Speaker: José Woldenberg, President of Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute

October 16, 2002

José Woldenberg has been a citizen member of Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute since 1994 and became its first non-partisan president in 1994. Under his leadership, the Institute has overseen increasingly fair and free elections that culminated in the end of one-party rule in Mexico. In addition, the Institute has been called on to assist with elections around the world, including in Russia and Peru.

In his presentation at the Wilson Center, Woldenberg presented six propositions about the democratic transition in Mexico and place them in historical perspective. First, he argued that Mexico's democratic transition is the story of a modern society that could no longer sustain a single-party system. Mexico had simply become more complex, diverse, and plural; a single party or coalition could no longer contain its interests, projects, and energy. The democratic transition was, therefore, really the history of this adjustment, of finding a formula for modern political life that goes along with the country's true social modernity.

Second, the transition had its own internal logic, built on gradual change. Opposition political parties won a few seats in the Congress, negotiated for better electoral rules, won a few more seats, and negotiated for even better rules, until the process was free and fair.

Third, the transition developed first in local and state governments and later was extended to the national level. He noted that it involved a slow but systematic "colonization of the nation-state" by the political parties and that democratic practices were first tried out in local and state elections.

Fourth, the progressive electoral gains of opposition groups gave people confidence in elections as a means to influence the government and promote change. The sense of sharing power became a real and present phenomenon. This showed voters that opposition forces had real opportunities, that voting was a powerful instrument of change, and that change through elections was possible.

Fifth, the transition, which was centered on elections, really went much beyond that and influenced other areas of life. Among other things, the electoral processes helped expand liberties at a federal and local level; allowed open criticism; changed the work of Congress; and allowed opposition political figures to emerge. Perhaps most significantly, the elections helped develop real citizenship. Millions of Mexicans have left behind traditional authoritarian and passive attitudes to influence the direction of their country.

Sixth and finally, When the dominant party lost their control on the government in 2000 (with Vicente Fox's election) no one was terribly surprised. Because people had been constructing democracy gradually for twenty years, people felt a sense of confidence, rather than fear, after the 2000 elections that produced an opposition victory.

Woldenberg closed by arguing that now that elections are free and fair, Mexicans need to debate other issues on the substantive agenda: how to address poverty and how to achieve governability in a plural society.