Regionalism, Regime Transformation, and Pronasol

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Regionalism, Regime Transformation, and Pronasol:

The Politics of the National Solidarity Programme in Four Mexican States

Robert Kaufman and Guillermo Trejo
published in:

Journal of Latin American Studies October 1997

Political change in Mexico since the crisis of 1994 has been characterised by the breakdown of centralised hierarchies and the dispersion of power across geographical regions. The power elite has splintered, the ruling party is in disarray, and political violence has markedly increased. Challenges to Mexico's authoritarian system had been mounting for decades, but until 1994 the powerful presidents who dominated the regime had successfully deflected these challenges with political and economic reforms managed "from above." Presidential authority declined substantially, however, during and after the transfer of office from Carlos Salinas (1988 to 1994) to his successor, Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000). This decline has opened the way for more complex forms of centre-periphery bargaining in which regional power contenders have gained substantial leverage.

In this paper, we examine the way political decentralisation has affected regional actors linked to the traditional government and party hierarchies in four Mexican states: Puebla, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, and Baja California. How has the weakening of centralised hierarchies affected the political options of these regional power contenders? To what extent have they been able to redeploy resources accumulated under the old regime to rebuild local power bases? How might this affect the emerging regional power structures and Mexico's transition?

To address these questions, we focus on the changing relationships between regional officials of the Secretariat of Social Development (SEDESOL), and actors within the local government and party power structures --governors, mayors, and local party and corporatist leaders. State and municipal politicians and local officials from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had long served as pillars of the old regime; but by the 1980s, their capacity to deliver support for the national political elite was slipping, and in some parts of the country they constituted important sources of opposition to the consolidation of salinismo.

Within SEDESOL, on the other hand, Carlos Salinas had organized a vast anti-poverty bureaucracy (the National Solidarity Programme, PRONASOL), which aimed at "modernising" the regime and broadening its social base. Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, a number of presidents had utilized deconcentrated federal agencies --including the powerful Secretariat of Budget and Planning (the SPP)-- to augment their control over local power structures. The launching of PRONASOL in 1989, and its incorporation into SEDESOL in 1992, marked the high point of such efforts, providing Salinas with unprecedented control over the states. Regional SEDESOL delegates were key agents in the implementation of this strategy.

The collapse of salinismo after 1994 marked a sharp inversion in the relative influence of these actors within the Mexican system. During the Salinas period, regional SEDESOL officials managed funds rivaling those available to governors and mayors, whereas the latter were clearly on the defensive vis-a-vis the central government. In the post-Salinas era, conversely, many local politicians launched strong campaigns to increase their influence and political autonomy, while the PRONASOL programme was dismantled. Nevertheless, the political role that ex-SEDESOL officials have played since 1994 has varied widely across the geographic regions, and in some circumstances former SEDESOL officials have remained important players in the newly emerging regional power structures. As we shall see, they have made a variety of contributions --both negative and positive-- to the possibilities of a democratic transition.

The relative influence of SEDESOL delegates was shaped in the first instance by centralised, but regionally-differentiated decisions made under Salinas: whether to accommodate local PRI elites or to encourage SEDESOL officials to challenge them by entering electoral politics and/or mobilising new grass-roots bases of support. After 1994, however, these choices led to a variety of outcomes that were not intended by the Salinas presidential elite.

In states that remained under the PRI's electoral domination, Salinas and his top aides generally encouraged SEDESOL officials to avoid challenges to the old-guard's control over the PRI, but they adopted different strategies with respect to pro-poor and grass-roots activism. The capacity of their regional agents to retain influence in the post-Salinas era depended in large part on whether they had previously been encouraged to mobilize grass-roots support. Where such efforts were discouraged (Puebla), local PRI elites were able to capture most PRONASOL resources and SEDESOL officials succumbed rather quickly to the anti-Salinas backlash after 1994. On the other hand, where SEDESOL leaders were previously allowed to seek ties with grass-roots organisations (Nayarit), they were in a better position to contest the power of old-guard governors. Through 1996, they sought to do so within the framework of the ruling party, but kept open the possibility of joining the political opposition. Either way, their capacity to act as a check on the consolidation of the power of local strongmen can contribute to the evolution of a more pluralistic political system.

