Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 273 | Abril 2004



Repoliticizing the Election Institute: A Severe Setback for Mexican Democracy

In 1996, after a long civic struggle, the Federal Election Institute became an autonomous, responsive, trustworthy institution. But now it has fallen under the control of the PRI and PAN, a victim of the corrupt partiocracy that is swallowing up Mexico’s fragile democracy like a black hole.

Jorge Alonso

Democracies in Latin America are extremely fragile, and Mexico’s democracy is not only fragile but also very sick. Political theorists have described corruption as the cancer in democracy. In late February and early March, Mexicans were able to witness the corruption of several of the leading political party leaders and government officials up close, thanks to videos broadcast on television.

Several months ago, it was discovered that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had illegally siphoned off a significant amount of money from PEMEX, the state oil company. The party was fined but the people responsible went scot-free. This was followed by the “Friends of Fox” scandal, involving illicit financing of Vicente Fox’s presidential campaign. Once again, the party was fined—in this case, the ruling National Action Party (PAN)—and again, those responsible for the illegal fundraising activities went free.

In February, a videotape caught the leader of Mexico’s Green Party (PVEM) brokering a permit for a tidy sum under the table, revealing his greater interest in greenbacks than in keeping the environment green. The result? The leader in question kept his post, as the Green Party joined the PRI and PAN in covering up for its corrupt members.

Then in March, the Federal District’s finance chief, previously private secretary to Manuel López Obrador, the popular Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) mayor, was also caught on videotape in flagrant acts of corruption, together with another party leader. Unlike the previous cases, their party sanctioned the two officials, who are also facing criminal charges, although no convincing answer has been given to the question of whether the mayor knew about their actions. The federal government has tried to exploit the scandal for political gain, rather than develop a plan to counter and punish corruption.

Disgust and distrust

The corruption has generated widespread disgust among the public and the impunity enjoyed by prominent political figures has added distrust to the mix. Polls have long confirmed that the immense majority of the country’s citizens have little faith in politics, but the recent scandals, which left no party untouched, have finished off what little was left of politicians’ credibility. María de las Heras, a professional pollster, published some alarming findings in mid-March. Those who say they have little or no confidence in the country’s political parties make up the overwhelming majority: 93% for the Green Party, 91% for the PRI and the PRD, and 83% for the PAN. Congress fared even worse, as 96% said they had little or no confidence in their representatives with 95% feeling the same about their senators.

In an attempt to shift attention away from his responsibility in the illegal “Friends of Fox” financing scandal, President Fox took advantage of the video scandals to talk about ethics in politics. But 78% of those polled in the survey claimed little or no confidence in him either. And Mexico City’s Mayor López Obrador, who enjoyed high approval ratings until the revelations about his former secretary, which broke right around the time of the poll, came in four points below Fox. To top it all off, the Federal Election Institute (IFE), one of the few organizations that had inspired public trust—and often cited as evidence of Mexico’s budding democracy—has also fallen into disrepute, as 73% of those polled said they have no confidence in it.

Democratic involution

After many long battles, Mexico’s civic movement managed to wrest control of the Election Institute away from the government several years ago, to form a trustworthy autonomous entity that answered to the citizenry. While the need to closely monitor the actions of election officials was a major concern before 1996, the problem was essentially resolved through this reform. But just days before Congress elected IFE’s General Council in October 2003, the Civic Alliance, one of many organizations that have worked hard to promote democracy in the country, issued a warning that IFE’s independence was in danger. What prompted their worry? That same day, PRI legislators in the House of Representatives had demanded a larger quota of the nine Council posts than the presidency and three additional seats. They wanted a majority, because many PRI officials are convinced they lost the 2000 elections by not controlling the Election Institute. In subsequent negotiations, they focused on getting the presidency and the majority of votes, something they achieved after convincing the PAN to join them in electing a slate made up of the two parties’ members, sympathizers and allies.

The Election Institute’s newly elected president immediately issued a statement denying his PRI membership. When his political record belied that statement, the concern over his lack of independence was coupled with a concern over his lack of honesty. Carlos Fuentes wrote that the IFE had been robbed of its impartiality, while other independent commentators described the situation as a political step backwards. The weekly magazine Proceso reminded people that an earlier PAN-PRI alliance had resulted in the looting of the national treasury through the FOBAPROA bank scandal, and lamented that the PAN was now giving the PRI control over elections. Civic organizations felt defeated, seeing how quickly the Election Institute’s hard-won autonomy was lost. Many denounced what one described as a “democratic involution.” In a seminar on Mexico’s election prospects held in Madrid at the end of November 2003, a PRD leader criticized the serious turn of events.

