Mexico's 2000 Presidential and Congressional Elections:

The Overthrow of the Ruling Party

Joseph L. Klesner

Department of Political Science

Kenyon College

Gambier, Ohio 43022 USA

Fax: 1-740-427-5306

Tel: 1-740-427-5311

In Mexico's July 2, 2000 federal elections voters ousted the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI) from the presidency and produced a divided Congress, effectively ending the hegemonic party system that had characterized Mexico since 1929. Vicente Fox of the Alliance for Change, a coalition of the center-right National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional, or PAN) and the Green Party (Partido Verde Ecológico de México, or PVEM), defeated the PRI's Francisco Labastida by a commanding margin. While Fox's coalition also outdistanced the PRI in the legislative elections, Fox's coattails were not long enough to produce an Alliance for Change majority in either house of Congress. With a non-PRI president who must negotiate passage of legislation with Congress, Mexico definitively passes into the ranks of the world's democracies.


Mexico's PRI entered the 2000 elections with the longest record of controlling the national executive of any ruling party in the world. Formed as the National Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Nacional) in 1929, it had won every presidential race since then. Until the 1997 congressional elections, the PRI had also dominated the bicameral federal legislature, giving Mexico an unusually unified national government. However, the PRI failed to take a majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house) in 1997 (Klesner, 1997), and Mexico has had three years of divided government since then.

In Mexico's presidentialist system, chief executives are elected every six years. Federal deputies serve three-year terms, while members of the Senate (the upper house) are chosen for six-year terms. Congressional elections always coincide with presidential elections. State and local elections in Mexico's federal system do not necessarily happen simultaneously with federal elections, but two state governors (of Morelos and Guanajuato), the head of the Mexico City government (the second most important elected post in the country) plus the Federal District Assembly, as well as state legislatures and municipal governments in nine states were elected on July 2, 2000 also.

Mexico's president is directly elected with no provisions for a run-off. The selection of the members of Congress is rather more complicated. The Chamber of Deputies includes 300 seats chosen by plurality (first-past-the-post) in federal electoral districts and 200 seats assigned by proportional representation. All parties receiving more than 2% of the national vote are eligible for the PR seats. For the Senate, three senators are chosen in each state. The party winning the plurality of Senate votes in a state is awarded two seats and the party finishing second gets the third. Thirty-two Senate seats (one-quarter of that body) are chosen from PR lists in a single national district.

Officially, Mexico's presidential campaign began with the formal registry of candidates in the first week of January 2000. However, the three major candidates had been unofficially running for election for most of the past three years. Vicente Fox began his campaign for the PAN nomination as early as July 1997; Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (Partido de la Revolución Democrática, or PRD) had been a presidential contender since his victory in the Mexico City mayoral race in that same month; and the internal contest for the PRI's nomination begins very early in the six year presidential cycle, although the PRI primary was not held until November 7, 1999. In sum, as in most presidential systems, fixed terms of office allow the campaigning to begin early and last more than a year. Candidates for congressional seats were not announced by the parties until April 2000, however.

Since the last presidential elections in 1994, important electoral reforms have been implemented. The PR senatorial seats were added, and new rules limiting the overrepresentation of parties in the Chamber of Deputies were agreed to by the parties. More importantly, the Federal Electoral Institute (Instituto Federal Electoral, or IFE), the agency charged with conducting elections, was restructured and made truly autonomous as was the Federal Electoral Tribunal, the court for adjudication of electoral disputes. Additionally, campaign finance reforms greatly increased public financing of elections, limited private financing to no more than 10% of total campaign expenses, and thereby made the resources available to each party much more equal. Also, new rules made media access much more equitable among the parties. Although media access and campaign spending are not perfectly equal among the parties, in 2000 most observers agree that the parties have ample opportunity to get their messages to the voters.

