June 2, 2000

Mexican Elections — Throwing The Bums Out Is No Guarantee That Democracy Will Follow

By Martin Espinoza

ACAMBARO, GUANAJUATO, MEXICO — After 71 years of paternalistic and authoritarian rule, it looks like Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) just might lose control of the presidency in the elections on July 2.

The latest polls have Vicente Fox Quezada, of the right-center National Action Party (PAN), running neck and neck with the PRI's Francisco Labastida Ochoa. And with only weeks remaining in the campaign, more and more people appear to be going over to Fox's camp and calling for democracy in Mexico.

Foreign observers have joined in. On a recent book tour, the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa warned that "genuine and authentic" democracy would be possible only when the PRI relinquishes power. Even if the PRI wins the elections honestly and fairly, he told reporters, "No one will feel as though democracy has finally come to this country."

There is, however, a possible flip side to Vargas Llosa's warning. If the PRI loses, many Mexicans are likely to feel as though they have finally achieved democracy — they are so eager to see the PRI finally thrown out of Los Pinos (the Mexican White House) that they equate democracy in Mexico with the defeat of Labastida.

This is a lazy, if not dangerous, interpretation of democracy, one that has been reinforced by a Mexican press with little understanding of what constitutes a democracy.

What's more, candidates proclaiming themselves the champions of democracy have access to unprecedented quantities of public and private funds. In the first six months of this year, about 3 billion pesos (or about U.S. $380 million) in public funds will be handed over to Mexico's 11 registered political parties for presidential and congressional campaigns and party activities.

Add private contributions, and an estimated $20 per voter will be spent by July 2, making Mexico's elections the most costly in all of Latin America.

Most of this money will be spent on the presidential race. Indeed, few people even know their options are for congressional, state and local representatives.

At the local level, municipal supervisors are elected through a form of proportional representation. Candidates ride on the coattails of their party's mayoral candidate. They never have to run a campaign or make a single public appearance. If successful, they become part of secretive local governments that run towns and cities like feudal lords with the mayor as king or queen.

This is true even where opposition candidates have won control of municipalities from the PRI.

A PRD mayor governs the small, central Mexican town where I live, Acambaro at the southern end of the state of Guanajuato, where Vicente Fox was governor before making his bid for the presidency.

Acambaro's meetings of the board of supervisors are essentially closed to the public, because no effort is made to announce the sessions in advance — the Supervisors themselves don't know when meetings will take place, since the mayor usually schedules them only 24 hours beforehand.

Members of the public are legally allowed to attend the meeting — although it is held in a room so small there is barely enough room for bureaucrats to attend — but they do not have the right to speak.

Municipal governments like ours are run with the same spirit of presidencialismo (absolute political control by a presidential figure) that has guided the PRI for seven decades. The state legislature and governor approved the law defining the way Acambaro's local government is run. In many ways, this law simply reflects lack of knowledge of how a democracy works.

The impetus for democratic reforms is likely to come, if it comes at all, from members of Congress, but few are discussing real reforms. These would include weakening the president's control of the Senate (and consequently of the legislative process), requiring congressional approval of presidential appointments and significant budget measures, eliminating the political immunity enjoyed by corrupt politicians, making government documents public property, and much more.

None of these are currently the subject of public discourse which for the most part is strictly concerned with whether the PRI will be defeated, and political power change hands.

That may finally occur on July 2, but achieving real democracy is a far more complicated matter.

Martin Espinoza reports from Guanajuato, Mexico.

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