In states characterised by greater electoral competition (Baja California and Tamaulipas), the Salinas government sought to deploy anti-poverty resources in ways that would encourage the emergence of a new salinista elite that would take over the local PRI and recapture control over the state. In these states, SEDESOL delegates succeeded in establishing themselves as key PRI politicians in the Salinas era and retained their power base in the post-Salinas era, although not always in ways conducive to democracy. In Taumalipas, SEDESOL provided a mechanism for the consolidation of an independent, but highly autocratic new political elite. In Baja California, the anti-poverty programme had more ambiguous implications for a democratic transition: it served as a focal point of significant factional conflict within the PRI, but also as a platform for the emergence of a leader with links to the democratic left.

The local struggles we describe are still unfolding and cannot in any case provide a full picture of the forces influencing contemporary political change in Mexico. In particular, we do not attempt to deal at length with the opposition parties, despite their obvious importance for the prospects of a transition that results in a democratic outcome. We do, however, raise three points of relevance to an understanding of the Mexican transition and to those occurring more generally in highly centralised dominant-party systems.

First, transitions in dominant-party regimes such as Mexico's highlight the importance of conflict and bargaining within the multiple political hierarchies of the old regime.1 Military dictatorships --at least those that have ruled in Latin America-- generally did not displace pre-authoritarian parties and interest groups with new political leaders and organizations. As a consequence, political groups formed prior to the regime have tended to fill the spaces opened up by the withdrawal of military rulers. In dominant-party regimes, on the other hand, political actors have had to pursue public careers within encompassing party and bureaucratic organizations created by the regime, or risk marginalization. Thus, as these regimes break down, the evolution of new institutions is more likely to be influenced by politicians and bureaucrats who have capitalised on their positions within the old order to build networks of support.

In Mexico, unlike Communist one-party states, the existence of a private sector and of limited multi-party politics has long offered opportunities for opponents of the regime --most notably, the National Action Party (PAN)-- to acquire political resources outside the dominant party and the federal bureaucracy. As noted above, these forces have been key actors in the transition process. Nevertheless, the transformation of Mexico's long-lived dominant-party system may more closely approximate those in the former communist regimes than earlier transitions from military rule in Latin America.2 Like Russia and most of Eastern Europe, Mexico had only a fleeting experience of democratic rule in the twentieth century. Also like these countries --and unlike most other Latin American cases-- the Mexican military has been subject to civilian authority since the 1940s and has not been a significant factor in the transition process. Instead, the PRI, like the Leninist and Communist parties in the East, has enhanced the role of civilian elites whose power derived from their links to the central rulers. Political transformation in Mexico has been shaped by the weakening of these links, and particularly by the deflation of presidential authority.

A second point is that formal rules and procedures established during authoritarian rule --as embodied in constitutions and electoral laws-- can be crucial in shaping expectations about these relations during periods of transition. In dominant-party systems such as Mexico's, these rules had been transfigured or displaced by the formal and informal hierarchies of party and state bureaucracies headed by the president. As these hierarchies weaken, however, formal rules defining constitutional powers and electoral processes can become important in reshaping the arenas of contestation. This argument has been made in general terms in recent work by Linz and Stepan and has been discussed with specific reference to Russia and China.3 It seems highly relevant to Mexico as well. As expectations converging on presidential authority erode, previously dormant constitutional rules relating to federalism have --by default-- begun to structure the strategy and options of actors within the Mexican system.

Finally, the experience within the Mexican case --like a number of transitions in Communist one-party states-- underscores the significance of regional politics in the process of political change. Although the importance of regional politics has been acknowledged in specific cases such as Brazil,4 most general models of transitions have conventionally focused on bargaining among factions of the ruling bloc and the democratic opposition at the national level.5 In systems dominated by pervasive governmental and party hierarchies, however, it has often been at the regional level where the greatest challenges to the existing order were mounted. This is evident in the collapse of the Soviet Union and in the politics of reform in China's one-party state.

In Mexico's dominant party regime, the deflation of central authority and the growing autonomy of regional actors has resulted in a transition process in which the old informal "rules" of political contestation have been dramatically transformed. It must be strongly emphasised that multiparty democracy is not the only possible outcome of such a transformation. Political decentralisation can also result in the formation of regionally-based autocracies, in armed local stalemates, or even in attempts by national elites to reassert authoritarian control. Still, any of these outcomes --or a number of conceivable combinations of them-- would constitute a fundamental change in the nature of the regime that has dominated Mexico for almost seven decades. All involve the breakdown of the understandings that have traditionally structured relations between the central government and the periphery.

