Mexico's Democracy: Are politics beginning to mature?
On April 17, 2008, George Washington University's Elliot School of International Affairs, the Inter-American Dialogue and the Mexico Institute welcomed Luis Rubio, President of Mexico's Center for Development Research (Centro de Investigación para el Desarrollo) to discuss the recent political changes in Mexico and the risks, opportunities and future implications for the young democracy. Rubio noted that at the forefront of the changes brought on by democracy is the end of single-party political control under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Since this development, the leaders of Mexico's major political parties have acquired unprecedented levels of power, and in a sense have become the owners of Mexican politics. Rubio noted that this is due to the structure of the political system and the relationship between the executive and legislative branches, as well as the political savvy of certain party leaders. He emphasized that the growing presence of non-institutional actors such as organized crime and the role taken on by Andrés Manuel López Obrador are a very significant element in contemporary Mexican politics that demonstrates the decline in the power of the presidency.
Rubio noted that President Fox's victory in the presidential race in 2000 ushered in an era of political realignment. However, Rubio added, President Fox quickly proved to be an ineffective administrator and politician, who could not fulfill expectations of political reform. Much of this was due to the fact that the Congress had gained power since the PRI lost its majority in 1997, thereby limiting the influence of the President. During Fox's presidency, newly empowered members of Congress became the leading actors in the political arena, often blocking Fox's reforms. Rubio emphasized that President Fox had neither the incentives nor the understanding of the deep forces needed to generate substantive political change. Rubio identified the PRI as the biggest winner of Fox's failures and of the PRD's (Party of the Democratic Revolution) political paralysis since 2006.
According to Rubio, the 2006 election demonstrated the paramount social and political fissures that exist within Mexican society. The biggest divide facing Mexico today, he argued, lies between those that accept gradual institutional solutions as a means to advance and those that would rather resort to violence and other non-institutional means to further their cause. He clarified that this does not strictly point to the PRD, although it has been known for its radical politics. Rubio stated that this trend of radicalization is also visible in unions, organized crime cartels, and guerilla forces. The divide between those who support and oppose institutional solutions is a relevant, far-reaching challenge that can lead to paralysis on both ends of the spectrum.
Rubio pointed out that President Calderón's keen desire to work with the legislature is a stark contrast to many of his predecessors. By pursuing all institutional avenues, pushing his positions steadily, and negotiating legislation with PRI members, he has skillfully gained support for important reforms. Because of this, the PRI emerged as President Calderón's most powerful alliance and has managed to solidify power over the legislative agenda. He mentioned that the new reality of Mexican politics is generating opportunities for the PRI and risks for the government, adding that Mexican politics are maturing, but are also becoming less institutional. The challenge, according to Rubio, is the rebirth of non-institutional practices and the strengthening of non-institutional means as an element of daily politics. Rubio asserted that by 2010 non-institutional actors may be able to rise to power and become players and actors in all realms of Mexican society. Criminals, organized crime leaders and guerilla forces may take advantage of this opportunity to raise havoc in the political context.
Rubio commented that Mexico has similarities to the USSR. The ruling regime managed to create a political mindset that prevailed for decades, but that is slowly waning in an evolving political era. The traditional PRI mentality that has embroiled Mexican politics for many years, Rubio argued, has prevented Mexico from moving forward. He added that a new type of political leader is beginning to emerge in Mexican politics, one that represents a break from the leadership of the past. He asserted that this full transition is a generational and protracted process. He questioned what will arrive first, a new generation of political leadership or the rise of non-institutional actors?
Peter Hakim, Director of the Inter-American Dialogue, responded that perhaps political scientists have been too critical of former President Fox considering that defeating the PRI was an accomplishment in and of itself. He noted that President Calderón still has critical steps to take regarding energy and immigration, arguing that Calderón has yet to demonstrate his potential in both areas. In response to Dr. Rubio's comparison of Mexico to the Soviet Union, Hakim offered a different comparison. He stated that perhaps Mexico is more like Latin America than Dr. Rubio suggests. For example, both Mexico and Brazil have accepted fiscal stability, have a Congress that is not highly functional, are countries in need of political reform, and have similar governance problems.