Starting Over

Mexico Today –  March  10, 2021

Observers and scholars of Mexican transition to democracy hold two views. One maintains that the transition ended the day when fair and contested elections were held in the late 1990s, allowing a peaceful transfer of power in the year 2000. The other argues that the Mexican political system has not changed in nature despite the alternation of political parties in power. Beyond the details, perhaps the pertinent question is what should have been done differently to reach a better harbor? The answer would allow a more insightful diagnosis of Mexico’s current state and, perhaps, in an idyllic exercise of statesmanship, to start over.

My perception is that Mexico’s 1996 electoral reform was a great exercise in high politics. Then-president Ernesto Zedillo, the leaders of the Mexican political parties along with several task forces (especially those from academia) pushed to bring about the deal that enabled Mexico to hold free, fair, competitive, and professional elections at the federal level in 1997. Given Mexico’s past authoritarian history, no one can sell that achievement short.

Twenty-five years later, it seems to me that that there was more hope and joy than foresight and depth among those who made possible Mexico’s 1996 electoral reform. I say this with the perspective and arrogance afforded by the rear-view mirror. The 2000 presidential election was hailed inside and outside Mexico because it achieved a peaceful alternation of parties for the first time in 70 years. But the reality is that this applause was due more to the fact that the PRI, the long-ruling party, lost than to an actual transformation of the Mexican state. The key thing to understand is that the “politically correct candidate”, Vicente Fox of the PAN party, won the election. This allowed all those involved to congratulate themselves for the milestone of alternation in power. However, the events of the presidential contest in 2006 would prove that Mexico was far from democracy.

The hard and simple truth is that the real powers of Mexico’s old political system (not all within the PRI) wanted changes that would assist their own victory. However, these same powers balked at true openness or a comprehensive transformation of actual government structures. Certainly, Mexico’s electoral system was radically transformed becoming unusually structured by international standards. It was also an expensive electoral system because, as top elections chief José Woldenberg said, this was the price to pay for citizen mistrust. In the 1990s, we Mexicans ended up with an exceptionally powerful tool to ensure that the vote decided who would governs us. But as the current moment shows, what we did not achieve was a better result in the way we govern ourselves.

We Mexicans can be proud of having solved the problem of access to power thanks to the creation of what is now called the National Electoral Institute (INE). The current criticism leveled at INE is not only unfair but absurd because the problem that the 1996 reform sought to solve, along with ensuing electoral reforms, was fully achieved. What was not solved was the way in which we Mexicans should govern themselves, which involves addressing both the way the government works and the rights of the Mexican people.

The key players in Mexico’s landmark 1996 electoral reform were convinced that the issue hindering the transformation of country’s political system was the electoral system. Their expectations were that once the alternation of parties in the Mexican presidency had been achieved, the pieces would automatically fall into place, opening up new opportunities for political engagement. Nobody foresaw that the old Mexican political system had such powerful moorings and inertia that have managed to remain practically untouched even a quarter of a century later. One should add to all this the tragic fact Vicente Fox, the winner of the 2000 presidential election, had no idea of the responsibility deposited on his shoulders on that crucial year or the golden opportunity handed to him. In the end, Mexico’s powers that be and the system’s institutional inertia claimed victory. The combination of unfinished work along with ignorance and apathy allowed this to happen.

Truth be told, no one should have been surprised by the outcome, as it is very much part of Mexico’s DNA. When NAFTA trade deal was negotiated in the early 1990s, Mexico requested a 17 year phase-out period before opening three agricultural markets to imports: corn, beans, and powdered milk. Sixteen years later and with the opening of those three markets knocking at the door, Mexican agricultural producers began to say that such phase-out was no enough time. In the end, these producers were saved by the bell because agricultural prices rose just then, allowing for a smooth phase-out. But the example illustrates Mexican behavior: instead of anticipating and acting in a timely manner, Mexicans are always in haste when something has already gone awry. Mexico’s great unfinished business in politics is the comprehensive reform of the government. The Mexican government is opaque, inherently corrupt, unaccountable, and does not abide by any legal framework. The way in which the current Mexican president has been able to dismantle the institutional framework shows that it did not possess the strength and legitimacy that many assumed.

* Luis Rubio is chairman of México Evalúa-CIDAC and former chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI).  A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition.

 Twitter: @lrubio