Democracy in Mexico: The Past, Present, and Future

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  • Although the 1917 Mexican constitution called for democratic institutions, the actual implementation of democratic practices only began about a decade ago.
  • Democracy really began to burgeon when the PRI, the party that once single-handedly ruled the nation, was ousted from the presidency in 2000 by the PAN.
  • However, even after the establishment of a multi-party system, the PRI retains a stronghold from behind the scenes.
  • The winner of the 2012 presidential election is unlikely to solve Mexico’s many institutional problems immediately.
  • Mexican citizens must work with the government in order to create long-lasting changes that will promote basic democratic processes and the institutions through which such processes perform.


Mexico’s Shaky Democratic Foundation

Although Mexico’s 1917 constitution called for a democratic government, democracy[1] did not even begin to take shape in Mexico until the late 1900s. For most of the twentieth century, Mexico was ruled by the authoritarian-minded Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a monopolistic political grouping infamous for imposing a clientelistic and patronage-based social order.  Though its peremptory rule wore a deceptive democratic disguise, with all of its forms and trappings conveyed through elections and campaigns, it was largely a façade. Included in the injustices promoted by the PRI through manipulation of the voting system, the party also dominated Mexico’s politics on both the national and state levels. Thus, this militarized rule prevented the authentic practice of democracy by often nullifying what should have been the effective powers of the electorate. [2]

The PRI’s iron stronghold began to loosen when a civic-cultural movement manifested in response to the economic struggles breaking out across the country. One example of the movement was the 2001 establishment of the National Women’s Institute (INMUJERES), a government agency whose purpose was to promote gender equality throughout the nation. Yet another sign of progress was the creation of the Federal Institute of Transparency and Access to Information in 2002. Not only was the body given the task of enforcing the nation’s freedom of information law at the Federal level, but it was also meant to grant requests from the public citizenry. Other grassroots movements supported such advancements at the Federal level. Together, the creation of human rights groups across the nation produced a civil society centered on the struggle for increased political and economic rights, as well as on the guarantee of legitimate democratic processes and a firm rule of law. [2]

The combined movements from the people and the administration translated into the integration of democratic practices in the government itself. A multi-party system was formed as a result of a highly publicized scandal that followed the controversial presidential election of Carlos Salinas de Gortari in 1988.[2][3] Following the election, the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) essentially split off from the PRI, while the conservative National Action Party (PAN) greatly expanded its constituency. These events resulted in the formation of the multi-party system that currently exists in Mexico. [4] Furthering this democratic trend was President Ernesto Zedillo’s push to pass the 1996 Federal Electoral Law, which instituted independent electoral institutions. This law created autonomy for the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) and granted public financing to political parties in order to level the domestic political playing field. [5] Furthering this movement towards democracy, in the 1997 legislative elections, the PRI lost its absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies for the first time in its history. Hope emerged for an authentic democracy in a nation normally overrun by corruption. [6]

This hope and the quest for democratic progress was highlighted in the historic 2000 presidential election when the PRI lost the office for the first time in 70 years to Vicente Fox, of the PAN. While this win symbolized an evolution from authoritarian rule towards legitimate democracy, it appeared to accomplish little real change. Although the nationwide elections were free from an overwhelming amount of secret interference, local elections were still regulated by the Federal Electoral Tribunal—a body formed under the IFE in the 1990s to ensure ballot regulation and to solve electoral disputes regarding a free and fair process. And even though the PRI lost at the voting booth, it did not lose in spirit: both the PAN and the PRD were too fragmented to effectively develop their own patronage networks strong enough to challenge the PRI, and were therefore forced to work with former PRI power brokers to get their legislation passed. [7] As a result, the very corruption that new democratic rule was supposed to weed out was perpetuated by PRI players through clientelism and voter manipulation.

