What’s in a name? From DF to CDMX

On Jan. 20, 2016, the Mexican federal government took a historic step toward restructuring one of its most important entities: the capital city. The Mexican Senate approved a reform bill on Dec. 15, 2015, with 74 votes in favor, 20 against and one abstention. The measure had been approved by the House of Representatives earlier that same month, and in January, after gaining approval from 26 local legislatures, the Political Reform of the Federal District was announced. The capital of Mexico will officially change from Distrito Federal (DF) to Ciudad de Mexico (CDMX) once the new city constitution is approved early next year (although, unofficially, the new name and abbreviation are already in use). The transition is not complete. Other steps remain, including writing a new constitution for the city. It is still unclear whether this change will mean more than a new name or if it will bring more independence from the federal government on local issues.

The change to Ciudad de Mexico does not mean, as it has been incorrectly reported, that it will become the 32nd state of Mexico. The city will continue to function as a federal entity, as the seat of the federal government and under special political and judicial status, but without the faculties allowed to the states according to the Mexican constitution.

The city of Mexico is currently governed by the “Estatuto de Gobierno del Distrito Federal,” which — unlike with states — cannot be reformed by the local legislative branch (the democratically elected “Asamblea Legislativa”). It can only be reformed by the Mexican House of Representatives (Cámara de Diputados).

The new constitution must be completed by Jan. 31, 2017. A Constitutional Congress will be installed in September 2016 to carry out this important task, and it will be composed of 100 members. Sixty will be elected, and the remaining 40 will be appointed as follows:

  • 14 members from the House of Representatives
  • 14 from the Senate
  • Six by Mexico’s president
  • Six by the jefe de gobierno (head of the government of Mexico City)

It is during this process that the real implications of the change will come to light. The short time frame allotted for drafting the city’s constitution (four months, from September 2016 to January 2017) indicates that drafts of the future document are already under discussion, and that this will not be just a very superficial or minimal change to the statute that currently governs the city. But the composition of the Constitutional Congress raises questions regarding how much independence the city might actually gain from the federal government, considering the opportunity for the president’s political party, the PRI, to insert itself more into the city’s governance. Sen. Mario Delgado (MORENA, former PRD) already has denounced this, stating that “the level of participation the citizens of the capital have always had in the political life of the city has been made null when the political parties that approved the political reform, instead of opening more spaces for citizens to participate, these parties, the president, and the head of government of Mexico City instead preferred to distribute the slots in the Constitutional Congress by direct appointment.”

Once the new constitution has been approved, authority over future constitutional changes will be transferred from the House of Representatives to the newly created local congress (which will replace the current “Asamblea Legislativa”) and will be composed by 40 representatives from the 40 local electoral districts as well as 24 members elected by proportional representation.

Mexico City’s 16 “delegaciones” (administrative divisions of the city) will be changed to “alcadías” by 2018. Each alcaldía will then have a democratically elected alcalde and a new 10-member council. It is expected that there could be a reorganization of these geopolitical districts by population as well as to re-establish their boundaries. This reorganization could decrease the size of larger delegaciones, such as Iztapalapa (which, with 1.8 million people as of 2010, is in effect the most populous delegación of Mexico City). This reorganization could be heavily influenced by the jefe de gobierno and political party interests, which could lead to gerrymandering (an idea suggested by Mexican political analyst Antonio de la Cuesta in a conversation with the authors) to split up party strongholds, such as the PAN stronghold in the delegación Benito Juarez.

Democratic election of the head of government of Mexico City was established in 1997. Before that, this position was appointed by the president. The head of government then appointed the heads of the delegaciones, which have been democratically elected since 2000. Since 1997, the head of government of Mexico City has been a member of the opposition party, the PRD, which has been a consistent advocate for governance changes to grant the city more autonomy from the federal government. The expectation is that this new change will curtail the president’s power over local matters. The intervention and overreach of the president’s office in local matters has been a contentious issue in the past. For example, in 2004, then-President Vicente Fox removed Marcelo Ebrard, then-secretary of public safety for the city without consulting with the city’s head of government.

The fact that the change from DF to CDMX is happening now speaks to the current political dynamics in Mexico and Mexico City. The country’s governing party, the PRI, has historically had weak representation at the local level, having never had a candidate elected to the city’s seat of government (it has held the post when appointed by the president, prior to the implementation of elections in 1997), and holding very few delegaciones and seats on the “Asamblea Legislativa.” Both the establishment of the Constitutional Congress as part of the reform process and the creation of the city’s congress open the door for increased PRI influence and participation in government. Some journalists and scholars in Mexico have pointed out that the current head of government of Mexico City, Miguel Ángel Mancera (PRD), has acted more as an administrator and less as a politician, and that he has maintained a close relationship with President Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI). Some have even questioned his real political alliances. Whatever the case may be, the current situation and PRI’s new level of influence within CDMX might also be an opportunity for the party to open up future voting in their favor at the local level.

Capital cities around the world have to contend with the challenges that come with being the seats of both the national government as well as the local government. National concerns and local concerns are not always the same, and the prioritization of complex issues by the local government might be in opposition to those set by the national government. For capital cities, being the seat of both governments, can bring positive outcomes, such as cultural amenities, but also a constant balancing between the requests and responsibilities that arise from the federal or central government and the needs of local citizens. Much has been written about this tension as it pertains to our own capital city, Washington, D.C. For CDMX, this might be the first step toward setting boundaries, responsibilities and better local governance.

Many welcome the change because they believe it will help curtail the influence of the federal government in CDMX. However, Mexico City must also focus its efforts on its political and fiscal autonomy, including improving local tax revenue collection, supporting efforts that engage its citizens in local issues and elections and improving transparency and accountability to its residents. Citizen apathy could hinder the progress that these changes are supposed to make. It will be essential for citizens to engage with this new administration. Increased voter turnout and overall participation are effective ways to hold leaders accountable. It will require attentive effort to see progress through in the capital.

Lisa Guáqueta is the program manager for the Baker Institute Mexico Center. Sandra Lopez is a Rice University sophomore and a Mexico Center intern.