We begin our analysis with a general review of the role that PRONASOL and SEDESOL played in Salinas's effort to broaden the base of the political regime, and the changes in the programme during the Zedillo period. In the second section, we present our state-level case studies and suggest some of the factors which have conditioned strategic recalculation of SEDESOL delegates. In the conclusion, we return to some more general considerations about the politics of transition in dominant-party regimes and the circumstances specific to Mexico.
I. National Politics and the Solidarity Programme: Reform from Above and Political Decentralisation

By the early 1990s, Mexico's ruling party, the PRI, had served as one of the main institutional pillars of the world's oldest surviving authoritarian regime. Nevertheless, its hold on the urban electorate had been slipping for decades, and the pace of political change quickened notably after the onset of the debt crisis of the 1980s.6 The highly contested presidential election of 1988 which brought Salinas to power marked one major step in this process, leading to Salinas's ambitious attempt to transform the system from above. The crisis of 1994 in turn marked an even more fundamental watershed, opening the way to an accelerated process of political decentralisation in which the potential for political change rapidly shifted to the regions. In this section, we situate our discussion of the Solidarity Programme and SEDESOL within the context of these broader transformations in the Mexican system.

Political reform under Salinas

The 1988 presidential election was an important turning point in contemporary Mexican history because it highlighted the political alienation of middle-classes and urban poor and their discontent with the accumulated social costs of economic crisis and adjustment. For much of the preceding decade, significant challenges to the PRI's hegemony had been launched by the PAN in state and local elections; the PAN pursued a long-term "federalist" transition strategy aimed at conquering local and regional governments first, then Congress, and eventually the presidency.7 The strong showing of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas's left-of-center coalition and the near-miss of Salinas's candidacy in the presidential election underscored what was already increasingly evident at the regional level: that the PRI was not prepared to win in a genuinely competitive game.

The Salinas government responded to these challenges by opting for a path of centrally-controlled political liberalisation. This project consisted of three interrelated components. The first component was the piecemeal reform of the rules of electoral competition, designed in part to coopt the PAN opposition. Salinas succeeded in enlisting the PAN's support for constitutional amendments intended to reduce opportunities for fraud in registration and voting procedures.8 To reward the PAN's cooperative behaviour, Salinas responded to local post-election protests by agreeing to recognize PAN's victory in three gubernatorial races. One of the PAN victories was in Baja California, included in our case studies below.

The second component of the Salinas political reform was the reform of the PRI. The aim was to arrest the long-term decline in the electoral strength of the party, particularly among low-income and middle-class urban voters not linked to the traditional corporatist sectors. Initiatives to "modernise" the PRI centered on shifting power away from union and peasant sectoral organisations and strengthening territorially-based party organisations that would presumably be more responsive to urban voters.9 Such efforts, however met with only limited success: in many states, governors and corporatist leaders were able to utilize patronage resources to capture the territorial organisations themselves. After the PRI's victory in the 1991 mid-term elections, Salinas abandoned attempts to "modernise" the party in states where its control remained dominant.

The launching of PRONASOL in 1989 was the third component of Salinas's reform strategy. In many ways, it was the most important, because it quickly became a major new foundation of presidential power.10 The new anti-poverty bureaucracy served simultaneously to reduce Salinas's dependence on the traditional party hierarchy and to build his personal support in low-income communities. Over time, it also became an instrument through which the presidential elite sought to recruit new local political leaders who might spearhead the reform of the PRI itself.

During the first phase of the programme, from 1989 to 1992, the primary emphasis was on the first two of these objectives, rather than on the modernisation of the PRI. Salinas entrusted the implementation of the programme and the organisation of the anti-poverty bureaucracy to Carlos Rojas, a close aide in the powerful SPP who had previously worked in grass-roots mobilisation programmes sponsored by the National Indigenous Institute (INI). Although electoral considerations played a systematic role in the allocation of PRONASOL funds,11 initial recruitment into the PRONASOL bureaucracy tended to emphasise people with expertise in budget and planning or in community organisation, rather than those with direct interest in electoral careers.

