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On December 1st of this year, current President Enrique Peña Nieto will end his term and make space for the president-elect Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO). During the presidential campaign, the still-governing PRI party has accused leftist populist AMLO of being authoritarian and compared him to Venezuela’s Maduro. In light of this campaign, let us take a look at Mexico’s recent history of authoritarianism, which only ended in 2000. (Klesner 2001, p. 107)

In this short paper, we will first see some basic concepts of authoritarianism. Starting from the theoretical shelter by O’Neil (2018, pp. 246–265), we will expand on his explication how authoritarian regimes stay in power with the theories of Merkel and Gerschewski (2011a). In the second part of the paper, we will apply the theoretical framework of the first part to Mexican post-revolutionary history. This covers a long time from roughly 1920 until 2000, so the analysis will only select certain examples to give a general idea, without going too much into detail. The goal of the paper is to apply the theories which will be presented in chapter one not to an obvious example with clear-cut cases but to a more ambiguous one, Mexico.

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Theoretical Framework


Authoritarian regimes, although the exact definitions merit a paper of its own, is defined by Linz (1975) with three characteristics; limited pluralism, limited political participation and a mobilization “neither extensive nor intensive”, and no legitimation through a common ideology. (p. 264) The first characteristic distinguishes authoritarianism from democracy on one side, but also marks the boundary to totalitarian regimes. Another defining aspect is limited political participation and a mobilization “neither extensive nor intensive”. The third characteristic is that while totalitarianism tries to use a unifying ideology to control its population, authoritarian regimes do not. As one can see, these Linz’ definition also serves the purpose of separating authoritarianism from totalitarianism.

Authoritarian states necessarily have a predominance of the executive power. The executive power exerts power without the checks and balances of fully functioning democracies (O’Neil 2018, p. 256). Depending on how personalist the regime is, the ruler is limited in his exertion of power. His exertion of power, because all non-democratic leaders so far have been male. Examples of limits of power are allies in key positions such as at the top of (secret) police, the military or ministries. Most authoritarian states have a legislative branch, but the legislative body and the elections are configured in a way to not be a threat to the government (O’Neil 2018, p. 254). Frederick the Great said it best; “I have an agreement with my people; they can say what they want and I can do what I want. ” (Babington Macaulay 1882, p. 48) It is difficult to draw a line between democracies and authoritarian regimes, which is why we should not consider them as a dichotomous, but rather as opposing poles on a spectrum. Many authoritarian states even have formal democratic procedures such as political campaigns, elections and a free judiciary. This element of competition, however is not fair, which is why (Levitsky and Way 2002) define these regimes as competitive authoritarianism. Another name is electoral authoritarianism (O’Neil 2018, p. 254). Mainstream media often uses terms such “illiberal democracy”, “hybrid regime” and “transition regime”. This gives the false impression that these regimes are on a unidirectional path to democracy (Levitsky and Way 2002, p. 2). Some post-soviet states defied that expectation. (Kailitz and Köllner 2013, p. 3) Three pillars of authoritarian ruleMerkel and Gerschewski (2011a) propose three pillars of democracy; legitimacy, co-option and repression. Like real-word pillars, all three are needed. When one is weak, the other two might compensate.

However, if the pillars are too weak, the system crumbles. Although it sounds paradoxical, legitimacy is very important to autocracies, and takes two forms; normative-ideological and performance-based (Merkel and Gerschewski 2011b, p. 23). Nationalism, fascism, communism, religious thought are examples of possible normative-ideological legitimation of a regime. In other words, when the population agrees with the core ideology of the regime, they might not see the absence of democracy as illegitimate and the regime needs to spend less on repression and co-option. The other form of legitimacy is performance-based. If there is a socio-economic situation which matches the expectations of the population, the regime enjoys performance-based legitimacy. The roman saying panem et circenses synthesizes the phenomenon. This is one possible subdivision, some scholars have suggested more. Soest and Grauvogel (2017, p. 289) enumerate six forms of legitimacy; foundational myth, ideology and personalism – which they subsume under “identity-based” – procedures, performance and international engagement.

The term ‘procedures’ covers elections in electoral authoritarian systems; some scholars call it “democratic-procedural”. Formally democratic elements such as legislatures have also other benefits for authoritarian regimes; they provide a way to reach compromises (Gandhi 2008, p. 137). Limited opposition gives legitimacy to the ruling power, while not endangering the system.