The Presidential Candidates

Three major candidates and parties or coalition contested the 2000 race (for an extensive overview of the candidates, see Grayson, 2000). Labastida won the PRI's hotly contested November primary and thereby became the ruling party's standard bearer. A much-experienced politician, the 57-year-old Labastida earlier had served as governor of Sinaloa, and minister of Energy, Agriculture, and Government. He thus brought more experience in the federal government to the contest than his two major rivals. He was understood to be President Zedillo's favorite during the primary race.

Fox's early start in the presidential race discouraged other PAN leaders from contesting the party's nomination. A former head of Coca-Cola de México, the 58-year-old Fox (his birthday was on election day) did not enter politics until 1987. A leader of the neopanista wing of the party--a more business-oriented and confrontational group than the party's traditional leadership--Fox won a congressional seat in 1988, lost a highly-contested gubernatorial race in Guanajuato in 1991 in which the official PRI winner was eventually forced to resign by President Carlos Salinas, and handily won the 1994 gubernatorial race. He proved to be a highly pragmatic and successful governor, attracting much investment to his state. Very outspoken and militant in his opposition to the ruling PRI, Fox's relationship to the PAN's Mexico City-based leaders has been chilly.

The 2000 election marked the third run for the presidency by 66-year-old Cárdenas. After leaving the PRI in 1987 when Salinas received the party's nomination, Cárdenas ran at the head of a coalition of leftist parties, losing to Salinas in an election characterized by many irregularities. After founding the PRD in 1989, he performed poorly in the 1994 presidential election but rebounded with a victory in the 1997 Mexico City mayoral race, the first time that post had been subject to election. Founded to counter the rightward shift in the PRI's economic development strategy, the PRD incorporates both former socialists and left-leaning ex-members of the PRI. Cárdenas did not distinguish himself as Mexico City's mayor, perhaps explaining why he lagged in public opinion polls from early in the campaign.


Major policy issues did not distinguish the presidential candidates. Labastida and Fox (and their parties) largely agreed that Mexico's economic development must depend on market-based strategies, although each advocated "an economy with a human face." Each promised to provide high rates of economic growth if elected by encouraging higher rates of investment. Fox, as the candidate of a coalition that included the Green Party, promised to protect the environment while promoting growth. Cárdenas, leading a coalition that largely rejected Mexico's neoliberal economic strategy, favored renegotiating the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement, but otherwise offered little in the way of alternatives to the current market-oriented approach of PRI and PAN. More prominent as issues in the campaign were education and public safety; all three candidates promised to make these their primary foci if elected (Klesner, 2000).

The major difference among the candidates revolved around regime issues. Fox and Cárdenas sought to mobilize Mexicans for a change from the one-party dominance of the PRI to a regime in which alternation in power was possible. Fox's campaign slogan--Ya!, or "Enough Already!"--aptly captured the demand for the end of the PRI's dominance. Because the PAN and the PRI are close on most substantive policy issues, the PAN has emphasized its demand for democratization of the regime since 1988. Recognizing the salience of the regime issue, Labastida campaigned on the theme "That Power Will Serve the People."

The Campaign

The presidential campaign turned into a contentious, highly personal contest in which the major contenders made attacks on each other's character. The tall and powerful-looking Fox questioned the manhood of the much shorter Labastida. The PRI suggested Fox was erratic and that he had received campaign funds from the U.S., an infringement of the law and of Mexican nationalism. This race marked the first example of strongly negative campaigning in Mexican history.

Three other campaign elements merit discussion (see also Klesner, 2000). First, the opposition parties sought to ally in a coalition early in the campaign. For much of the summer and early fall of 1999, the PAN and the PRD engaged in negotiations to present a single opposition candidacy, hoping thereby to more easily defeat the PRI's candidate. However, neither Fox nor Cárdenas was willing to step down in favor of the other, and the negotiations failed. Also important to their failure, however, was the legal requirement that a coalition presenting a common presidential candidate also present unified slates of congressional candidates. This discouraged rank-and-file PAN and PRD members from supporting the effort for fear of having to stand aside on congressional nominations. The PRD joined with four small parties to form the Alliance for Mexico while the PAN and the Green Party created the Alliance for Change, both thereby maintaining the image that they sought broad alliances to oust the PRI. Even as late as the final week of the campaign, Fox called on Cárdenas to throw his support to the PAN candidate and he urged voters to cast a voto útil, or strategic vote for him. Cárdenas angrily rejected Fox's overtures.

