science in l978, and in l982 joined the de la Madrid cabinet as its youngest member. The man who had been instrumental in cutting real wages in half and sending unemployment soaring to nearly 18 percent was convinced there was more to be done. Mexico’s bloated government should be downsized, and the economy deregulated, making it more accommodating to foreign banks and investors.
The capture of the PRI high command by neoliberal technocrats did not go uncontested. A group of party members emerged who protested the dismantling of the Revolution’s social achievements, and the abandonment of rights inscribed in the Constitution. They also decried the lack of internal party democracy, and proposed changing the focus from liberalizing the economy to liberalizing the polity; a project which, had they been consistent, the neoliberal PRIstas should have welcomed, but which, being the power holders, they decidedly did not.
The leader of this faction was Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the son of Lázaro Cárdenas and thus a scion of the party’s most pedigreed family. He had, moreover, served in important party positions as a federal senator and governor of Michoacán. Nevertheless it was he who launched a campaign for democratic reform of the PRI’s presidential nomination process, a thrust at the neoliberal elite’s vitals.
Though named for an Aztec emperor, Cárdenas seemed an unlikely candidate for such a task. Bookish and reserved, he nevertheless led an exodus of the disaffected PRIstas, joined forces with several small existing left parties, cobbled together a National Democratic Front (NDF), and entered the presidential lists as its candidate. His cause rapidly attracted support from the civil society activists who had emerged in the wake of the earthquake, and from organizations of workers and farmers furious at the collapse of their living standards, and what they considered to be the PRI’s undermining of national sovereignty at the bidding of international capital.
Despite having virtually no funds or paid staff, being denied access to the mass media, and finding its rallies impeded by police, in February 1988 the NDF campaign began to click. In a tour of a northern agricultural region where his father had carried out a massive land-reform in 1936, Cárdenas was cheered and borne aloft by thousands of wildly enthusiastic campesinos at every stop. (When PRI candidate Salinas toured the region, he was jeered and doused with water.) In March, on the fiftieth anniversary of his father’s nationalization of the oil fields, one hundred thousand supporters fêted Cárdenas in the Zócalo. In June the Mexican Socialist Party withdrew its presidential candidate and endorsed Cárdenas, and a Zócalo rally drew an unheard of two hundred thousand, including members of cooperative farms, urban barrio organizations, and student, labor, feminist, environmental, and indigenous organizations. He also drew huge crowds in Tijuana, Oaxaca, Acapulco, and Veracruz. (To compete, the PRI bussed in state employees who had been granted days off with full pay, and paid poor families to attend.)
A few weeks before the July 6 election, with Cárdenas surging in the polls, PRI bullyboys were unleashed, and worse. Four days before the election, Cárdenas’ chief campaign assistant and long-time friend Francisco Ovando, who had been in charge of blocking the election-day dirty tricks for which the PRI was notorious, was murdered, shot four times at close range, along with an assistant. Supporters massed at the Department of the Interior, screaming “Murderers!” Cárdenas denounced the “political crime” but restrained his followers.
On election day, with the PRI in control of the electoral machinery, the government began tallying ballots and entering them into the Federal Election Commission’s computer system, supplied by UNISYS. At this point, as Miguel de la Madrid confessed in his 2004 autobiography, he received reports that initial results were running heavily against the PRI, and the public was demanding word on the returns.
“I became afraid that the results were similar across the country,” he admitted, “and that the PRI would lose the presidency.” So the public was told that the system had crashed, and results would be delayed. A week later, Salinas was declared the victor with 52 percent of the vote, compared with the PRD’s 31 percent, and the PAN’s 17 percent. Three years later the ballots were burned, and the only hard evidence of the fraud went up in smoke.
A huge crowd, estimated at over 250,000, the largest voluntary demonstration in the country’s history, descended on the Zócalo. Holding aloft effigies of the balding and big-eared Salinas, they shouted, “You’re a liar, baldy, you lost the election!” They sang, “We’ll pull him out by the ears,” and acclaimed their candidate with cries of “Viva el Presidente Cárdenas!” The demonstrations went on for months.
But on September 10, the slim PRI majority in Congress ratified Salinas as president. Eight months later, on May 5, 1989, most of the parties and social organizations that had formed the National Democratic Front established the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), with Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas as their president.