“Save Democracy, Recover IFE”

In the November 24 session of IFE’s General Council, the PRD representative challenged the election of the new council members. He argued that they didn’t meet the legally established requirements given their commitment to their political parties and because they were legally and morally unsuited to act as impartial arbitrators in the commissions formed during the session. He said it was particularly troubling that the PRI and PAN had made this move after being respectively sanctioned for “PEMEXgate” and the “Friends of Fox” scandals. He suggested that the parties were afraid of submitting to the oversight of an impartial Election Institute. He concluded by calling on the newly elected members to resign.

The Civic Alliance headed up the organizing of a civic forum called “Save Democracy, Recover IFE” at the end of 2003, together with 25 organizations active in several states. In its first statement, it charged that the trustworthiness and responsiveness gained by the institute in 1994 and consolidated in 1996 had been lost in one blow, since the PRI had effectively gained absolute control. They also noted that the new council members would have no real opportunity to demonstrate their impartiality before the 2006 elections, and given the high stakes involved, it would be extremely risky to wait until then to see what happens. For that reason, they called on the council members to resign and called on citizens to mobilize to recover their election institute.

The UN’s recommendations

The election of a biased General Council in the Election Institute sparked so much controversy that even the United Nations took a stand. In its study on human rights in Mexico, it recommended that political parties should not designate election authorities and suggested an alternative: increasing public participation in designing the institutional framework to avoid obvious biases. It also recommended establishing legal mechanisms that would prevent political parties from designating council members and urged that the selection process favor civic representation, ensuring an equitable gender balance and coverage of all regions of the country. It proposed that one third of the council members should be elected and the other two thirds come from civil society and not hold any public electoral post. The procedure should include the registration of candidates and their public appearance before the House of Representatives.

During the preparatory meetings leading up to the Special Summit of the Americas held in Monterrey the third week of January, in which civic organizations participated, the Civic Alliance pointed out that Latin Americans still have a long way to go to ensure democracy and good governance and that many of the region’s democratic institutions are fragile and deteriorating. They gave the case of Mexico’s Election Institute as an example.

IFE failed its first test

In February, IFE faced two decisions that would reveal whether it was independent of the PAN and PRI: designation of the institute’s secretary and other leadership posts, and the review of Green Party statutes to determine whether they had fulfilled the orders of the court that had found its earlier statutes anti-democratic.

With respect to the designation of leadership posts, several civil society organizations met with council members to impress upon them the importance of naming independent, well-respected people to key posts. Since the legitimacy of the council members had been widely questioned, it seemed that they would agree to these demands. But when it came to selecting the new secretary, eight of the nine members voted for someone who had been in charge of Election Training and Civic Education for the institute before IFE’s democratization. The only dissenting member—the PRD representative—denounced the lack of transparency in the process and said he had been pressured to vote for the man. He walked out of the session in protest, also charging that the selection process was clouded by secrecy and that, under the PRI’s control, IFE was reverting to its old self. The PRD accused the new secretary of being involved in illegal PRI actions and predicted more questionable moves from the Election Institute.

Under international scrutiny

By February 2004, the “Save Democracy, Recover IFE” network had doubled in size. It issued another statement adding the flawed election of the new secretary to its concerns over the institute’s impartiality.

It again alerted the public of the serious implications of the setbacks in one of the few trustworthy institutions in a position to guarantee Mexico’s incipient democracy. It also reported on the first steps to reestablish and build networks of people to ensure citizen oversight of the Election Institute—a task they had not had to perform since 1997.

The network also announced that it was launching an international campaign to report this lamentable situation to the organizations that had accompanied Mexico through its difficult transition process lup to 2000, and to place the Election Institute under international scrutiny, since the trust it had earned in the three federal elections since 1997 was lost. And the Civic Alliance planned a meeting with representatives of the European Union’s diplomatic corps, since the Mexico-European Union Free Trade Agreement includes a democracy clause.

