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Mexico’s Great Transition

by James M. Banner Jr. on Nov 28, 2000

James M. Banner, Jr.

         This Friday, December 1st, for the first time since Mexico's
modern revolution in the 1920s, one party will replace the Institutional
Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has ruled Mexico with authoritarian
high-handedness for seven decades. The transition of power to the National
Action Party (PAN) is taking place peacefully and as a result of the most
open and democratic election in Mexico's history.

         Americans take such transitions for granted ever since, 200 years
ago, the United States survived an acid test of constitutional government
when Thomas Jefferson's party peacefully replaced John Adams's. What made
that distant election of 1800 so epochal was that it was the first peaceful
transition between political parties in recorded history.

         The United States was the world's first constitutional republic
and its constitution was only 12 years of age when put to the transition
test. As a result, no one knew whether the infant American system could
survive the supplanting of one party with another in Congress and the White
House. Two terms of George Washington's presidency, then one of Adams's,
seemed to give their Federalist Party a permanent claim on the government.
Most Federalists, like members of the PRI today, thought that their party
deserved to keep the presidency indefinitely.

         Like Mexico's Vicente Fox earlier this year, Jefferson, James
Madison and others vigorously challenged Federalist policies and worked to
throw the Federalists from office. Narrowly succeeding in doing so, neither
they nor anyone else had full confidence that their opponents, shocked by
their defeat and fearing the end of "good government," would give way
peacefully. After all, never before in the world had a constitutional
republic existed. Therefore, never before in world history had such a
transition between political parties occurred.

         As it turned out, despite rumors of armed conflict and last-minute
Federalist efforts to prevent Jefferson's inauguration as the third
president, the epoch-making transfer of authority from one party to another
took place. The Federalists were out, the Democratic-Republicans were
in.  The Constitution ruled.

         Since then, in a gradually increasing number of constitutional
republics and monarchies, parties have routinely and peacefully replaced
others. Mexico now joins their ranks — ranks never numerous enough, as
news out of Iraq, North Korea, Burma, China and the continent of Africa too
often attests.

         Elsewhere, legitimately elected administrations are frequently
denied their rights to govern.  Often, mere legislatures, not
constitutional conventions like the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, alter
existing legal arrangements to prevent legitimately elected governments
from taking power.  What ought to be changes of government become changes
of regime. Putsches and revolutions substitute for orderly transitions. A
change of parties too often transforms the state.

         Fortunately, unlike the United States 200 years ago, Mexicans have
little reason to worry that their own first similar transition will not be
peaceable. With an 80-year-old constitution, Mexico is today a secure and
institutionally mature constitutional republic. As a result, no doubt the
day will soon come when parties in Mexico, like those in the United States,
vie routinely with each other in cities, states and nation and then step
into each other's shoes without making citizens lose too much sleep.  When
that happens, opposition politics in Mexico will then have become, as in
the United States, a normal part of constitutional government.

         Before that occurs, however, other changes in Mexico's government
will have to take place. Fortunately, it already looks as if they probably
will. One we have already seen. The Mexican Supreme Court, long that
country's weakest constitutional branch, has begun to change.  In recent
key decisions the it has moved, like John Marshall's Supreme Court after
Jefferson's election, toward a course independent of the presidency and
Congress, as well as of Mexico's cities and states and of the party in
power. Notably, too, like Marshall's court, it has begun to hand down
unanimous — that is, authoritative — decisions.

         An additional likely consequence of Mexico's historic election of
2000 will be the growth of institutions in the Mexican Congress that permit
institutional independence of the presidency while allowing both branches
of government to work together no matter which party controls either one.
As Americans have learned, such cross-party and inter-branch alliances are
essential to party government.

         Americans have every reason to applaud this moment in Mexico's
history, not simply for what it means for our southern neighbor but for its
echoes of a similar moment in American history. That moment marked a
turning point in world history. It is probably safe to say that this one
will also be a turning point in the history of the Americas and,
consequently, in the links between two of the hemisphere's largest and most
stable republics.


James M. Banner, Jr. a historian in Washington, D.C., was co-founder of the History News Service. He is most recently the editor of A Century of American Historiography (2009).