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Democratic Challenges in Mexico

5th Floor Conference Room

Date & Time

Jun. 22, 2007
9:00am – 2:00pm ET


Democratic Challenges in Mexico
Jacqueline Peschard, IFAI
Andrew Selee, Wilson Center Mexico Insitute
Comments: Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan

Panel I: Mexico's Evolving Political System
Jean Francois Prud'homme, El Colegio de México—The Political Party System
Alejandro Moreno, ITAM and Reforma—Citizens' Values and Beliefs Towards Politics
John Ackerman, UNAM—The Breakdown of Trust in Politics
Moderator: John Bailey, Georgetown University

Mexico's somewhat rapid democratic transition from seven decades of single party rule to electoral democracy has drawn international attention. The world has watched as it has become increasingly more democratic through better institutions, transparency, and a regulated electoral system. However, many would argue that Mexico still faces a number of challenges in its path towards democratic consolidation. On June 22, 2007 the Mexico Institute invited the chapter authors of a forthcoming book on Democratic Challenges in Mexico to discuss this issue.

Andrew Selee emphasized that although Mexico has clearly advanced in the process of democratization, there is still continuity that reflects the old system, which was based on mediation among special interests; many of these special interests still survive and have managed to maintain control over particular areas of public policy and political decision-making. He argued that in order to understand the democratic consolidation process taking place it is crucial to assess three elements: the nature of the party system, the relationship between the state and society, and institutional vitality.

Jaqueline Peschard argued that the 2006 presidential election revealed a great deal about the state of Mexican democracy, specifically the more balanced relationship between the executive and legislative branches, increased political relevance of voters, and the fragility of certain institutions. Still to be examined, she asserted, is the civil-military relationship as well as the relationship between federal and local governments.

Ambassador Arturo Sarukhán explained that unlike other countries, Mexico's transition to democracy has not followed a clean or linear process marked by a specific date or event. Instead, Mexico's democracy has roots that go back in time before 2000 and it continues to consolidate itself today. He highlighted the transparency law as a huge achievement. He also commended the congress for working in a politically divided environment where parties are engaging both each other and the executive branch towards progress. He pointed out that now more than ever there are more stake-holders in Mexico's democracy.

John Bailey remarked that evolution of democratic governability in Mexico is determined by the rhythms and pace of change, as some transformations move quickly and others slowly, and some create synergy while others produce tension.

Jean-Francois Prud'homme stated that there has been a significant reconfiguration of the Mexican political party system. While the system has been strengthened through the creation of new parties, it is still dominated by the three largest parties which capture 90% of the vote. The weakening of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the traditional centrist party, has created a left-right polarization in the country. Within the two sides, however, there exist many internal struggles which must be resolved and strategies put in place in order for meaningful cooperation to take place within Congress.

Alejandro Moreno described how Mexican attitudes and values towards politics have evolved over time, where each generation has a different socialization experience. He noted that this past decade of profound change has resulted in a generally stronger faith in democracy and a political culture centered on elections. However, he emphasized that the prevalent distrust of politicians, the perception of lack of representation and political efficacy, and the belief that not all Mexicans are equal before the law prevent Mexico from consolidating its democracy.

John Ackerman suggested that the political turmoil following the 2006 political election may actually be healthy for Mexico's democracy. He argued that internal debates and struggles are part of the dynamic process of social change and force a strengthening of institutions. He emphasized that blind trust in government is extremely dangerous for democracy. He also criticized the lack of transparency demonstrated by both the Federal Electoral Institute and the Federal Electoral Tribunal during and following the elections.

Panel II: Institutions in Transition?
Maria Amparo Casar, CIDE—Executive-Legislative Relations
Tonatiuh Guillén, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte—Federalism and Local Governance
Jacqueline Peschard, IFAI—Federal and State Electoral Institutions
Raúl Benítez—Civil-Military Relations
Moderator: Eric Olson, Organization of American States

Eric Olson commented that "democracy" is commonly defined by elections that are free, open and fair. However, he argued that there is more to democratization than elections alone, and in Mexico, the institutional aspects of democracy matter greatly. He questioned the implications of Mexico's success in federal electoral reform for its institutions and the relationships between different elements of government.

