The Transfer of Power

Perpetuating Power: How Mexican Presidents Were Chosen, by Jorge G. Castañeda. The New Press, 248 pages, $26.00.

When businessman-turned-politician Vicente Fox was elected to the Mexican presidency last July, he helped bring an end to more than 70 years of one-party rule. As long as most Mexicans could remember, presidents had been selected by a process known as el dedazoz, (the finger tap) or el destape (the unveiling). The sitting president, invariably a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) "tapped" a member of his cabinet to become the next PRI candidate; the chosen man was then "unveiled" to the party elite at the annual party conference; and the party went into action rigging the country's electoral machinery to ensure their candidate's victory. Over the past two decades, however, the PRI, by a combination of choice and necessity, loosened its grip on Mexican politics, and in the result lost its hold on power.

First published in Spanish last year as La herencia (The Inheritance) and now in translation as Perpetuating Power, Jorge G. Castañeda's book contains an updated introduction reflecting on last year's events. (The new introduction, however, does not include a more recent development: the appointment of Castañeda, widely known as one of the country's leading political theorists, as Fox's foreign minister.) "Mexico has finally, for the first time in its history, had power contended for, conquered and transferred at the ballot box," Castañeda writes. In the chapters that follow, he implicitly contrasts the democratic processes of the most recent election with what he sees to be the cloak-and-dagger intrigue of the previous successions. More than most scholars of Mexican politics, Castañeda views the PRI successions to have been dominated by personal prejudice as opposed to intraparty pressure. In his analyses, the opinions of major PRI factions, such as labor leaders and big business, played little role.

And Castañeda argues that as candidates competed to woo the president, national politics suffered. Such was the case, for example, when Carlos Salinas convinced then-president Miguel de la Madrid that the fiscally responsible finance minister, Jesús Silva Herzog, was stealing the limelight from de la Madrid. "Nothing does more to undermine one's chances for victory in this game than posing as a vicefactotum, brain, star, or true source of a regime's success," Castañeda notes. As Silva Herzog lost influence, de la Madrid turned to Salinas, head of the Ministry of Planning and Budget, only to find that Salinas and his men had been misrepresenting economic figures in order to make the candidate look good--a situation that contributed to the stock market crash and resulting economic slump of late 1987. Nevertheless, Salinas got the tap and emerged as the next president in 1988, in an election widely thought to be fraudulent, and one that Castañeda sees as outside "the normal chain of events in the Mexican presidential succession."

Castañeda's book is divided into two parts. He traces the six successions since 1970 (presidents are chosen every six years). The second part is comprised of interviews with the four living ex-presidents: Luis Echeverría, José López Portillo, de la Madrid, and Salinas. These officials provide a more nuanced view of the selection process. López Portillo, who served from 1976 to 1982, speaks of the president as "el fiel de la balanza" (the tongue of the balance) and faults de la Madrid for wanting "to be the whole balance." The president must be "someone who feels the balance... . Different political factors are entered like weights in a sort of balance, and the balance tilts until it definitively shows who the candidate must be." One of the largest weights, according to López Portillo, was the input of the labor sector. "It was the most important sector to me because it was the most stable faction of the party, and usually the strongest when it comes time to make decisions and stand behind them." De la Madrid maintains that "public opinion" ultimately determined who should make it onto the presidential shortlist.

It is hard to gauge the sincerity of the former presidents, especially as all have a vested interest in portraying themselves as respecters of public and party opinion, and not as arbitrary czars. Castañeda believes that they downplay their power in making what he presents as a personal decision, arrived at privately.

"The key question is power, and how it is transferred, kept, and ceded," Castañeda writes, raising a matter with a certain new relevance to U.S. readers. "The most delicate issue has always been ... how the winners treat the losers, and how the latter react to their defeat." How will the new rules of the game affect Mexican society? Such questions properly belong in a sequel to this book, Castañeda says, which can only be written after Mexico takes a few more steps toward representative democracy.