Will Mexico Ever Democratize?

Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto (center left) and the top leaders of the major political parties in the official signing of the Pact for México. Source: campeche.com.mx

One major argument in the literature on democratization is that it is a process that does not necessarily follow a linear path, depending on the precise political, social, and even economic circumstances of a country. More precisely, many democracies in developing countries lack strong democratic credentials, at least relatively speaking; and in many cases political power remains in the hands of the elites who had it during the prior non-democratic period. The last 12 or 13 years in Mexico are proving those points correct.

Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa once described Mexico as the perfect dictatorship. For seven decades, Mexico was governed by a political party – the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) – that had virtual control of the political system by winning every presidential election (sometimes questionably), dispensing political patronage of all sorts, co-opting key segments of society (particularly labor and peasantry), and sometimes resorting to targeted but brutal repression (which was the fate of a large student demonstration in Mexico City that happened 45 years ago this month). In 2000, after a series of political reforms and decades of progressive delegitimization (as well as the Zapatista uprising of 1994), the PRI lost its first-ever presidential election, signaling what is considered the democratization of Mexico. The trouble was that most elements of the PRI-dominated political system (e.g. the clientelism, the quasi-authoritarian governance of certain localities, the corruption, and the non-reelection of elected officials, to name a few) remained all but untouched during the 12 years that the PRI was in opposition, compounded by an executive branch that lost most of its powers only to see them seized by legislators and non-elected actors not so keen on reform. In other words, Mexican democratization, unlike similar episodes in Latin America, was not a result of a political pact reconstituting formal institutions and procedures, but largely of the liberalization of competition for elected office. The rotten tree was pruned, not uprooted.

Fast forward to 2012, when the PRI made its return to the executive branch with the election of clean-cut, permanent-pressed Enrique Peña Nieto. His first major initiative was the creation and signing last December of the Pact for Mexico (Pacto por México), an agreement between the government and the major political parties (including the PRI) on five basic areas of government action: social equity and human rights, economic development, citizen security and justice, accountability, and democratic institutionality. Opinion polls taken by pollster firm Parametría were fairly favorable to the Pact back in December, but as of last March 29% of respondents (up from 12%) said that it would do harm to the country. The skepticism represented by those numbers centers on at least three issues: The Pact privileges political parties (to whom few feel an attachment to) over civil society organizations and private citizens; it is primarily an electoral ploy for both government and PRI; and it has no relevance to the day-to-day life of Mexicans, who constantly deal with poverty and inequality, an increasing cost of living, youths without real prospects for the future, and criminal violence. An added difficulty is the length of the legislative process required to pass any legislation enabling the political reforms adopted in the Pact (because it will encourage stalling) and whether discussions will lead to the passage of watered-down versions.

Certainly, the Mexican political class has the burden of proof. It has to demonstrate that the Pact works, which means that citizen skepticism must be address, discussions around the passage of reforms should be given the highest priority, and short-term interests should not weaken their final versions. I believe that the success or failure of the Pact hinges on whether those three aspects are taken care of. After all, democracy is always better served where there are no gaps between socioeconomic citizenship and political citizenship, governance and social equaity are facilitated by economic growth, the exercise of political citizenship is not hampered by domestic insecurity, elected officials are subject to citizen control, and political institutions are stable and consistent with democratic principles. The Pact’s five areas, when effectively addressed, should put Mexico – finally – on the path to a more successful democratization.

 

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