Why was the 2000 presidential race essential to Mexico's democratization?

Democratic theorists argue that one of the ultimate political tests of a democratic model is whether national elections result in an alternation of those in power, especially in the executive branch, where most of the decision-making authority has resided in Mexico. Mexico's 1994 presidential election can be considered to have been competitive and significantly fair, but the incumbent party continued in office for seventy years. In 2000, the National Action Party (PAN) ran the former governor of Guanajuato, Vicente Fox, as its candidate. Fox represented an entirely new type of presidential candidate. He was the first PAN candidate to combine a successful political career at the national and state levels with a highly successful business career—as, in Fox's case, the chief executive officer of Coca- Cola of Mexico. Fox was a charismatic campaigner and broadened the appeal of the PAN well beyond its typical partisan supporters. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ran Zedillo's former government secretary, Francisco Labastida, a career politician in the federal bureaucracy who had also served as governor of his home state of Sinaloa. Once again, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) nominated Cuauhtemoc Cardenas.

Early in the race it became apparent that the presidential contest was between Fox and Labastida. As Election Day approached, polls indicated that the two candidates were neck and neck, the contest too close to call. But in the week preceding the election, when no more public polls were permitted, private polls revealed a significant shift among independent voters, favoring Fox. Scholarly polls and exit polls revealed that while Labastida outscored Fox on all other criteria, Fox exceeded Labastida significantly on one criterion: that of change. Thus, voters interested in change overwhelmingly voted for Fox. Mexico's 2000 election is a benchmark not only because an opposition candidate won the presidency for the first time since 1929, but also because voters believed that a change in leadership as well as a change in the political model was necessary. Fox generated high expectations about how change and a democratic government could improve the lives of all Mexicans. Younger Mexicans, in particular, were drawn to his message of change, the underlying basis of his campaign. The 2000 election results set in motion other underlying reforms that reinforced democratic governance, while at the same time created expectations the Fox administration could not fulfill, leaving an increasing number of Mexicans dissatisfied with democratic governance. When Fox won the election, 59 percent of Mexicans thought Mexico was a democracy. By 2013, only 47 percent believed that was the case. Even more important, the percentage of Mexicans who believed democracy was preferable to any other form of government had declined from 49 percent in 1995, when the Latinobarometro survey first asked this question, to only 37 percent, the lowest figure in Latin America. Furthermore, 51 percent of citizens agreed with the statement that a democratic model was no better than a nondemocratic model or that an authoritarian model was preferable to a democratic one. Accompanying Mexicans' changing views of democracy was an increased level of intolerance for fellow citizens' political rights and beliefs.

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