Democracy in México?

By Ian Howarth

Last year I was in Mexico during the presidential elections and witnessed at first hand the campaigning and build up to the vote on 1st July 2012.  I even sat through a televised debate between the candidates despite my terrible Spanish.  What all this seemed to show was a vibrant and dynamic democratic system with candidates from all parts of the political spectrum competing for the highest office in the land.  Superficially this was true.  However, Mexican democracy is continues to be  handicapped by a historic hangover and what a significant majority of Mexicans consider to be one of the greatest victories of the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century, the principle of no re-election.  So ingrained in the national conscience is this that its actually printed on official documents;

“Effective suffrage, no reelection.”

mexican democacy

This principle can find its roots in the autocratic reign of Porfirio Díaz, who ruled for over 30 years by first amending the 1857 constitution to allow a two term presidency before finally removing all terms limits on the presidency.  He then set about ensuring that he won every election he ever stood in through bribery, corruption and the intimidation of opposition candidates.  The collapse of his regime in 1911 was triggered when Diaz was proclaimed as the unanimous winner of the 1910 presidential election following the arrest of his main rival.  The nation would not buy it and rose up against him.  His failed attempt to hold onto a fifth term in office  marked the beginning of the Mexican Revolution that would eventually produce a political settlement that not only prohibited the President seeking a second term, but all elected officials from the Senate right down the local Delegation President (Local Government Chief).

This system did in fact work wonderfully well for the 75 years that Mexico was effectively ruled as a one party state by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI).  The position of no re-election meant that party officials could sit down and arrange the succession at all levels of politics in Mexico for years ahead.  However, PRI was finally chased from power in the Presidential elections of 2000 and since then Mexico has been attempting to function as a multiparty democracy.

However, with the country in an era of multi-party politics the position of no re-election only acts to paralyse any chance of developing a proper party system containing experienced and well known voices.  Every six years the country losses its President and the entire Senate along with half the Deputies in Congress.  Any experience that they have managed to gain in that time leaves with them, and the nation is taken over by a bunch of fresh faced politicians who spend their first 6 months in office simply finding out where the toilets are and arranging their parking permits.  As an outsider with experience of other political systems it seems to me an absolutely crazy situation to have both your legislative and executive system lacking in experienced and dedicated politicians with an established presence in their communities and in the nation at large.

Furthermore, the fact that no one can ever seek re-election means that they can promise the electorate the earth for polling day and never have to fear the wrath of that same electorate for failing to deliver.  This position of no re-election has effectively cobbled Mexico with a juvenile political system that is unresponsive and unaccountable to the people.  It should be no surprise then that the overwhelming majority of politicians elected to serve their single terms in office are neither accessible to their constituents nor even known to them.  While it is common in Britain and the United States to know the name of your Member of Parliament or Senator in Mexico most politicians are anonymous figures elected on their party ticket through the tribal associations of their electorate.

The glaring economic and social disparities between the top and the rest of Mexican society continue to grow and deepen at the same time as the pantomime of democracy in Mexico continues to fail to produce effective reforms, or notable leaders for change.  Democracy has basically been reduced to a trip to the ballot box every six years (3 years for Congress) to vote for the latest body sent to fill the position for your political party.  You will know little if anything about this man or woman and really it’s not worth finding out because they will be gone again soon enough.  This has only led to a growing sense of dissatisfaction with politics and politicians in Mexico.  The most common reaction to politics I experience from Mexicans is one of disinterest.  It is noble that most Mexicans look to themselves for the change they want to see in their lives rather than others.  However, on a national scale this total lack of faith in the political process to deliver change can only represent a negative long term threat to any form of democratic process in the country.

It is true to say that a large portion of the social and political reforms that brought about the most significant changes in British and American social and economic conditions were championed and led by determined and dogged legislators who would campaign year after year and seek the support of their constituents in their ambitions at each coming election. People like William Wilberforce and Edwin Chadwick campaigned for decades to abolish slavery and reform the relief of the poor in Britain.  It was only by their constant presence on the benches of their legislatures that they were able to eventually win the support of their colleagues and make change happen.   In Mexico this is not possible; there are no great backbench legislators.  All initiatives are driven from the top and as such are often far removed from the daily needs and desires of the normal man or woman.

Representative Democracy is only one part of the jigsaw that makes up a properly functioning liberal democratic state.  A major additional component of this jigsaw is accountability, and in politics that means facing the voters at the end of your term and being held to answer for the promises you made and failed to deliver on and forced to defend the record that you have established over the course of your term in office.  While a one term president may be acceptable, to have the same block in the legislature can only hinder and handicap the development of political life in Mexico.  I think that it is time that the campaigners and reformers of this nation took up a new cause, its time to say yes to re-election.

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