Political reform in Mexico: Democracy for real


The following op-ed was written ten months ago, after the Mexican Congress stopped discussing the initiative to reform the political system as proposed by President Calderon. At that time it seemed that none of the parties was interested in the initiative. Now it has become clear that it is being blocked by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), specifically by the faction in Congress led by Enrique Peña Nieto (the front-runner in the presidential race).

As PRI continues leading the polls of the 2012 presidential election, it does not seem willing to change the authoritarian rules that allowed it to stay in power for seven decades. There is reason to believe that there is no such thing as a ‘new PRI’ as they have claimed and that with their return to power many other anti-democratic practices may return as well.

Other links:

  • Bill approved by the Senate last April, currently frozen in the House of Representatives.
  • More on why PRI is interested on maintaining the gridlock here.
  • A documentary on why reelection is fundamental to advance democracy in Mexico here.
  • Follow on Twitter: #ReformaPoliticaYA @Reeligeocastiga @DHPMexico

Can democracy be built on authoritarian foundations?

October 17th, 2010

By Janet De Luna

It has been ten months since an initiative for a deep reform to the political system in Mexico, which included allowing reelection in certain offices, was presented by President Felipe Calderón, but six months since legislators suddenly stopped discussing it. They are passively voting in favor of old authoritarian rules.

Almost one century ago reelection was banned by the authoritarian party that ruled Mexico for seventy years. Having thousands of appointments to give away every three years was a very effective way to keep control of factions and demand strict discipline from anyone who wanted to build a political career. As democracy is being consolidated in Mexico, this and other rules that determine our political dynamics should be revisited.

Currently, local and national representatives as well as mayors are elected for a single three-year term. After that, they cannot run for the same office, no matter how well they did it, though they may receive another appointment from the party, no matter how poorly citizens think they performed. Incentives lead them to protect the party’s interests even if they affect their constituency, since it is the party leader, not the people, who holds the power to decide their future.

Every new major usually spends one year putting together a team, learning about main local issues and cleaning his predecessor’s mess, actually performs his duties during the second year and starts lobbying for his next job during the third. If they are asked to run for another office, they will quit without even finishing the term. This also implies that most of the bureaucracy is removed every three years, leaving behind a very poor record of their acts.

If approved, reelection would drastically change and decentralize the distribution of power within the system, and would improve the overall quality of laws and local policies by leading congress and local bureaucracies to a higher level of professionalization.

The initiative was a response to the null vote campaign during the 2009 national elections, which invited people to leave their ballot blank or spoil it, as a way to express that they were not satisfied by any of the options. The campaign grew spontaneously among the grassroots, NGOs, academic institutions, think tanks and public opinion leaders, demanding politicians to be more responsive to their constituency and to open more spaces for a direct participation from society, denouncing corruption from candidates, and complaining about current electoral rules. As a result, null votes represented 5.6% of total votes -2.7% more than in past elections-, and it was the fifth electoral force, leaving behind other national parties.

When the initiative was presented, the groups involved in the null vote campaign participated in many forums, seminars and discussions arguing for the reform. The civic organization “Reelige o Castiga” (Reelect or Reprove) gathered 174 signatures from representatives in favor of reelection, and the campaign “Aventon Ciudadano” (Citizen Ride) traveled around the country during five days growing awareness of the initiative. However, it turned out that openness of politicians to engage in this debate was a mere favor they were doing to society, not an obligation. The moment they decided to close the door, there was nothing else to be done.

We are witness once again of how politicians can easily evade making decisions without facing a significant cost. Foreseeing that the reform to allow reelection might not be approved, or might not be applied for the immediate next election, most legislators are not willing to pay the political cost of backing a citizen’s agenda that affects partisan interests. Even when the initiative was presented during the first year of this Congress, it seems that for politicians it is never too early to start thinking of the next election, and negotiating next appointments. Blindness and short-term ambition are keeping them from seeing the opportunity to reduce the margin of uncertainty they face as they try to build a career. That is, even if they do not care about the consolidation of democratic institutions.

Politicians have chosen to ignore the initiative and society have no way to force the debate. The gap between society and government is growing wider. It is difficult to imagine how candidates in next elections can reach an audience they have systematically ignored, but again, they might not even care. They may fail to see that, given the amount of null votes gathered in last election and the margin of victory in the last presidential election (0.58%) independent votes are not a minor electoral force to ignore.

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