Elections: When Do They Become Too Costly?

Luis Rubio

The confusion is justified because a good part of the population lives in a world of fear or anger, both poor counsels but that, in the era of social media, are not only ubiquitous, but dominant. Worse yet, while previously each of these -anger and fear, respectively- would allow the attenuation of the other, the effect of living in self-contained digital communities that do not communicate among each other to a great extent have the effect of reinforcing the emotions and the community.  How, in this context, can the great matters before the nation be elucidated?

The National Electoral Institute (INE) is an object of permanent criticism and opprobrium. From its formalization as an autonomous entity in 1996, there is practically no government that has not interfered in the electoral complex, usually to adjust the rules to their interests, for the exercise of vengeance against the members of the boards of the respective institutions (INE and the Federal Electoral Tribunal [TEPJF]) or to pacify a certain actor in particular. Now there comes along precisely that actor who wants to stick his nose in one more time.

The complaint with respect to the INE is a triple one: first, that it is very costly; second, that it applies the rules in a biased way; and, third, that it does not subordinate itself to whomever obtains the highest number of votes. Symptomatic of the profound nature of this third element is that then-president Felipe Calderón in 2006 like Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2018 rebuke it exactly the same and for the same reasons. However much the clamor, this fact alone is a convincing proof of the impartiality of the electoral arbiter. In addition, compared with the federal government, INE is a model of efficacy and probity and is recognized thus by the citizenry.

On the financial side, it is evident that the cost of the electoral system is enormous, but one must remember that the reason why the system was created, that which led to its being consolidated in the constitutional text so that its financing would not be politicized. The cost of the electoral system encompasses the structure of the two entities as well as the subsidies to the political parties, the latter the product of replicating the European outline in which the government finances the parties, in contrast with that of the United States in which all financing is private. Under this rubric, one must not lose sight of that one consequence of the system financed by the State is that it renders it possible for the political parties to distance themselves from the citizens, in that they do not need them for anything, except on voting day. Not very democratic, but very real.

In countries with a high level of trust among the citizens and of these with their institutions (I’m thinking of the majority of European nations), the electoral systems are very simple and they work with already existing administrative apparatuses. In the U.S., each state has its own system and the disputes in recent years are   interminable, reminiscent of the eighties in Mexico.

The origin of the electoral framework lies precisely in the enforcement of the rules. The independent INE was the answer designed to guarantee clean elections and to confer certainty on the citizenry in the face of a sea of electoral disputes (usually post-electoral) that characterized the eighties and the nineties. The complexity of this framework was the product, as duly noted at that time, of the huge mistrust harbored by the diverse political parties among themselves, which AMLO has now brought back.

The tangible fact is that, except for the year 2006, there have been practically no disputes regarding this matter since 1997. Contrary to what the president asserts, the impartial application of the rules is what has avoided a political conflagration.

The nature of these circumstances explains the nature of the present attack: control and revenge. Vengeance due to the inflexibility of the IFE Board, that is, because of not giving in to the president; and control because that is what is compatible with the model of concentration of power that drives the president’s thrust. As the party in power, Morena and its head want to procure control of INE to stay in power, that is, to reproduce the old PRIist scheme of the XX century.

The problem is that this is the XXI century. The political dispute is increasingly complex, it is occurring in ever more arenas (including the digital ones) and involves many more actors, among these the “informal” actors (i.e., organized crime) who intervene without reserve to impose their will, all of this with the acquiescence of the president. Instead of the actors accepting the rules of the game, they compete to redefine them. In the extreme, this leads to the law of the jungle.

Przeworski,* a scholar in these issues, argues that elections are a civilized and pacific form of settling conflicts “that always take place in the shadow of a civil war.” Without the INE, Mexicans would be at the brink of war all the time, principally when each party, but especially Morena and its leader, which consider that Mexico is a democracy exclusively when they win.

The perception is understandable that it is necessary to reduce the cost of electoral institutions. Before our esteemed political heroes in the Congress proceed, it would be worthwhile to consider the scenarios of conflict (and violence) that could be unleashed. Governing an erupting volcano would be much more complex than they imagine and would provoke just what they say they fear.


*Why Bother With Elections?