Mexico’s First Great Leftist Force, the Party of the Democratic Revolution

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MORELIA, Michoacán —  Mexican politics have been radically redefined in the last decade. The three great political bastions that historically had disputed the leadership and hegemony of the country went from an almost-lifetime splendor and permanence to a general crisis that has very nearly caused their dissolution.

One of the oldest parties in modern Mexican history is the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), founded in the late 1980s as a result of the union of six leftist political forces.

A prominent promoter and founder of this party, also known as the Party of the Aztec Sun, was Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano, son of former Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas del Río. The latter was recognized for having been a revolutionary socialist politician, since during his mandate there were major agrarian reforms, as well as the nationalization of foreign companies and  assets (including the nation’s oil fields).

Cárdenas Solórzano, who had already participated actively in Mexican politics with the then-almighty Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), first as governor of the state of Michoacán in the early 1980s and later as a federal senator, became one of the main ideological leaders and founders of the PRD.

The presidential elections of 1988 represented for the party — then called the National Democratic Front (FDN) — a political group that emanated from the PRI and of which Cárdenas Solórzano participated as a presidential candidate that year.

These elections were a watershed in the formation and expansion of the PRD across the country, since it was expected that Cárdenas Solórzano would obtain the victory over the centralist PRI candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and the consevative National Action Party (PAN) candidate, Manuel J. Clouthier, according to the polls and voting trends back then.

However, during the night of July 6 of that year, something unexpected occurred while the votes were being counted within Mexico’s Interior Secretariat at the Federal Electoral Commission, as it was reported that due to technical issues within the vote counting system, the preliminary results could not be presented as expected during that evening following the electoral polling. It was not until a week later that the aforementioned institute presented the final results declaring the PRI’s Salinas de Gortari the winner of the presidential election, which caused a great controversy and disagreements among the parties and the other candidates of said election, some of whom made accusations of illegitimacy within the electoral process and the direct intervention of the federal government.

After that event, the members of the FDN, (the precursor party of the PRD) along with other leftist political organizations, such as the Mexican Socialist Party, the Unified Socialist Party of Mexico, the Union of the Communist Left and a large number of former members of the PRI, united and founded the PRD, with its signature yellow and black banners, in 1989.

Thus, the party continued to gain members and voters around the country, who sought in the PRD a proactive left-wing alternative to the incessant permanence of the PRI in the country, which had dominated the country’s political institutions for more than 70 years and had repeatedly been accused of being involved in major scandals of alleged corruption, fraud and embezzlement from the public purse.

The first election that the PRD won was in Mexico City in 1997, headed by Cárdenas Solórzano as Mexico City’s mayor, followed by the governorship of Zacatecas in 1998, thanks to the alliance that the party formed with the Labor Party (PT). In the years that followed, the PRD had a great expansion period, especially in central and southern Mexico, in the states of Michoacán and Guerrero.

Likewise, the PRD had a very outstanding participation in the presidential elections in 2006 and 2012 with its then-candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, obtaining on both occasions the second place of preference among the electorate in the country.

However, the popularity of the PRD, which grew significantly during the first decade of the 21st century, also generated the internal fragmentation within the party into different political groups. This division of the party was accentuated in 2012 after its second defeat in the presidential election, when López Obrador and a large number of fellow militants who supported him resigned from the party to officially form another political party, the National Regeneration Movement (Morena) in 2014.

The massive resignations of key figures and party leaders, such as Ifigenia Martínez, Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, Marcelo Ebrard, López Obrador and Cárdenas Solórzano, among others, caused a reeling within the PRD, losing it much of its populatity among voters and creating a strong division among the remaining members.

In 2017, the massive resignation of 45,000 members of the PRD was announced, and many of those defectors joined Morena prior to the 2018 presidential election.

After this, the PRD underwent a radical restructuring carried out by its current leaders and the remaining founders of the party, also known as Los Chuchos given the name of its leaders Jesús Zambrano and Jesús Ortega. (Chucho is a nickmane for Jesús in Mexico.) These politicians admitted that the party had gone through a severe internal crisis after the great loss of so many of its militants, in their words, to the movement of López Obrador.

Los Chuchos’ desperation led them to create alliances with historically antagonistic parties like the PAN, with the only hope of staying afloat and avoiding losing the party’s license under the National Electoral Institute (INE).

However, these efforts have not been entirely successful, because although the PRD maintained its federal license as a political party after the last national elections in June 2021, its future is now hanging by a thread since it has lost its last political stronghold in Michoacán following the PRD’s defeat by Morena.

In addition, the party lost its registration in 15 states by failing to meet the required threshold of 3 percent of the local vote, which has generated great concern among current party members for whom the future of the party looks uncertain.

Morena has overwhelmingly displaced many of the classic political parties in Mexico over the course of the last two elections by obtaining not only the country’s presidency, but also a large part of its’ disputed governorships, although it did lose ground in Mexico City and within the national legislature.

Undoubtedly, although the PRD can be considered Morena’s mother party, due to the political origin of its militants and the strong influence of its current ideology, both parties have grown far apart despite the bond that one day united them. Both of the parties’ leaders claim that there are irreconcilable differences between their members.

The political coalitions carried out in the recent elections with the PAN and the PRI, instead of benefiting the PRD, have exposed the fact that the party lacks firm leadership and has shown that the ideological identity that once attracted millions of voters seems to have vanished, affecting the Mexican public’s perception of the party and its credibility.

The party did not only lose militants after the emergence of Morena and the break with López Obrador, but millions of voters who no longer saw in the PRD a party with determination and vision for the future.

At present, the PRD and Los Chuchos are planning to reinvent and relaunch the party. Part of this plan, implies changing the party’s name to another one that may sound friendlier and less authoritarian in order to win voters. No doubt, this project will be a complex and exhaustive task, but it will be necessary to ensure the survival of the party.

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