María Amparo Casar noted the critical change in the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government, where the presidency has lost its centrality and Congress has emerged as key political actor. Although the congress has taken on a stronger role, however, there has been no substantial reform to its structure. She argued its organization is antiquated and dysfunctional within the current pluralism. Further, parties internally have lost cohesion and organization, making it difficult to determine how to strategically work with both each other and with the president. Casar recommended several reforms including legislative reforms that provide incentives for cooperation and thereby reduce gridlock, the introduction of congressional reelection, and the right of the president to set the agenda to ensure that certain issues are addressed in a timely matter.

Tonatiuh Guillén explained that federalism has found a new space through democracy, but that today's institutions struggle to deal with the new intergovernmental challenges. He commented that while decentralization, is a positive shift away from the old reality of the all-powerful president, it has in turn given state and local officials power to which they are not accustomed to having. This has created a differentiated system which complicates governability in the country. Laws which do not fully empower subnational governments, or define responsibilities among the three levels of government, further compound these challenges.

Jacqueline Peschard emphasized that since the general federal electoral reforms were enacted in the late 1990s, there has been a general improvement in electoral reform on both the federal and local level. However, she pointed out that locally the level to which reforms have been implemented has been far from uniform across the country. This divergence was not seen during the rule of the PRI, when most local electoral law reflected that of the nation. The introduction of political competition on the local level changed the nature of electoral law across the country. She noted that the differentiations of implementation have created a lack of uniformity in the effectiveness of electoral institutions across the country.

Raúl Benítez noted that the current "war on drugs" has created a fragile situation for civil-military relations where officers are in contact with civilians more than ever, but have not received sufficient human rights training. This has led to a number of human rights abuses across the country. He pointed to certain levels of accountability and transparency that exist within the military apparatus, emphasizing that during the 2006 elections the government put its full trust in the military to transport ballot boxes and guard voting stations. However, the true levels of transparency within the armed forces, he argued, are questionable. The military largely remains an independent force within the federal government that conducts its own internal affairs with minimal civilian oversight.

Lunch Panel: The Changing Nature of State-Society Relations
Mariclaire Acosta, OAS—The Evolving Nature of Civil Society Organizations
David Ayón, Loyola Marymount University—Migrants and the Mexican State
Moderator: Francisco González, Johns Hopkins University, SAIS

Francisco González explained that in evaluating the success of democratic transition in Mexico it is important to understand the country's complex social stratification geographically between north and south, and within individual states as well. State-civil society relations vary from state to state, where democratic, self-restrained states with an engaged, informed civil society neighbor autocratic states where civil society is disorganized, passive and lacks political culture.

Mariclaire Acosta pointed out that although there is increasingly more political space for participation of Mexican civil society, there continues to a lack of real involvement of civic organizations in the democratic process. She suggested that civil society has not exerted itself in part because of the hostile environment that fiscal policies and other laws have created, but also because civil society organizations have had very few viable ideas on how to take advantage of the new space for activism. This is partly due to the fact that civil society continues to be divided between two paradigms, one in which groups insist on operating as they did in the 1990s, as a counterweight to political power, and one that is more modern and amenable to participating in the current democratic framework when organizations can influence policy.

David Ayón addressed the paradox of the transformation of state-diaspora relations and democratic transition in Mexico. The implementation of more inclusive policies towards the diaspora community, specifically the right to vote awarded in 2006, in fact had no bearing on migrant participation in Mexican politics. However, Ayón pointed out that the miniscule turnout in the 2006 elections can be attributed not to a lack of political agency- many of those eligible to vote participated in the massive immigration protests in the spring of 2006- but instead to the limitations President Fox imposed on the migrant voters. He emphasized that Mexican migrants have become increasingly involved in their communities abroad, and less so in Mexican domestic politics.



María Amparo Casar

Professor-Researcher, Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE); Advisory Board Member, Mexico Institute, Wilson Center
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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

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