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A Look at Mexico’s Political Reform

Duncan Wood

Mexico Institute Director Duncan Wood discusses the viability for a successful political reform in Mexico. As the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto nears the end of it's first year, the reform agenda laid out thus far has the potential for far reaching implications for the strength and progress of Mexico's democracy.

A Look at Mexico’s Political Reform

As the Mexican congress debates two major economic reforms (fiscal and energy) a third reform debate, this time over changing the rules and institutions of the Mexican political system, is in full swing. Recent proposals by the opposition PAN and PRD parties have highlighted rival but complementary plans for addressing what are seen by some as the most problematic weaknesses of democracy in the country. As a central element of the Pacto por Mexico, we should expect that political reform will occur, and its implications for Mexico’s political balance will be profoundly felt.

Over the past three decades, piecemeal political reforms in Mexico have played a role in the gradual transformation from a closed authoritarian system to an evolving democracy. The true significance of many of these reforms was not apparent at the time, but they have played important roles in the path of democratization. The creation of the Instituto Federal Electoral (IFE) stands out as perhaps the most important of these but, as Rod Camp has pointed out, other reforms have proven to be highly significant in the long term. 

The most recent attempts to reform Mexico’s political system came during the final two years of Felipe Calderon’s presidency. The PAN government at that time proposed a series of changes including allowing independent candidates (that is, candidates not belonging to an established political party), and re-election. While the re-election proposal was rebuffed, the initiative for independent candidates was approved by the Mexican congress in the Fall of 2011, and will play a role in the forthcoming elections in 2015.

In the current round of debate over political reform, a number of intriguing elements appear, such as the issue of allowing coalition government and removing the President’s immunity from prosecution during his/her time in office. But the major emphasis will be placed on three issues. At the heart of the current proposals for political reform, we find the re-election issue re-emerging. Long-identified as a serious impediment to increasing accountability by elected officials, and seen as a handicap for the development of real policy expertise in the legislature, it appears that the major political parties are ready to overturn the constitutional prohibition on the re-election of governors, mayors, deputies and senators. Although they are not willing to contemplate the re-election of the President at this point in time, this will nonetheless be a watershed moment in Mexican political history, instituted to avoid the establishment of immovable dictators after the Porfiriato. The ban on re-election is so deeply engrained in Mexican culture that one sees streets named “No-reeleccion” in towns and cities across the nation. It is still a popular prohibition in the eyes of a majority of the Mexican electorate, but the opposition PAN and PRD parties have put the issue front and center in the current political reform debate. 

The second major change that is pending concerns the nation’s elections institutions, the IFE and the TRIFE (the Federal Elections Tribunal or court). The opposition proposals call for the strengthening of these institutions to give them truly national power, not only over federal elections but also over state elections. This will mean the abolition of state-level electoral institutions, and the creation of a National Elections Institute (INE). The issue is seen as crucial by the opposition parties after decades of electoral fraud and interference in state and municipal elections by governors and local political powers. While some state-level authorities have built up respectable electoral institutions, there is still too much variance across the nation and the new INE will aim to create unified electoral rules for the entire country. The proposal comes at an interesting time: the IFE council, usually comprised of 9 members has been missing a member since January of this year with the three main parties unable to agree on who should replace the outgoing member who stepped down. Four more consejeros (councilors) are due to step down at the end of October 2013, and it will be intriguing to see if the parties replace those individuals or simply wait until the new INE has been created to fully staff it.

The third major area of political changes concerns campaign financing and spending during the electoral cycle. Since the scandals of the 2012 Federal elections, when the PRI was accused of breaking electoral rules by giving out supermarket cash cards to generate support in cities and towns, the opposition parties have been insisting on stricter rules concerning this kind of practice. The PAN is proposing stronger punishments for individuals and parties who surpass campaign spending limits and the PRD would also like to see the cancellation of any election where parties violate spending rules and limits. Stricter rules are also being proposed to address federal government spending on advertising and media exposure for its own programs during election times. This issue has been hotly debated over the past two presidencies with both the Fox and Calderon administrations coming under fire over their spending on advertising social programs in election years. The supposedly close relationship between Enrique Pena Nieto’s government and the nation’s two major television stations, Televisa and TV Azteca, gives this issue even greater significance.

What are the chances of such a reform at this time? Two factors suggest that the reforms put forward by the opposition parties will achieve success. The first is quite simple: the Pacto por Mexico, the political mechanism that has been crucial in securing the impressive economic reforms to date, includes these elements as part of its list of 95 policy priorities. Given the importance of the Pacto for the government’s legislative agenda, it should be willing to concede these points (to which it has already agreed in the Pacto) to maintain Congressional cooperation with the PAN and PRD. The second reason is that the PAN is conditioning its support of fiscal and energy reforms on a commitment by the PRI to allow political reform to take place. Although recent concessions by the PRI to the opposition parties on issues of fiscal reform suggest that a negotiated consensus is emerging on that front, the PAN’s support for energy reform continues to depend on the PRI compromising on political reform.

And so the stage is now set for the first year of the Pena Nieto administration to conclude with an impressive array of reforms already under its belt. What’s more, these reforms will fundamentally alter Mexico’s economic and political landscape, hopefully bringing higher levels of growth, more reliable income for the government, and clearer and more progressive rules for strengthening democracy. A failure to reach agreement on political reform will jeopardize the crowning achievements of the PRI government’s legislative agenda, and for that reason alone we can expect new rules to be agreed for Mexican elections and democratic practice. 


About the Author

Duncan Wood

Duncan Wood

Vice President for Strategy & New Initiatives; Senior Advisor to the Mexico Institute; Interim Director, Global Europe Program
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Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more