In 1992, this began to change. PRONASOL was upgraded to cabinet-level status as SEDESOL and placed under the direction of Luis Donaldo Colosio, then chairman of the PRI. Although Rojas served as Undersecretary in charge of the management of PRONASOL and was later promoted to Minister, the creation of SEDESOL both increased the power of the Solidarity programme and altered its orientation. Colosio was a man with clear presidential ambitions, who attached a higher priority to utilising the anti-poverty bureaucracy as a means of reforming the PRI, particularly in electorally competitive states.

Under Colosio, SEDESOL quickly became one of the most powerful ministries in the executive branch. In addition to the implementation of PRONASOL, SEDESOL absorbed a wide variety of urban development and environmental policies previously scattered through other ministries. At the state level, operations of the agency were placed in hands of delegates, who soon became key political players in state politics. Potential for conflict between SEDESOL delegates and governors, mayors, and local brokers emerged from the outset. On the one hand, governors had to negotiate their annual programmes of socioeconomic development with the delegates. On the other, in light of increasing budgetary restrictions, the mayors of small and medium-size cities often had to approach the delegates for spare funds. For other traditional local political brokers such as state legislators, the conflict stemmed from the fact that delegates were gaining control of resources that once served as their political raison d'etre.

Salinas's capacity to control this process of political liberalization, like those of his predecessors, rested on his dual role as head of government and de facto head of the PRI. Like his immediate predecessor, he rose to the presidency from his position as Secretary of SPP.12 Control of the SPP and the subsequent establishment of SEDESOL provided a crucial power base, since it allowed Salinas and his lieutenants to manage the disbursement of federal funding across states and the overall coordination of the federal bureaucracy.

At the same time, as de facto head of the ruling party, Salinas controlled nominations of PRI candidates for all major elective officials, including governors and federal legislators. Constrained by the no reelection principle, federal legislators and governors were also dependent on the president for transfer to new positions of power once their terms ended. The dual role of the president allowed him to continuously rotate government officials and "popular" representatives from the federal bureaucracy to congress and state governments, and back.13 Control over appointments and funding enabled the presidential elite to exercise extensive authority over the SEDESOL delegates. In principle, regional SEDESOL officials were to administer a programme driven by local demands and planning; in practice, they were dependent on their superiors for their jobs, resources, and possible reassignments, and had limited margin for independent action. Although the delegates were instructed to "adapt" to local political conditions, the form of adaptation was managed from the centre, and both Rojas and Colosio were willing to reassign delegates continuously until they found personnel who could meet their objectives for particular states. The collapse of this hierarchical control marks one of the most fundamental changes of the post-Salinas era, forcing both SEDESOL delegates and other power holders to redefine career alternatives and political relationships.

The politics of the post-Salinas period

In 1994, the process of controlled political liberalisation was shattered by the turmoil surrounding the presidential succession: the Zapatista uprising, the murders of PRI presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, and of PRI Secretary General, José Francisco Ruiz Massieu, and the peso crisis. These events were themselves rooted in long-standing social inequalities and in conflicts within the ruling party. Nevertheless, their conjunction dealt a severe blow to the centralised system of power and to the capacity of the incoming presidential elite to manage political reform. The assassination of Colosio exacerbated the already deep divisions within the PRI; rival factions bitterly opposed Salinas's decision to name Zedillo as the new nominee. In turn, the devastating economic impact of the collapse of the peso provided strong incentives for such groups to distance themselves from the incoming president and his market-oriented policies.

Political decentralisation was accelerated by Zedillo's governing style, which was characterised by an unprecedented preference for shrinking and depoliticising the authority of the chief executive. Whereas Colosio would likely have attempted to draw on the political capital he had accumulated as head of the PRI and of SEDESOL, Zedillo had few ties with either hierarchy; faced with crisis and protest, he sought to establish a new role for the president as a politically-neutral guarantor of the rule of law. Zedillo's attempt to decouple the presidency from the PRI and other conventional levers of power constituted a drastic rupture with earlier practices. During the first two years of his term, the new president drew back from personal intervention in the internal affairs of the PRI while seeking to establish more cooperative relations with the right and left opposition parties. To signal his commitment to the rule of law, he appointed a PANista to the post of Attorney General and authorised him to investigate the charges of corruption that swirled around the political elite.

