Mexico’s New Leaders Must Preserve Its Democratic Gains

Illustration by Oliver Munday Close

Illustration by Oliver Munday

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Illustration by Oliver Munday

In the stock market of international prestige, Mexico’s shares are rated quite low. And it is understandable.

For years we have been hearing of corruption scandals, and now the newspapers are full of violent crime. But this bad opinion (shared by many Mexicans) is really unfair. In the past 15 years, there has been extraordinary progress in the country’s political life. If we ignore these achievements, we can only descend into confusion, unreality and despair.

For almost seven decades, Mexico was the country of an imperial presidency, ruled by a party that rarely had to use open coercion, and bought obedience and goodwill with public money. The country showed a measure of stability and growth, but developed no political maturity. As a nation, the people lived as clients, willing or unwilling, of the PRI, a party that functioned as a well-oiled machine for electoral control and social mobility.

Let’s look at a few facts of the past. In the 1940s, voting booths were seized like the spoils of war, and there were instances of army colonels turning machine guns on opposition voters. In the 1950s, a president disparaged the center-right party of the PAN (the only genuinely independent opposition party) as “mystics of the vote.” In the 1960s, the government massacred a peaceful group of student demonstrators. In the 1970s, a president maneuvered a successful takeover of the only independent newspaper.

Deplorable Past

In the 1980s, a president used his extremely broad powers to plunge the country, for a time, into billions of dollars of debt. In the same decade, a minister of the interior orchestrated a scandalous fraud in a presidential election. Only as a result of the assassination of their presidential candidate in March 1994 -- a crime never really solved -- were the leaders of the PRI, the effective masters of Mexico, convinced that the advent of democracy was inevitable. When President Ernesto Zedillo decided, in 1995, to open up the system, democracy arrived for Mexico through a wide-open gate. And it came to stay.

“The perfect dictatorship” -- as the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa called the PRI state -- died, unmourned, on July 1, 2000. From then on, the president was restricted to his specified constitutional powers. Congress became pluralist, independent and combative, and the Supreme Court’s decisions became universally respected. Local authorities, such as governors and mayors, use and abuse their new degree of independence, but Mexicans now have full civil liberties, including a free press. It is criminals, rather than local governments, who are most concerned with limiting freedom of expression.

After a difficult apprenticeship through the economic crises of 1976, 1982 and 1994, Mexico has finally developed a financial professional class of world caliber. The Bank of Mexico is fully autonomous, and this is reflected in the relatively healthy condition of the nation’s public finances. Annual economic growth of about 4 percent needs improvement, but it isn’t to be scorned at a time of international recession. In a country with a high rate of poverty, Mexico’s social programs are still insufficient but they have been strengthened, not through the favor of a president (as was once the case) but because of institutional continuity.

Democracy Evolves

The changes have been profound, and the return to power of the PRI with the presidential victory of Enrique Pena Nieto should not endanger those achievements. But the issue is whether the new government will continue to build on Mexican democracy.

The newly elected president has insisted on the “renovation” of the PRI and the need to avoid a return to the past. Assuming that he is sincere, he faces two significant obstacles.

The first consists of the famous PRI “dinosaurs” who have taken refuge in the “Jurassic Park” of state government, where there are corrupt governors, often linked to drug traffickers. Some still play a role in gigantic public unions created by the PRI, such as the oil workers, whose leaders are practically the private proprietors of a public industry. Mexico needs a conjunction of structural reforms that, among other things, will broaden the tax base, open the oil industry to foreign investment and deregulate the labor market. Many of these needed changes conflict with the commitment to patronage of the traditional PRI.

Only a true reformer can break down this lingering corporate edifice constructed by the PRI, with its antiquated ideas, its manufactured interests and its connections with crime. It isn’t certain that Pena Nieto and his young entourage have the historical will to carry out this task.

The other obstacle is the unfortunate reaction of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the center-left candidate, to his electoral defeat. He has disappointed many of his own supporters by refusing to accept his electoral loss -- by more than 3 million votes. He did the same six years ago, responding to a razor-thin electoral defeat, and his actions then, almost closing down Mexico City, damaged the possibilities of a modern left.

Opposition Threat

Lopez Obrador seems to be looking backward, to an autarchic economic and social arcadia inspired by the nationalism of the Mexican Revolution. Had he won the election, there might have been a retreat from democracy, with the elevation of a redeemer connected with the masses and much too careless with laws and institutions. Although it is unlikely he can legally reverse the electoral results, the political mobilization he created (especially among students) will affect the course of Pena Nieto’s term of office. He will oppose some needed reforms in Congress and in the streets, especially the opening of the petroleum industry to private investment.

A sector of the Mexican public, especially well-educated urban residents, is furious at the defeat of Lopez Obrador. Let’s hope their anger won’t lead to an eruption of political violence. That would only throw wood on the fire of criminal violence, which is a threat to the entire nation.

Mexico’s society is working, growing and participating in politics. Forty-nine million people voted on July 1, a million of their fellow citizens counted the votes, and another million supervised the electoral process. The “perfect dictatorship” is over and done with. Mexico is a democracy under construction, and its rating in the stock market of international respect should soon be on the rise.

(Enrique Krauze is a historian and author of “Mexico: A Biography of Power” and of “Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America.” The opinions expressed are his own. This article was translated from the Spanish by Hank Heifetz.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Enrique Krauze at ekrauze@prodigy.net.mx.

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