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Furthering Democracy in Mexico
Enrique Krauze
From Foreign Affairs, January/February 2006

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Summary:  As it approaches its first presidential election in the post-PRI era, Mexico is at a crossroads: it could either consolidate democracy and proceed with needed reforms or fall back into a familiar state of crisis. Which way it goes will depend above all on the candidates of the three major political parties, who must rise above their short-term interests to further the nation's progress toward democratic stability.

  ENRIQUE KRAUZE is Editor in Chief of "Letras Libres" and the author of "Mexico: Biography of Power."

Of Related Interest

The Americas
Political Systems


In July 2006, Mexico will have an opportunity to consolidate its democratic process for the first time in modern history. Only then will it be clear whether the political changes of the past five years have taken hold -- whether the country will go on building democracy and implementing much-needed reforms or instead fall into the sort of periodic crisis that has characterized too much of its past.

The 2000 presidential election was Mexico's first truly democratic national contest in a century, and the victory of Vicente Fox -- a former Coca-Cola executive running on the ticket of the center-right PAN (the National Action Party) -- put an end to 71 years of oligarchic rule by the PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party). In contrast to the electoral theater and pseudodemocratic displays of the previous seven decades, and much to the credit of then President Ernesto Zedillo, the election was an honest one, and its results were incontrovertible. Fox's victory in 2000 triggered hopes for profound change, and the opening days of his presidency were a heady time for Mexicans.

But it was not the first time Mexico had experienced such optimism. In 1911, Francisco Madero found himself at a similar turning point. He had become president after leading the first stage of the Mexican Revolution, but he was immediately bedeviled by a host of problems: a deeply divided Congress, an abusive press, the enmity of U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, and the hatred of a military establishment nostalgic for Porfirio Džaz, the dictator whom the revolution had overthrown. Despite being noble in many ways, Madero was also impossibly careless and fatally naive. And thus, instead of marking the start of a stable Mexican democracy, Madero's brief government ended in 1913 when he was murdered in a coup d'ťtat by General Victoriano Huerta -- setting off a civil war and plunging Mexico into chaos. The discord did not end until 1929, when President Plutarco Elžas Calles founded the National Revolutionary Party (which would later become the PRI). The party was meant to guarantee a peaceful, predetermined succession for the presidency, and it laid the foundation for what came to be known as "the Mexican political system." The coming of democracy, meanwhile, was postponed until the end of the century.

As Fox's six-year term nears its end and the first post-PRI election approaches, Mexico's democracy faces new risks. It is worth remembering that the country's only previous experience with genuine democracy was brief and brought on a period of violent turbulence that ultimately led to the veiled dictatorship of the PRI. Can things work out differently in 2006?

Only basic agreement on the major objectives of the state can provide a society with a firm basis for democracy, and Mexico still very much lacks such an agreement among its principal political actors. The three major parties -- the PRI, the PAN, and the left-wing PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) -- are all amply gifted with resources, power, and rhetorical skill, but they have failed to establish any basic consensus with one another. The divisions among the three parties and their refusal to bridge them have kept contemporary Mexico in a state of governmental deadlock since the end of PRI rule.

This failure is most clearly demonstrated in the continual postponement of an urgently needed accord to ensure that no matter who becomes president, Mexico will be governable even when the president's party has a minority in Congress (as will be true for the foreseeable future). In a country where politicians have little parliamentary experience and are focused on ideology, any cooperation with an opponent is often denounced as betrayal. Nor is there any basic agreement on how to establish a firm rule of law. Organized crime and the increasingly powerful drug cartels have turned too many Mexicans into innocent victims of an undeclared war (which some political factions do not even recognize, for selfish reasons of their own). And there are many other aspects of the national agenda riven by disagreements as deep and deaf to negotiation as was the discord that split the Mexican political class in 1913: there is no general agreement on the right way to create wealth, economic growth, or employment; on how to modernize the energy sector; on how to combat poverty and inequality; on how to approach and manage globalization. In the last six years, Mexico's political leaders have even failed to consider the value or the viability of the public institutions and the huge financial liabilities (such as those created by pension obligations and specific union privileges) left over from the old regime.

All this overt and latent enmity need not erupt into violence or antidemocratic agitation. The 2006 election could still demonstrate what 1915 -- when Mexico's first postrevolutionary election was supposed to be held but never was -- might have been. But for that to happen, various players must work to transcend their immediate interests. In order to safeguard the democratic process and encourage the broad, responsible, and thoughtful participation of Mexico's citizens, President Fox must behave as a head of state, not just a representative of his party. Civil society (and international observers of the voting process) must support the now-independent Federal Electoral Institute, which monitors elections, especially if the political parties refuse to adhere to recently established regulations, such as limits on campaign spending. The media must be scrupulous in their objectivity and impartiality, working to communicate honestly rather than simply inflame prejudices. This obligation includes the international media, which have a level of influence in Mexico of which they are not entirely aware; many Mexicans see foreign journalists as searchlights illuminating a dark political landscape, and their objectivity -- before, during, and after the elections -- is a matter of significant importance.

The major responsibility, however, rests with the three main political parties. It is up to them whether Mexican democracy advances or is cast aside, whether the gathering clouds of discord thicken or dissipate. Their recent histories -- and the nature of their candidates for the 2006 election -- give some indication of whether they will rise above their short-term interests and continue Mexico's progress toward democratic stability.


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