Democratic institutions in non-democratic states often have this legitimizing function, which is why often opposition chooses not to participate in elections in order to not further legitimize the supposedly free elections. Co-option (or co-optation) is the second pillar of autocracies. It can be described as the inclusion of opposition actors, both groups and persons (Gerschewski 2013, p. 7). The goal is to persuade the stakeholder “not to exercise his power to obstruct” (Shleifer and Treisman 2000, pp. 8–9). Co-option often takes the form of rent-sharing; positions in government and administration, political privileges and access to resources are used to curb opposition. The business elite, the military, and the social elite are the beneficiaries of co-option (Merkel and Gerschewski 2011b, p. 22). They do not necessarily have to be in the opposition; it is enough for them to not belong to the inner circle of the authoritarian leadership, thus posing a possible threat (Merkel and Gerschewski, p. 24). This is how autocrats prevent coups by the military, one of the main threats to authoritarian stability.

Lastly, repression is the third pillar of a stable authoritarian regime. When thinking about autocracies, repression is the first thing many people think of. Repression is actually an ultima ratio, as it is expensive O’Neil (2018, p. 256) and decreases the legitimacy of the regime. Wintrobe (1990) explains repression and co-optation as a trade-off; when someone cannot be co-opted, repression is the remaining solution. Repression can take two forms; hard repression and soft repression. Soft repression can be defined as “nonviolent means to silence and eradicate oppositional ideas” (Brockett 2006, p. 141). Kinzelbach and Spannagel (2018) give travel or work restrictions as examples. Hard repression, on the other hand, are violent means – “the mobilization of force to control or crush oppositional action through the use or threat of violence” (ibid). As one can imagine, the boundaries between is not always clear. The case of MexicoMexico: a general overviewThis chapter is intended to give a short overview of Mexican history. Mexico, as compared to most Latin American countries, did not have a military dictatorship during the cold war. The current constitution was written in 1917, after the Mexican Revolution deposed the personalist, clientelist dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.

The PNR (National Revolution Party) was founded in 1929 by Plutarco Elias Calles, one of the civil war hero. It came into power the same year. The party eventually changed its name to PRM (Party of the Mexican Revolution) and eventually to PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), which it holds to this day. While the constitution of 1917 did not challenge the presidentialism per se, it did channel the experience of the personalist dictatorship into a strict term limit of one six-year term. The same term limit is also valid for members of both legislative chambers (Senate, Chamber of deputies). The PRI party governed Mexico without interruption until 2000, when Vicente Fox, the candidate of the main opposition party PAN won the presidency. In its 73 years of uninterrupted rule, the regime turned away from its policies falling under the popular definition of “left”, becoming increasingly neoliberal in its economic policies. Porfirio Diaz, the dictator who ruled Mexico before the Mexican Revolution, had substantial economic growth, but it did not translate to well-being for its population; dissatisfied workers and farmers played a big role in the Mexican Revolution.

The new regime was initially able to distribute wealth more evenly, and expropriations were allowed by the 1917 constitution. In the 1940s an economic growth dubbed the “Mexican miracle” began. This lasted until the 1970s, when growth deteriorated. In 1982 and 1994 financial crisis rocked the country. During the second half of the PRI autocracy, there have been two opposition parties. One is PAN (Partido Acción Nacional, National Action Party) and the other is PRD (Partido Revolución Democratica, Democratic Revolution Party). PAN was founded in 1939 as a catholic, center-right opposition party to PRI. PRD was founded by disillusioned members of the leftist wing of PRI. Authoritarianism in Mexico up to 2000LegitimacyAs already said, post-revolutionary Mexico was a multi-party system. The ruling PRI always was very concerned with having a formally democratic system, so that it incentivized political participation. Still, the extensive powers invested in the president allowed him to enact constitutional changes to ensure the electoral process would turn out in favor of PRI. As said above, the 1917 constitution ensured a six-year (sexenio) term limit, and after every sexenio, a new elected president would take office. While other authoritarian systems had longer lasting rulers and were obvious autocracies, the simple fact that the president change every six years gave the Mexican system substantial democratic-procedural legitimacy. As mentioned before, this was enshrined in the constitution after the experience of Porfirio Diaz personalist regime. Elections have taken place every six years since 1934.

The main opposition party before Porfirio Diaz’ downfall was called anti-reelectionists, and the strict adherence to this principle gave the regime not only democratic-procedural legitimacy, but also normative-ideological legitimacy. The legitimacy was threatened by opposition parties boycotting certain elections throughout the years. It must be noted that the PRI had a clearly defined succession rule; the incumbent president would select the party’s candidate, i. e. the incoming president. The last PRI president before the transition to democracy.


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