In a system built around dense clientelistic networks, this stance of non-partisan legality was difficult to sustain without becoming politically-isolated, and Zedillo was in fact quickly drawn into bitter conflicts with virtually all segments of the PRI. At the national level, conflicts with the salinistas centered on the widening investigation into earlier political assassinations and corruption, leading to the arrest of Raúl Salinas, the president's brother. At the local level, opposition gains in the wake of the economic crisis led to severe frictions between the president and regional leaders; the latter called openly for greater state autonomy, an end to Zedillo's "politics of neutrality," and a return to the PRI's ideology of economic nationalism. PRI legislators also showed unprecedented independence, defeating several key presidential initiatives in the Congress; and in the party's 16th General Assembly, angry delegates passed resolutions that criticized the government's economic programme and limited the right of technocrats to run for elective office under the PRI banner.

In the aftermath of the party's General Assembly and in the runup to the mid-term congressional elections in 1997, Zedillo began to take steps to reassert his authority, appointing loyalists to head the PRI National Executive Committee and taking a more direct personal role in the party's nominating process. By this point, however, it was no longer fully possible for the president to contain the centrifugal forces unleashed during the previous years. While the strongest challenges came from PAN governors and mayors, they were clearly evident --as argued-- within the PRI as well. Conservative PRI governors in the poorer central and southern states pressed especially hard for greater autonomy. Their leverage in the political process was augmented considerably by fiscal decentralisation legislated under Zedillo and by the new nominating procedures established in the PRI's assembly.

The fate of PRONASOL during this period both reflected and contributed to this broader transformation. Although SEDESOL survived the first years of the Zedillo administration, with Carlos Rojas still at its head, budget and personnel were drastically reduced and approximately one-third of the agencies previously incorporated into SEDESOL were transferred to other ministries. Even more important were changes in the way community development funds were funnelled through the federal system. In 1996, two-thirds of the funds formally administered under PRONASOL, including all investments in physical infrastructure, were transferred directly to state and local governments. Responsibility for the implementation of such programmes was shifted from SEDESOL delegates to municipal governments and newly-established Municipal Councils of Development which were to consist of members elected through neighbourhood committees. By early 1996 PRONASOL and the anti-poverty bureaucracy operating within SEDESOL had for all practical purposes disappeared.

These steps not only dismantled the bureaucratic empire constructed under Salinas, but surrendered to state governments key welfare resources available to the federal government since the 1970s. Although the federal government was to allocate funds according to a formula based on state-level poverty indices, governors retained considerable leverage over how these were to be distributed among municipalities.14 Mayors were charged with organizing elections for the new Municipal Councils of Development, offering both them and governors the chance to pack the councils with political loyalists.

The dismantling of the anti-poverty bureaucracy dealt a severe blow to delegates and former delegates who had charted careers within PRONASOL. While some stayed on as SEDESOL officials, they had virtually no direct control over financial resources and even fewer responsibilities. Their responses to such challenges are explored in detail in the case studies below. As indicated above, we argue that these responses depended to an important extent on whether they could draw on previously-established political connections and grass-roots support to enter electoral and party politics.

Under Salinas, as noted above, the direction delegates had received from the centre depended on two factors: the degree of electoral competitiveness in state and municipal elections and the prior history of grass-roots mobilisation. SEDESOL officials had been encouraged to accommodate local elites in states where the PRI retained its hegemony and where grass-roots mobilisation remained limited. Predictably, this legacy left former PRONASOL activists highly vulnerable to the counter-offensives of conservative governors during the Zedillo period.

The options were wider for SEDESOL officials who had been based in states in which the opposition had gained electoral ground, or where strong grass-roots movements could challenge the "governability" of the state. In competitive states, salinistas deployed PRONASOL resources to recruit new regional elites that might spearhead the reform of the PRI. After 1994, these activities provided PRONASOL officials with a new platform for electoral activity. Finally, where grass-roots movements were strong, the Salinas government had encouraged locally-recruited PRONASOL officials to promote support for the Salinas project through the formation of politically independent committees and the "non-partisan" disbursement of funds. Under Zedillo, the support generated through such activities provided opportunities for ex-PRONASOL activists to break with the ruling party and forge new ties to independent political forces or to the left.


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