Mexico’s Great Transition

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).