Second, to choose its candidate, the PRI held the party's first-ever presidential primary. President Zedillo advocated the primary as a way to transcend the past practice by which the president hand-picked his successor. Others in the PRI recognized that in gubernatorial elections held in 1998 and 1999, the PRI won more often in states where it had held an open primary. The November primary turned quite ugly, however, with Labastida's main rival, Tabasco governor Roberto Madrazo, running many negative television spots. The internal rivalry seems to have hurt the party in the July election. According to one exit poll, 53 percent of Madrazo voters in the primary chose Fox in the general election (Reforma, July 3, 2000).

Finally, the campaign included two debates and a heated encounter among the candidates regarding the arrangements for the second debate that was broadcast on television. Many observers feared that Fox had undermined his candidacy by appearing stubborn and rude during the the latter meeting, but he handily won both of the formal debates. Fox was Mexico's first truly telegenic candidate, and his charismatic personality was well portrayed on television.


Although opinion polls had suggested that the race was a technical tie, Fox easily outdistanced Labastida in the presidential contest, winning by a 6.4% margin (see Table 1). He won in 20 of the 32 states, to 11 for Labastida. Cárdenas finished a distant third, with 18.7% of the vote. Three other candidates shared the remainder of the votes.

Although Fox defeated Labastida handily, his coalition only nosed out the PRI in the congressional elections by 1.4% in the deputy races and the senatorial contests, suggesting that many voters split their tickets (see Table 2). Similarly, the Alliance for Mexico's congressional slate performed more than 2% better than Cárdenas. These results produced a Chamber of Deputies in which the Alliance for Change garnered 223 seats (208 to the PAN, 15 to the PVEM) while the PRI took 209 and the Alliance for Mexico 68 (52 to the PRD, the remainder to its smaller coalition parters). Thus no party or coalition will have a majority in the lower house.

In the Senate, too, Fox will face a majority from other parties. There the PRI took 60 seats to 51 for the Alliance for Change and 17 for the Alliance for Mexico. The PRI's greater success in the Senate contests can be attributed to the unusual rules by which senators are chosen. In effect, the PAN/PVEM coalition finished third in nine states, mostly in the south, gaining no seats in those states, while the PRI finished third only in the Federal District (Mexico City). This outcome leaves Fox's coalition thirteen seats short of half the seats in the Senate, which may pose a major challenge to the new president's legislative agenda.

In the gubernatorial elections in Guanajuato and Morelos, the PAN won by wide margins, which is not surprising for Guanajuato since Fox had just left the governorship there. However, in Morelos the PRD had won three of the four federal deputy districts in 1997, so this election is a major setback for the major party of the left. Meanwhile, in the Federal District, the PRD's Andres Manuel López Obrador won the position of jefe de gobierno by a 39.5% to 34% margin over the PAN's Santiago Creel. The PRI's Jesús Silva Herzog, a former Minister of Finance who had been considered a presidential contender in the mid 1980s, gained only 22.3% of the vote. In the Federal District, the PRD-led coalition won 11 of the 16 jefe de delegación posts, but the PAN/PVEM coalition gained control of the legislative assembly, so López Obrador will also face a situation of divided government.

Behind Fox, the PAN/PVEM coalition made inroads into regions of the nation in which it had always been weak. For example, Fox took the states of Veracruz and Puebla, long bastions of the PRI machine. However, past patterns of regionalism remained intact. The PRI won in the Mexico's deep south--Tabasco, Campeche, Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Guerrero, as well as the relatively poor and rural central states of Tlaxcala, Hidalgo, and Zacatecas. The Alliance for Change failed to gain senatorial posts in all of these states except Hidalgo (where it finished second), plus Baja California Sur and Michoacán, where the PRD forms the main alternative to the PRI.

