|Highly developed cultures, including those of the Olmecs, Mayas, Toltecs, and Aztecs existed long before the Spanish conquest. Hernando Cortes conquered Mexico during the period 1519-21 and founded a Spanish colony that lasted nearly 300 years. Independence from Spain was proclaimed by Father Miguel Hidalgo on September 16, 1810; this launched a war for independence. An 1821 treaty recognized Mexican independence from Spain and called for a constitutional monarchy. The planned monarchy failed; a republic was proclaimed in December 1822 and established in 1824.
Prominent figures in Mexico’s war for independence were Father Jose Maria Morelos; Gen. Augustin de Iturbide, who defeated the Spaniards and ruled as Mexican emperor from 1822-23; and Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, who went on to control Mexican politics from 1833 to 1855. Santa Ana was Mexico’s leader during the conflict with Texas, which declared itself independent from Mexico in 1836, and during Mexico’s war with the United States (1846-48). The presidential terms of Benito Juarez (1858-71) were interrupted by the Habsburg monarchy’s rule of Mexico (1864-67). Archduke Maximilian of Austria, whom Napoleon III of France established as Emperor of Mexico, was deposed by Juarez and executed in 1867. Gen. Porfirio Diaz was president during most of the period between 1877 and 1911.
Mexico’s severe social and economic problems erupted in a revolution that lasted from 1910-20 and gave rise to the 1917 constitution. Prominent leaders in this period—some of whom were rivals for power—were Francisco I. Madero, Venustiano Carranza, Pancho Villa, Alvaro Obregon, Victoriano Huerta, and Emiliano Zapata. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), formed in 1929 under a different name, emerged as a coalition of interests after the chaos of the revolution as a vehicle for keeping political competition in peaceful channels. For 71 years, Mexico’s national government had been controlled by the PRI, which had won every presidential race and most gubernatorial races until the July 2000 presidential election of Vicente Fox Quesada of the National Action Party (PAN).
The 1917 constitution provides for a federal republic with powers separated into independent executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Historically, the executive is the dominant branch, with power vested in the president, who promulgates and executes the laws of the Congress. The Congress has played an increasingly important role since 1997 when opposition parties first made major gains. The president also legislates by executive decree in certain economic and financial fields, using powers delegated from the Congress. The president is elected by universal adult suffrage for a 6-year term and may not hold office a second time. There is no vice president; in the event of the removal or death of the president, a provisional president is elected by the Congress.
The Congress is composed of a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies. Consecutive re-election is prohibited. Senators are elected to 6-year terms, and deputies serve 3-year terms. The Senate’s 128 seats are filled by a mixture of direct-election and proportional representation. In the lower chamber, 300 deputies are directly elected to represent single-member districts, and 200 are selected by a modified form of proportional representation from five electoral regions. The 200 proportional representation seats were created to help smaller parties gain access to the Chamber.
The judiciary is divided into federal and state court systems, with federal courts having jurisdiction over most civil cases and those involving major felonies. Under the constitution, trial and sentencing must be completed within 12 months of arrest for crimes that would carry at least a 2-year sentence. In practice, the judicial system often does not meet this requirement. Trial is by judge, not jury, in most criminal cases. Defendants have a right to counsel, and public defenders are available. Other rights include defense against self-incrimination, the right to confront one’s accusers, and the right to a public trial. Supreme Court justices are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate.
On July 2, 2000, Vicente Fox Quesada of the opposition "Alliance for Change" coalition, headed by the National Action Party (PAN), was elected president, in what are considered to have been the freest and fairest elections in Mexico’s history. Fox began his 6-year term on December 1, 2000. His victory ended the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) 71-year hold on the presidency.
The Mexican Congress is a plural institution that is playing an increasingly important role in Mexico’s democratic transition. No single party holds an absolute majority in either house of Congress.
The July 2, 2000, elections marked the first time since the 1910-20 Mexican Revolution that the opposition defeated the party in government. Vicente Fox won the election with 43% of the vote, followed by PRI candidate Francisco Labastida with 36%, and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) with 17%. Despite some isolated incidents of irregularities and problems, there was no evidence of systematic attempts to manipulate the elections or their results, and critics concluded that the irregularities that occurred did not alter the outcome of the presidential vote. Civic organizations fielded more than 80,000 trained electoral observers; foreigners—many from the United States—were invited to witness the process, and numerous independent "quick count" operations and exit polls validated the official vote tabulation.
Numerous electoral reforms implemented since 1989 aided in the opening of the Mexican political system, and opposition parties have made historic gains in elections at all levels. Many of the current electoral concerns have shifted from outright fraud to campaign fairness issues. During 1995-96 the political parties negotiated constitutional amendments to address these issues. Implementing legislation included major points of consensus that had been worked out with the opposition parties. The thrust of the new laws has public financing predominate over private contributions to political parties, tightens procedures for auditing the political parties, and strengthens the authority and independence of electoral institutions. The court system also was given greatly expanded authority to hear civil rights cases on electoral matters brought by individuals or groups. In short, the extensive reform efforts have "leveled the playing field" for the parties.
Even before the new electoral law was passed, opposition parties had obtained an increasing voice in Mexico’s political system. A substantial number of candidates from opposition parties had won election to the Chamber of Deputies and Senate. As a result of the 2000 and 2003 elections, the Congress is more diverse than ever. In the Chamber, 223 seats belong to the PRI, 154 to the PAN, 96 to the PRD, 17 to the Green Party, and the remaining seats are split among smaller parties. In the 128-seat Senate, the upper house of Congress, the PRI still holds the most seats at 60, but the PAN holds 46, the PRD 16, the Greens 5, and one senator is an independent. Senators serve 6 years in office and Deputies 3 years; neither can be elected to consecutive terms.
Although the PRI no longer controls the Presidency, it remains a significant force in Mexican politics, holding 17 statehouses. In state congressional and mayoral contests since July 2000, the PRI has fared better than the PAN.
Congressional and presidential elections are scheduled to take place in 2006, but candidates for all major parties, as well as independent contenders, are already making their intentions known. Prior to 2006 the Mexican congress will have to decide whether to extend the vote to citizens residing outside the nation’s borders.
Constitutional and legal changes have been adopted in recent years to improve the performance and accountability of the Supreme Court and the Office of the Attorney General and the administration of federal courts. The Supreme Court, relieved of administrative duties for lower courts, was given responsibilities for judicial review of certain categories of law and legislation. Additional judicial reforms presented by President Fox remain pending before Congress.
An unresolved sociopolitical conflict exists in the southernmost state of Chiapas. In January 1994, insurgents in the state of Chiapas briefly took arms against the government, protesting alleged oppression and governmental indifference to poverty. After 12 days of fighting, a cease-fire was negotiated that remains in effect. Since 1994 sporadic clashes have continued to occur between armed civilian groups, usually over disputed land claims.
As a presidential candidate, Fox promised to renew dialogue with the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) and address unresolved problems in the state. Following his inauguration, he ordered many troops out of Chiapas, dismantled roadblocks, closed military bases, and submitted revised peace accords to Congress. In August 2001, the peace accords became law, after having been passed by Congress and ratified by more than half of the state legislatures. However, the EZLN contended that amendments made to legislated provisions of the accord diminished their impact, and broke off talks with the Government.