Mexicans are becoming disenchanted with democracy as recession-aggravated social and economic ills persist; tactical electoral alliances between parties are a bad idea, though issue-specific partnerships in Congress can be promising; and, the Mexican Left needs to back a single candidate to be a player in the 2012 presidential race, said Alejandro Encinas, lower-house congressional leader of Mexico's main center-left party and former mayor of Mexico City. His talk was the latest installment of the Mexico Institute-sponsored speaker series Diálogos con México, and was held Friday, March 5, 2010.

Encinas said Mexico was at "one of the worst levels" socially and politically, with apparently little way out of the current economic crisis. Income inequality, unemployment, and poverty are growing, he said, and the courts and police are discredited and ineffective. Impunity in the justice system allows organized crime to flout the law while mafias control parts of Mexico. Yet first-time minor and young adult offenders are locked up for petty property crimes. Disproportionate numbers of incarcerated youth come from poor communities, a trend that discredits the police, who are seen as unfair, corrupt, and who consistently rank at the bottom of approval polls—in the same neighborhood as federal lawmakers, he joked. Gangs are not categorically bad. They provide social identity and solidarity to needy young people, but drug and alcohol abuse among the young needs to be addressed, since it fuels criminal activity.

Encinas came down against tactical electoral "alliances" between his Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido de la Revolución Democrática, PRD) and the center-right National Action Party (Partido de Acción Nacional, PAN). He said such alliances confuse party identity and betray ideology. Mexican voters need to know clearly what each party stands for in order to make informed decisions, he said. "The means (of winning elections) don't justify the ends," he said. In some recent state elections, the two traditional opposition parties have joined forces to field common gubernatorial candidates to prevent the succession of governments of the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido de la Revolución Institucional, PRI). This has mainly taken place in the Mexican South where the power of the PRI is greater than that of either the PRD or PAN. While opposed to tactical electoral alliances between his party and the PAN, Encinas said that issue-specific coalitions between parties can be arrived at in the federal Congress. For example on the issue of tax reform, there may be an opportunity for agreement between the PRD and the PRI, he said.

Rather than forge short-term alliances with the ideologically disparate center-right, the PRD should focus instead on uniting the Mexican Left, he said. The party should work to construct a broad coalition of parties and groups on the Left, in order to be more successful at the polls. Encinas said the effects of fissure within the Mexican Left have been felt in recent elections, as the PRD lost elected positions in the state of Zacatecas, a stronghold since the 1990s, and lost key municipal races in 2009 in the State of Mexico. Ahead of the 2012 presidential race, the Mexican Left needs to coalesce around a single candidate to avoid splitting the vote, he added. "We need a single candidate not one from the PRD and another from the Broad Progressive Front (a separate leftwing coalition organized around former PRD presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador)," he said. Encinas added that the Left's power derives in part from its ability to control social unrest and that this power improves its political negotiating position.

The congressional leader discussed structural institutional reform—referred to in Mexico as "reforma del estado"—suggesting that passage of related legislation could happen. However, some elements of this reform, such as consecutive re-election of federal legislators, are still controversial. Encinas indicated that 2010, the bicentennial year of Mexican independence, may not be the most propitious year for passage of President Felipe Calderón's "reforma del estado" bill, sent to Congress late last year.

Encinas also addressed the military's role in domestic policing, saying "(t)he military should be in the barracks except in times of natural disasters" and "(t)here needs to be a political solution so that the military can return (to the barracks) with dignity." He considered the military's involvement in domestic policing a potential cause of human rights abuses and evoked the military's involvement in the government campaign against political subversives in the 1970s.

By Robert Donnelly
Edited by Andrew Selee