This party – the Partido Revolucionario Institucional

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.

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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 El;as 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 L;zaro C;rdenas stepped up to take on Calles. Unlike Calles, who silenced the competition, C;rdenas worked with them.

Joining hands with the labor unions and the peasant class, C;rdenas 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.Like often happens, the leaders of the PRI got a bit too greedy for their own good and when they began hoarding Mexico’s oil profits, the people began to get a bit suspicious! To explain, in the 1970s, Mexico began producing oil at unprecedented levels. This, along with rising oil prices, should have made the country wealthier.

However, rather than making it to the bottom, the money got squandered at the top. This was especially true during the late 70s and early 80s when Jos; L;pez Portillo was president. It’s believed this guy was so tied to the oil industry that some oil tycoons actually gave him a multi-million dollar house!

Decline of PRI

As news of Portillo’s wealth made it to the masses, the popularity of the PRI began to crumble.

Losing the support of the lower classes, it tried to reinvent itself into a pro-business party. However, this only further fragmented the party, and in 1988, the PRI almost lost the popular elections. Although it squeaked out a presidential victory, it lost many other seats in the government to opposing parties. This signaled the end of the one-party dominance it had enjoyed since the ’50s.

Although recent years have seen resurgence in its popularity, the PRI of today has political competitors to deal with.

Lesson Summary

The Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or the PRI, dominated Mexican politics during most of the 20th century. Founded by Plutarco Elías Calles, it first went by the name the National Revolutionary Party. At its inception, it was a loose affiliation of political bosses seeking to eliminate political competition.

Under the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas, the party had millions of members, many of whom were peasants. Allowing the lower classes to feel that they had a say in government, the PRI enjoyed one-party dominance well into the 1980s.However, when leaders of the PRI, especially Lopez Portillo, began abusing oil revenues, the people of Mexico began distrusting the party.

In order to remedy this, the party tried to reinvent itself but the damage was done. In the late ’80s, the PRI narrowly won the presidency and lost many other government seats. With this, its one-party dominance came to an end.

Learning Outcomes

Each section of this lesson could help you to:

  • Identify the man who founded the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or the PRI, and outline its early years
  • Point out the political dominance and corruption that occurred with respect to the PRI
  • Indicate events that led to the decline of the PRI

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