Although the PRI no longer had a majority in the legislature it was still able to exert its dominance. Weak parties often meant an unequal distribution of power in the Lower House to the extent that the PRD and PAN were not sufficiently allied to overcome the PRI’s de facto veto. More parties within the government meant there were fewer independent voices coming from each party, further weakening the power of the PRI’s opposition. The over-distribution of power allowed the PRI to possess voting strength beyond its actual numbers. As a result, when Fox called for a revision of Mexico’s constitution in 2001, no changes could be effected. The consequential failure to formulate concrete changes in the constitution, even in the wake of a historically significant election, showcased Mexico’s inability to institutionalize democratic practices; progress at this point was impossible.

New Players, Same Rules

Unfortunately, Mexico’s current government has done little to improve the pseudo-democratic foundations upon which its ability to rule was established. In an era characterized by corruption and a deadly ongoing war against drugs—one that has progressively hindered the ability of the federal government to ensure its national security—a truly representative government free of corruption is more necessary than ever before. However, the development of such a worthy government system has slipped through Mexico’s fingers time and time again.

While the Mexican government has focused on clean elections as a route to democracy, this single-mindedness has led to the ultimate failure in implementing strong democratic foundations.  According to Dr. Luis Carlos Ugalde, a current Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow who served as the president of Mexico’s IFE from 2003 to 2007, the government’s focus on changing those in power rather than the structures of rule in place may have been its biggest mistake to date. [8] Placing so much attention on keeping certain people out of office rather than on re-structuring policies that currently promote clientelism has weakened parties that already have had to struggle to gain power. This was exemplified in the gubernatorial and local elections of July 2010, where the PAN and the PRD united to defeat the PRI in the states of Oaxaca, Sinaloa and Puebla. Local conditions, such as the malodorous personal reputations of PRI candidates, allowed these two parties to dismiss their lame ideologies and create a partnership based solely on the desire to convene against a common foe.  [9] Although many saw these wins as a step in the right direction, the victories instead signified a further breakdown in the multi-party system that was created to promote democracy. With the PAN and the PRD focusing solely on ousting the PRI rather than on strengthening their own plans and platforms, the parties continue to beat themselves into submission in order to win sparse victories.

The PRD and PAN are further compromised by their leaders’ sometimes inappropriate behavior. In 2006, the PRD’s presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, went to great lengths in refusing to acknowledge his defeat by the PAN’s Felipe Calderón. The former’s denial was based on the contention that Calderón’s half of a percent lead (consisting of 233,831 out of over 41 million votes cast at the polls) was too narrow to be valid. [10] By taking to the streets and claiming that he was the “legitimate president,” López Obrador lost the support of many followers who saw his actions as too much of a personalization of politics. Loss of faith in the PRD culminated in 2008 when the party held fraudulent elections. [11] President Felipe Calderón’s checkered actions have similarly marred the PAN’s image. By distributing government posts based on personal rather than party ties and failing to take the full sweep of professional experience into account, Calderón has created a government incapable of systemic change. Consequently, his promise to construct a booming economy in Mexico has gone unfulfilled, generating no small amount of doubt about the comeback abilities harbored by the once-revered National Action Party (PAN).

Photo credit: Wade Rathke

Mexico’s continued adherence to the PRI’s patronage system further weakens the newer political parties. Few desire or are able to change the status quo, and there are limited opportunities for the people to hold their leaders accountable due to current policies such as the law banning re-election.[3] [12] Without a chance of re-election, political leaders feel that they have nothing to lose, and therefore are motivated to act as they please. Also, because members of the government can only serve a single term, elections take place regularly. The frequency of these elections drains the government, both financially and structurally, as competition between potential candidates creates costly inter-party struggles. This further fragments the political sphere and suggests that a bipartisan, rather than multiparty, system is more efficient in the promotion of an effective democracy.