The PRI's loss can be attributed to an incapacity to turn out its core constituency. In the states won by Fox, the turnout averaged over 65%. In contrast, in the states won by the PRI, participation of registered votes only reached 60%. Historically, the PRI had maintained power by turning out voters in poor and rural states, mostly in the south, while the opposition had performed better in the wealthier states of the north, center-west, and greater Mexico City, but with lower turnout rates. In July 2000, Fox's campaign yielded turnout rates of 71% in the Federal District and 68% in the surrounding state of Mexico.


The main consequences of this election are three. First, the PAN's Fox will fill the presidential seat for the next six years. His election will likely bring continuity in economic policy but major changes in the structure of government. Fox will try to dismantle the bastions of PRI power within the federal executive and he has promised to struggle against corruption. The major political, justice, and public security ministries--the Ministry of Government (Gobernación) and the Attorney General's Office--will likely be restructured. Fox will certainly bring more openness and informality to the president's office than the last three presidents--he has already held more press conferences than any of his predecessors.

Second, Mexico will experience at least three more years of divided government. With a president from a party that has never held the presidency and neither house of Congress commanded by a party majority, the first several months of the new administration will likely be marked by efforts to define new relationships between the executive and the legislature. If the experience of the 1997-2000 Congress indicates how divided government operates in Mexico, no stable coalition is likely to emerge. Fox will have to seek allies for the PAN on each of his major legislative initiatives.

Third, Mexicans have voted for democratic change; a return to hegemonic party rule seems unimaginable at this juncture. The PRI may not disappear from Mexican politics, it may even remain highly competitive or return to competitiveness in the way that communist parties have in many countries of the former Soviet bloc. However, other parties and other institutions of Mexican society have been sufficiently strengthened in this election and through their growth over the past decade that their disappearance before a resurgent PRI is unthinkable. Democracy has come to Mexico.


Grayson, George W. (2000) A Guide to the 2000 Mexican Presidential Election. Western Hemisphere Election Study Series, XVIII, 2 (June), available at .

Klesner, Joseph L. (1997) The Mexican Midterm Congressional and Gubernatorial Elections of 1997: End of the Hegemonic Party System. Electoral Studies 16, 567-75.

Klesner, Joseph L. (2000) The 2000 Mexican Presidential and Congressional Elections: Pre-Election Report. Western Hemisphere Election Study Series, XVIII, 1 (June 15), available at .

Table 1

Mexican Presidential Election Results

July 2, 2000

Votes Percentage Adjusted Percentage
Vicente Fox (Alliance for Change) 15,988,740 42.5 43.4
Francisco Labistida (PRI) 13,576,385 36.1 36.9
Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas (Alliance for Mexico) 6,259,385 16.6 17.0
Gilberto Rincón Gallardo (Democracía Social) 592,075 1.6 1.6
Manuel Camacho (PCD) 208,261 0.6 0.6
Porfirio Muoz Ledo (PARM) 157,119 0.4 0.4
Unregistered 32,457 0.0 0.0
Nullified 789,838 2.1 --
Total 37,604,260 99.9 99.9
Turnout 64.0

Source: Instituto Federal Electoral.

Table 2

Mexican Congressional Election Results

July 2, 2000

Chamber of Deputies Senate
Vote % District Seats PR Seats Total Seats Vote % State Seats PR Seats Total Seats
Alliance for Change (PAN/PVEM) 38.3 141 82 223 38.1 38 13 51
PRI 36.9 131 78 209 36.7 47 13 60
Alliance for Mexico (PRD/PT/PAS/CD/PSN) 18.7 38 40 68 18.9 11 6 17
Democracía Social 1.9 0 0 0 1.8 0 0 0
PCD 1.2 0 0 0 1.4 0 0 0
PARM 0.7 0 0 0 0.7 0 0 0
Nullified 2.3 -- -- -- 2.3 -- -- --
Total 100.0 300 200 500 99.9 96 32 128

Source: Instituto Federal Electoral.