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History, 1988 Election

Accion Nacional, Gortari, National Action Party, election observers, technocrat

In 1987 the PRI underwent the first major split in its history. A so-called “Democratic Current” within the PRI feared that multiparty democracy could not be delayed and pushed for reform from inside the party. The selection of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a Harvard-educated technocrat, as the PRI candidate in 1988 further divided the party. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano—a dissident PRI member and the son of the popular former president Lazaro Cardenas—challenged the PRI in the election. Cardenas attacked the IMF-imposed austerity programs, which had sped the decline in the standard of living for most Mexicans, and called for a moratorium on interest payments to foreign creditors. When Cardenas announced his candidacy for the PRI’s 1988 presidential election, he was expelled from the party. Cardenas ran as a candidate of his own leftist coalition, the National Democratic Front, and the campaign saw the growth of unprecedented opposition to the ruling PRI.

Salinas was declared the winner with 51 percent of the vote, although many election observers believe Cardenas actually won. Cardenas carried Mexico’s large cities, where balloting was closely monitored, but Salinas carried the rural areas where observers claimed that much of the balloting was fraudulent and dishonestly counted. A conservative party, the Partido de Accion Nacional (PAN), known in English as the National Action Party, demonstrated increasing strength in northern Mexico in the 1988 elections. A PAN candidate won the governorship of the state of Baja California. PAN, together with the National Democratic Front, won nearly half the seats in the Chamber of Deputies in the 1988 elections, underscoring the growing strength and influence of Mexico’s opposition parties.

Salinas turned out to be a remarkably resourceful politician. While facing enormous economic problems and political opposition, he was initially able to revitalize Mexico’s economy by stimulating exports, supporting free trade with the United States, and lowering inflation. The Salinas administration accelerated privatization efforts, selling off hundreds of state-owned companies. The president also allowed U.S. oil companies to explore for oil in Mexico for the first time since the petroleum industry was nationalized in 1938.

Most significant, perhaps, were Salinas’s efforts to stimulate foreign trade. In 1991 he led the effort to establish a free trade agreement among Central American countries. He was instrumental in working out the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which promised economic development and prosperity for Mexico. NAFTA, which took effect in 1994, is a trade agreement between Canada, Mexico, and the United States that aims to lower tariffs and other trade barriers among the three nations.

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