2012 Elections: Time for Change?

While the PAN and the PRD have struggled to gain momentum since the 2006 presidential election, the PRI has risen from the ashes. Capitalizing on the PRD’s self-destructive stunts and the PAN’s failure to solve the nation’s ailing drug and financial problems, the PRI has gained enough of a following to dominate ongoing state and Congressional elections. In 2009, the PRI captured 237 of the 500 available seats in the Lower House of the Mexican Congress—a feat reflective of its strong constituency. [13] Although these victories indicate that the party has a chance of winning the 2012 presidential elections, nothing is certain. Current Mexico State Governor Enrique Peña Nieto, the projected PRI presidential candidate, will have to present a radical yet sound plan for reform in order to prevail over the predicted political actors on both the PAN and the PRD tickets (Mexican Finance Minister Ernesto Cordero and either Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard or former presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, respectively). [14]

However, the actual winner of the 2012 elections will hardly make a difference.  Mexico is simply a new democracy with old parties—the weakened structure of the newer PAN and PRD allows the PRI to continue to dominate the political show behind the scenes. Many fear that the re-installation of the PRI would cause a complete reversion to an authoritarian establishment. The PRD and the PAN, however, have also begun to practice clientelism as a means of survival. Until the PRD and the PAN find the strength to go out on a limb and break from the old regime’s corrupt practices, the nation will continue on the same path of regression, regardless of which party assumes power.

Looking Forward to the Future

Due to the expansion of corruption past the electoral boundaries of the PRI and into all parties in Mexico, voters in the 2012 presidential election would benefit from supporting a candidate based on his platform and proposed agenda, rather than on political affiliation alone. What Mexico needs now, more than ever, is a leader who is willing to break the status quo and streamline the nation’s basic political and economic infrastructure to institute effective long-reaching reforms—something that has not been done to date.

Although the president elected in 2012 is not likely to create lasting changes overnight, he or she will be able to set the precedent for the future years. The future leader of Mexico needs to work hard to convince representatives to establish an effective balance of power in the legislature to allow for checks and balances to work properly, thus allowing for necessary changes in the constitution that can be counted on to promote democracy.

One of the first changes should be the elimination of the ban against re-election. Many constitutional specialists contend that Mexico would do well to follow in the footsteps of other functioning regional democratic societies and allow for presidential re-election. Such a change would prevent dictatorships while still allowing freely elected leaders to be held accountable for the promises they make to their constituents.

While structural reform at the hand of a freely accountable president is key to weeding out government corruption and allowing democratic institutions to flourish, the involvement of citizens from all political affiliations is equally important. [15] According to a poll conducted by Vanderbilt University as part of the Latin American Public Opinion Project, since 2004, public perception of the stability of democracy in Mexico has dropped from 41.3 to 27.4 percent in 2011.   Simultaneously, public satisfaction with democracy in Mexico has fallen from 50.3 to 40.6 percent. Yet a solid 66.8 percent of citizens still believe in a democratic government. [16] As Mexican citizens—such as the Zapatistas—demonstrated back in the 1990s, the people do have the power to make the dream of a functioning democratic government a reality.[4] [17] The ability of a group of peasants to negotiate with the government for reform is proof that collective pressure by Mexican citizens can effect change. In a country where drug violence and human rights violations run rampant, there have been recent attempts by civil society organizations to create momentum for social change. These efforts show that Mexicans are willing to take a stand against corruption and work with the government to create a working democracy that better serves them.

Under Fox’s rule, the creation of such programs as the Federal Women’s Institute and the Federal Institute of Transparency and Access to Information provided significant advancements in creating a legitimate democracy that responded to the needs of its people. [18] The creation of these organizations to promote human rights suggested that the government was prepared to be increasingly responsive to possibilities resulting from collaboration. In the future, a greater push for social liberties to undermine the policies that allow large corporations to further their self-interests (at the expense of ordinary citizens) would expedite steps taken during the Fox administration by fostering an attack against impunity and clientelism in the political process, thus providing strong foundations for a burgeoning democracy. Although the elections of 2012 are not likely to provide instant gratification, the continued implementation of public involvement in the functioning of society, when coupled with structural reforms, will allow for the installation of an authentic democracy—one where the people have a say in basic decisions, not just in what are often little more than showcase elections.



References for this article can be found here.