Single-Party Rule in Mexico and the Fall of the PRI

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  • 0:02 Founding of the PRI
  • 1:11 Political Dominance
  • 2:17 Corruption
  • 3:17 Decline of PRI
  • 3:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will trace the rise and fall of Mexico's PRI party. In doing so, it will highlight its dominance, the presidency of Cardenas, and the political corruption under Portillo.

Founding of the PRI

Living in the U.S., the notion of political parties trading power is very familiar. We've seen democrats and republicans come and go in the White House and Congress. However, if we take a look at Mexican history books, we'll see this is not always the case. Unlike the U.S., Mexico's 20th century saw the domination of one political party - the Partido Revolucionario Institucional party, or the PRI for short. In today's lesson, we'll explore this once dominant political machine. Since its early years saw it go through lots of name changes, we'll keep things simple and just refer to it as the PRI.

To get things rolling, Plutarco Elías Calles founded the PRI, but in its early years it went by the name the National Revolutionary Party. Under this name, it was a rather loose affiliation of political head honchos who wanted to keep other political competitors at bay. Along with this, it sought to limit the military leaders who ran the country through much of the 1920s. With his political machine behind him, Calles rose to the top of Mexican politics. By the mid-1930s, he and his cronies pretty much ran the show.

Political Dominance

However, within just a few years, a man named Lázaro Cárdenas stepped up to take on Calles. Unlike Calles, who silenced the competition, Cárdenas worked with them. Joining hands with the labor unions and the peasant class, Cárdenas succeeded in toppling Calles from power. With this, the PRI changed from a party belonging to upper-class elitist to one representing the masses. By the 1940s, it had millions of members, about half of which were peasants.

With this inclusion of the poor, the PRI and Cardenas ushered in a time of political stability. In fact, much of the military rule that had dominated the country almost completely ceased to exist. Very smartly, the party included the peasantry and the middle class in its decision-making. Many assert it did this just to keep itself safe from rebellion and violence. In other words, it gave the poor and the middle class just enough to keep them happy. Regardless of its motives, the PRI dominated all branches of the Mexican government and ruled rather peacefully throughout most of the '50s and '60s.


Along with bringing political stability, the PRI also did a great job of making the rich richer. At the highest levels, many of its leaders were busy with their own illegal land deals and corporate shenanigans. They also weren't above election fraud, bribery, selling union seats, or charging the people for public services that were supposed to be free.

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