Last month, the Baker Institute Mexico Center hosted a talk on democracy in Mexico by José Woldenberg, who served as the first president of the country’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE). Mexico’s transition to democracy is unique and distinct from similar processes elsewhere in the world, said Woldenberg, who oversaw the historically significant elections of 1997, when the PRI lost its majority in the Mexican Congress, and of 2000, when the 71-year political domination of the PRI ended with the election of Vicente Fox as the first president from an opposition party since the 1910 Mexican Revolution.
Woldenberg argued that unlike Eastern Europe, Spain or Portugal, Mexico’s transition to a modern democracy did not require what he calls a “foundational moment,” or the reintroduction of a new or revised constitution supported by a grand national pact paving the way for political pluralism. Mexico’s 1917 constitution already contained both republican and democratic ideals and was therefore adequate to guide the transition to democracy. Mexico’s experience also differs from democratic transitions in Latin America. In Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, re-establishing democracy meant a return to the constitutional framework that had been abolished by authoritarian regimes and dictators — which also led to the reappearance of different political parties. In Mexico, it was up to the existing political parties, particularly the three major political institutions, to accommodate a transition to democracy. What Woldenberg did not address, however, is also significant. It is pertinent to ask, for example, whether the transition to democracy also means a consolidation of democracy and whether the evident transition at the federal level has trickled down to the state and local levels uniformly. This is where Mexico’s transition to democracy, more than 30 years in the making, appears incomplete.
In the mid-1980s, Mexico’s president, as well as nearly all the country’s senators and governors and 80 percent of the members of the House of Representatives, belonged to only one party, the PRI. Today, the people of Mexico are represented by a plurality of parties — the PRI, the PAN, the PRD and other smaller parties share in the democratic process and are all engaged in the political life of the country. No longer is the PRI the absolute majority in either the senate or house chambers, and there are governors across the country from all parties. In 20 years the political representation in Mexico changed dramatically.
This change was prompted and promoted by a series of reforms that took effect between 1977 and 1996. It was a long and slow-moving process that led to significant qualitative changes, most in response to increasing pressure from opposition parties and the general public. Even so, the reforms implemented focused on two missing pieces in a democracy: a system of parties that is actually competitive and an electoral system that is impartial. These two changes, combined with active voter participation, have led to a plurality of voices where none of the parties has an absolute majority, Woldenberg observed.
The democratic transition in Mexico had three significant moments. The first reform in 1977 opened the door for new political voices to organize and made changes to representative quotas in the House of Representatives that permitted the inclusion of political forces that had been marginalized. This was a move in response to the refusal of opposition parties to run presidential candidates in 1976, which left the resulting PRI administration deprived of a certain degree of legitimacy. The second set of reforms in 1989 and 1990 focused on guaranteeing the impartiality of the electoral overseer, which led to the creation of the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE). This move was in response to the alleged electoral fraud against PRD candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, which resulted in the election of Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Finally, the 1996 reforms focused on regulating public and private funding of parties and making funding more transparent. These reforms also improved media access to the parties and their candidates. In essence, the 1996 reforms upheld two central democratic principles: free speech and access to information. As previously stated, nearly every reform was in response to increasing pressure prompted by a particular critical moment in Mexico’s political history.
Woldenberg’s presentation is timely, because on Dec. 4, 2013, both upper and lower houses approved an electoral reform bill that overturns a ban on re-elections that dates to the 1910-1917 revolution. In theory, re-election makes politicians more accountable to their constituents and to the voters, which is a positive marker in a functioning democracy.
Among other changes, the law also proposes the creation of an expanded IFE, to be renamed the National Electoral Institute (INE), which will oversee local elections in addition to federal ones. Improved oversight of local elections is a positive change. However, the details of the relationship between the local and federal agencies are still imprecise, which could lead to confusion and interference with the 2015 midterm elections.
Woldenberg initially felt that the creation of the INE was not the “right prescription for the diagnosis.” The solution, he believes, lies in strengthening the autonomy of the independent overseers at the local, state and federal levels. He would not venture, however, into explaining how governors and mayors could be restrained from manipulating local and state electoral authorities in an environment where they hold nearly absolute power. Time and the legislative process in Mexico will offer more information on how the electoral reform will be implemented and what the final law will look like.
Lisa Guáqueta is the program administrator for the Mexico Center and the Latin America Initiative at Rice University’s Baker Institute. Her areas of research interest include the urban dynamics of Latin America, especially the role of cities and local governments in international issues. She studied economics at Universidad Externado de Colombia and holds a master’s degree in international affairs from The New School in New York.
Kristin Foringer is a research intern at the Mexico Center and an undergraduate at Rice University majoring in policy studies and Hispanic studies with a minor in sociology. Her research interests include development and social policy in Latin America. She has conducted ethnographic research investigating the experience of Mexican migrants in Chicago and Houston.