Democracy, Mexican Style

Luis Rubio

The engine of political liberalization -and of the incipient Mexican democracy- was the succession of electoral reforms that, from the year 1964, but above all in 1996, was experienced by Mexican society. Each of those reforms responded to its own circumstances, but that of 1996 was crucial because it was the product of an open negotiation between the diverse forces and political parties, smoothing the way for transparent, fair and duly protected competition, in an institutional sense, for accession to power. In true  Mexican style, Mexicans took a great step forward and subsequently did not follow through.

During these decades the country underwent two contradictory processes. On the one hand, the economy was modernized and transformed, creating an exceptional platform of growth in some regions and sectors, but also a series of enormous backlogs and obstacles for the rest. On the other hand, in unison with competitive elections, politics withstood increasing degradation due to the on-going violence and insecurity, the impunity with which public and private actors conducted themselves without the slightest compunction, and with the corruption that corrodes all things. The bases were established for political competition and economic functionality, but the institutional structures were not built that would bestow permanence and viability on those two great achievements.

Democracy flourishes when society assumes itself as citizenry, capable of rendering their rights valid, which is only possible through solid, vital and functional institutions. Although various institutions were developed, two indicators reveal that the result is not commendable. On the one hand, the violence and insecurity demonstrate that an adequate security and justice system was not engendered to match the prevailing state of affairs. On the other hand, nothing better illustrates the deficit that the facility with which the current government has destroyed that entire scaffolding with which it was hoped that Mexico would accede to modernity and civilization.

Democracy is more than elections: it has to do with citizen rights, justice, freedom of expression, checks and balances for the exercise of power and the limits of potential abuse on the part of the rulers. In fact, in the words of the great XX century philosopher, Karl Popper, democracy consists of the certainty that those that rule will not abuse the citizens. And Popper speaks of countries with functional governments, of which Mexico is plainly not a good example.

In Mexico democracy stayed stuck in place on the first rung of the ladder. In 1997, in the first federal election after the 1996 reform, the opposition won the majority of the Congressional seats, followed by the victory of Fox in 2000. Two outstanding successes in a country that had been characterized by political stability but not due to citizen participation. However, nothing, except access to power, changed in Mexican politics. Truth be told, politics continued to deteriorate in parallel with the rise of organized crime, the absence of justice and the increasingly visible corruption. Now with AMLO attacking the National Electoral Institute (INE) it is not even evident that access to power through competition is guaranteed.


AMLO was a response of society to an unsustainable reality, but his strategy of returning to the centralization of power is a poor solution and in the last instance, futile, with regard to a fundamental problem: how is the country going to be governed. This is the main challenge with an eye cocked on the future but that is not the matter on which the public discussion is concentrated. The unique evident issue is that the control of a sole individual is not only unviable, but extraordinarily pernicious and dangerous.


The political forms and discourse changed, but not the reality.   Counterweights were claimed, but the presidents -each with the greatness or smalless of their vision and capacity- persisted in exercising power at will. They carried out ambitious reforms during the previous administration, but neglected to legitimize these through public dialogue, just as AMLO had done in his topics of priority. The point is that the country is not being governed and the climate of uncertainty is increasing and more and more risky, placing in doubt the economy’s viability and the functionality of the politics. Months away from the beginning of the formal process of presidential succession, it is less and less clear that the elections of 2024 will be clean and recognized.


The electoral processes barely comprise the first step in the edification of a successful and functional democracy, economically as well as politically. Mexico stayed stuck on that first step, and has now remained in limbo because of the contradictory electoral reforms being imposed in steam-roller fashion, not unlike those of the distant and nearby past. The grand question, with sights trained on the future, is how is Mexico going to emerge from the hole in which the government will have left the country.


The country is at present very divided, the government modifies practices that had been key for political stability and incurs ever more elevated risks in the political ambit, especially that of the succession. For those who blindly support the President, these are not relevant themes, but for those of us brooding about the building of a successful country, one less violent and with greater equity, there is no matter more transcendental.