Civic conscience in politicians’ hands

The IFE’s other crucial decision concerned its pronouncement on the Green Party’s new statutes. But a lack of information and some cunning interpretations of the law again unfortunately confirmed its bias. Its determination to prove the statutes legally and constitutionally valid led Miguel Angel Granados Chapa, a respected journalist who had been one of the first council members in the reformed institute, to write: “IFE has covered up the true nature of the new statutes through tricks that should not be allowed in an institute of its constitutional stature.” The Green Party, meanwhile, celebrated the decision as a great victory.

Some observers concluded that the Green Party had endorsed the PRI-PAN alliance on the make-up of the council members
in exchange for later approval of its new statutes. Granados Chapa, for example, said the party bias was again clear, and charged that the decision had been cooked up ahead of time. Several commentators in the independent press described it as further evidence that the new council was determined to destroy the prestige the independent IFE had earned.

Critics lambasted the decision’s lack of decorum and cynicism. Adolfo Aguilar Zínzer, who has represented Mexico in the UN Security Council and once served as a Green Party senator, wrote that the current IFE had a debt to the public, since the council members had put its independence in doubt by approving Green Party statutes that were even more anti-democratic than the court-challenged ones.

In a scenario dominated by corruption scandals related to the PRD’s 2003 campaigns—which showed that all of the country’s parties made illegal use of resources in their campaigns—political analyst Sergio Zermeño asked himself, “How do we put a stop to the maddening political ads and the corruption machines known as TV stations? How can we do this if the IFE, formed to be the civic conscience, has fallen into the hands of the politicians?”

Scandals followed by indignation

The civic organizations have been preparing to resume oversight of the Election Institute, as recommended by the United Nations. The “Save Democracy” group is developing a strategy to ensure constant scrutiny and plans to issue a quarterly report on its findings. In response to the generalized distrust and persistent demands, the institute has promised to investigate the parties. But its credibility has been shattered by shameless decisions made in the interests of the parties that named its authorities.

At the end of March, the Civic Movement for Democracy, part of the “Save Democracy” network, initiated a campaign titled “Democracy with Dignity.” It explained that the political scandals of recent years, months, weeks and days not only incite rightful indignation but also make it clear that democracy in Mexico is still a pending task. Mexicans lack political institutions that are up to the challenges facing the country . They noted that sustainable democracy requires both solid, legitimate and credible institutions, and effective government actions to encourage social inclusion, development, equity and respect for all human rights. Mexico has a long way to go to achieve this. According to the civic movement, a country with weak parties and governments and professional politicians who are more concerned about destroying their adversaries than building institutions and who put their own interests before those of the nation is incapable of effectively defending its sovereignty, which is especially threatened now by global authoritarianism. They insisted that true democracy has room for everyone—all kinds of civic, community and regional organizations and social movements—and has channels of communication to ensure that people can express themselves and are not used by political parties and elite groups for their own ends.

From authoritarian
presidentialism to partiocracy

Mexicans are deeply disillusioned with politics. The effective antidote against impunity and corruption in all its forms—venality, the abuse of public resources and the inept performing of public functions—
is social control over the government and the institutions of public interest. Civic organizations have called for a grassroots campaign to demand ethics in politics, the building of efficient institutions and social well-being as the government’s fundamental objective. Such a campaign should involve everyone, drawing on our vast reserves of creativity to build a dignified and truly participatory democracy.

The political parties have contaminated political life and are now corrupting the election institute, which had been a cause for pride in the progress of democracy in Mexico. We have gone from authoritarian presidentialism to a corrupt “partiocracy” that is destroying democracy. The political degradation is alarming. This partiocracy has been imposed through the current correlation of forces and is swallowing up and destroying everything that comes within its sphere of influence. The civic movement, unfortunately, has grown weaker while this has been happening, with some of its own most valuable members sucked up by the parties too. Although a slim but stubborn resistance has been raising its head, it is not yet enough. We have to build a new convergence from below that is strong enough to challenge the anti-democratic forces. One of the few positive results of this whole process is that the civic movement has grasped the seriousness of the situation and is starting to reorganize. Some cancers are curable. Mexican democracy is in very poor health, but there is a cure, which can only come from a powerful, broad, pluralistic, energetic civic movement.

Jorge Alonso is a researchers with CIESAS Western and envío correspondent in Mexico.

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