“After voting the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) out of Los Pinos, Mexico’s presidential residence, twelve years ago, the country looks poised to bring it back,” notes Shannon K. O’Neil.
The party “continues to be a club of corruption, a preserve of tightly linked political and business interests, a network woven together through the constant exchange of favors and positions, negotiated in the shadows,” says Denise Dresser, a prominent Mexican political analyst.
But “whether the PRI set to take power is a new version of its old self is less important than the fact that Mexico’s democratic institutions will hem in the next president, regardless of party or personal preferences,” O’Neil writes for the Council on Foreign Relations:
Mexican democracy has evolved in ways that make a return to wholesale PRI dominance unlikely. Consider how the role and power of the legislative and judicial branches have changed since the 1990s. During the old PRI’s heyday, Congress was little more than a rubber stamp, with the PRI’s delegates rarely questioning the edicts of their president. Now, Congress is a real fulcrum for negotiations and debates between Mexico’s three main parties. Even if the PRI gains a majority in both houses, the administration will need the support of at least a segment of the opposition to pass the big-ticket items on the agenda — energy, tax, labor, and political reform — some of which would require constitutional changes. Unlike the PRI of the past, whoever wins will need to work with the opposition in order to govern.
Likewise, the Supreme Court is more powerful than in decades past. It now provides a check on the president and on vested interests. In the old days, the justices blessed whatever legislation came their way. But in the 1990s, President Ernesto Zedillo reorganized and professionalized the court, creating an independent institution as a hedge against an opposition takeover, which had begun to look increasingly likely. Since then, the court has become an independent and final arbiter on many political issues — it has passed judgment on topics as diverse as the constitutionality of new legislation, the rules governing elections, and the jurisdiction of civilian courts over the military.
The elections “will pose a new test for Mexican democracy” and for the authority of a state that has been undermined by powerful narco-traffickers, said Dr. Luis Carlos Ugalde, former president of Mexico’s Federal Electoral Commission, at a National Endowment for Democracy forum.
Endemic corruption has sapped the legitimacy of the state, the former Reagan-Fascell fellow recently observed.
“We have good laws. But they do not have an effect on the real world of corruption,” Ugalde wrote in Nexos magazine, in a dissection of corruption and impediments to cleaning it up:
Mexico’s civil society is also better placed to resist a PRI-led regression, especially its independent media, says O’Neil, the Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, who recently directed CFR’s Independent Task Force on U.S.-Latin America Relations: A New Direction for a New Reality:
A few decades ago, if the PRI found itself displeased with news coverage, it could literally stop the presses, as it held a monopoly on newsprint. Now Mexico has developed a vibrant and fiercely independent press, led by El Universal, Reforma, and La Jornada. Mexican voters and society have also gained a stronger voice, using social media and information now publicly available through Mexico’s freedom of information law to shame corrupt bureaucrats and politicians.
“The job of Mexican journalists covering drug trafficking and organized crime along the Mexico-U.S. border has been called the most dangerous job in the world,” says a recent report from the Center for International Media Assistance (below). “And the danger has spread from journalists for traditional media to bloggers and citizens who post reports on drug cartel violence through social media such as Twitter and Facebook.”
The threats to independent media confirm O’Neil’s suggestion that “Mexico’s democracy still struggles with deep-rooted vested interests, and the country has a limited set of tools for ensuring open, accountable, and responsive government.”
“A forward-looking democratic administration could push doors open further by investing in political reforms to encourage elected officials to be more accountable to their constituents, fully implementing the country’s judicial reforms, and ensuring the continuation of a free press and active civil society,” she concludes.