Commentary: In Mexico, Vibrant Democracy Is Still a Long Way Off

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That adage may be on the minds of many Mexicans as they head to the polls on July 6 to elect a new lower house of Congress, along with state and local leaders.

In July, 2000, Mexican voters ended the Institutional Revolutionary Party's 71-year reign of power -- the longest of any single party. A new, independent electoral institute spent more than $1 billion to mount a clean election. The opposition won handily. It was the Latin American equivalent of the toppling of the Berlin Wall. But the work of turning the resulting political rubble into a foundation for a strong, vibrant democracy has been slow going.

Is it time to proclaim Mexico's political revolution a failure? No. The transition has been free of violence, which by Latin standards is an achievement. Mexico's economy has not had a major crisis, either -- a clear departure from a quarter-century of election-linked meltdowns.

But when it comes to sharing power -- the key ingredient of a real democracy -- Mexico is just learning the ropes. It's not hard to see why. For seven decades, Mexico had what local historian Enrique Krauze calls an Imperial Presidency. The power of the office is now vastly diminished. Midway into his six-year term, President Vicente Fox, of the center-right National Action Party, has achieved little of what he set out to do. A large share of the blame falls on a divided Congress. Mexico's legislature used to rubber-stamp presidential initiatives. Now it quashes them.

Policy paralysis is a common affliction in democracies. And polls show that in the coming election, voters will split their loyalties, once again depriving Fox of the congressional majority he needs to advance his agenda. Despite nearly three years of on-the-job training, the onetime Coca-Cola salesman lacks the negotiating skills to build cross-party alliances. Fox doesn't even enjoy the full support of his own party. And neither the once-mighty Institutional Revolutionary Party nor the smaller Party of the Democratic Revolution seems interested in providing constructive opposition.

No wonder Fox is already being depicted as a lame duck. "People are assuming that Fox isn't going to manage to win any significant reforms in his term in office," says Mexico City economist Jonathan Heath. "That means we're losing a lot in terms of potential growth, investment, and job creation." On the campaign trail, Fox promised that he would set the economy sprinting at 7% a year by the end of his term. But it has averaged less than 1% a year since he took office. He also pledged to create more than 1 million new jobs a year: 320,000 have been lost under his watch.

Congress watered down Fox's plan to boost tax revenues and has doggedly blocked his efforts to open the energy sector to private investment. Business isn't holding out much hope for an overhaul of the labor code. Without these reforms, Mexico's economy cannot grow by much more than 3% a year, says Sidney Weintraub, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington.

Fox's presidency has not been a complete wash. His administration has begun the arduous battle to stamp out corruption in the bureaucracy and police. It also pushed through a freedom-of-information law that sheds light on all aspects of government. Mexicans see these as important changes. That's why Fox's popularity rating tops 60%.

Nonetheless, petty party politics threatens to sour many voters on democracy. Pollsters predict turnout on July 6 will be the lowest in decades. And despite all efforts to guard against electoral fraud, many of the poorest still view their vote as something to be traded for a few pesos or a box of food supplies. Three years ago, many cheered Fox's victory as a sign that Mexico's transition to democracy was complete. Yet the journey has only just begun.

By Geri Smith

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