Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 315 | Octubre 2007



Partiocracy vs. the Media: An Important Battle

Mexico’s powerful media, dominated by Televisa and Televisión Azteca, behaved like gangsters in their attempt to block an election reform that would limit their sizable profits from election campaigns. The partiocracy won this time. The relationship between media, money and political parties has started to change, but a larger challenge still remains: altering the relationship between parties and citizenry.

Jorge Alonso

Asked what Aristotle would think of most governments in today’s world, Argentine social scientist Atilio Borón replied that he would certainly not describe them as democracies, but rather as oligarchies or plutocracies. Mexico has gone through several transitions, but democracy remains a distant dream. Complex, pluralistic civic movements have made intermittent appearances, demanding respect for civil, political, social and cultural rights, even winning some victories little by little, but they are most often soon overturned. This is where we now stand: a battle has been won against the media that serves the political parties somewhat more than society, but the war is far from over.

How we got to this point

The civic movements have invariably come up against the political parties and the media. For many years, one of their main goals was to end the 70-year authoritarian rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). While it was in power, the media put itself at the party’s service and prevented the opposition’s access to the airwaves. The Federal Election Institute (IFE) was a mere extension of the PRI. An alliance between the civic movements and opposition parties finally freed the country from the domination of this state party by breaking its hold first on the federal legislature, then in 2000 on the President’s office. That struggle was preceded by an earlier victory that ensured the IFE’s autonomy, forcing the executive branch to cede control of the organization of elections.

As the executive’s power declined, however, the political parties consolidated their own power and a kind of “partiocracy” took root. After a brief period in which the IFE was run by citizens’ councils, it quickly fell under the control of the parties, each with its own quota of seats on the institute’s General Council. Political control over the institute reached an extreme during the 2006 presidential election, when the President’s office set up a special phone line to stay in constant contact with the council. By this point, the number of parties controlling the institute was down to two: the governing National Action Party (PAN) and its new ally, the PRI.

For their part, the media had formed their own kind of “-ocracy,” their own power structure, which basically followed the partiocracy’s line. This arrangement meant that money and the media were the only two factors needed to win elections. The parties and their candidates had to negotiate expensive air time in humiliating conditions. In other words, they not only needed the substantial public funds they got for their campaigns, but also had to woo those with money, whether legal or illegal, to obtain more. The elected officials then governed and legislated in line with the interests of both those donors and the media.

Against “Televisa’s law”
and for democracy

Before the 2006 elections and knowing the power they wield over the campaigns, the media had obliged the legislators to fast-track a bill known as “Televisa’s Law” because it was drafted in the offices of the television duopoly. Fast-tracking it implied not passing it first through the appropriate committee. A handful of legislators appealed to the judicial branch, arguing that the law was unconstitutional because it accepted a monopoly. The Supreme Court agreed and the legislators had to draft a new law governing radio and television.

It was the moment to counter the media monopolies and oligopolies with rules that would allow fair competition and equitable access. Since the airwaves are a limited public good, the legislative branch is responsible for regulating them. Ensuring pluralistic, equitable access to radio and television—that is, democratizing the airwaves—was an urgent task.

That first step in the election reform initiated a radical change in how politics is done. Some politicians who had already started their upcoming political race allied with business and the media to try to sway the state legislators, but there was broad consensus among the majority of politicians that the time had come to free themselves of these yokes.

Two election reforms:
From above and from below

Mexico cannot allow itself another election as controversial as the 2006 presidential election. Given the obvious, urgent need for election reform, some of the civic movements reactivated during the 2006 elections organized around discussion of this reform. In early August of this year, the recently formed Comité Conciudadano or “Citizens’ Committee” distributed a working paper with its proposed reforms.

The Citizens’ Committee is a network of election specialists and civic groups in the capital and several states. Among other points, they proposed that election officials be selected by means of a public, transparent procedure in which civil society organizations, civic groups, academic institutions and the public in general could nominate candidates. They also proposed drastically reducing political party funding and putting an end to paid ads, replacing them by debates.

Only weeks later, at the end of August, a congressional committee issued its own proposal for constitutional reforms to the electoral law. After analyzing it, the Citizens’ Committee held a press conference in which it recognized that the legislators’ proposals made several important steps forward: regulating campaigning before the start of the official campaign, reducing the length of campaigns, eliminating banking secrecy for political parties to allow for effective oversight of their resources, and prohibiting federal, state or municipal governments from running ads with names, images or symbols that would promote any individual public servant. The proposal would also grant IFE the power to sanction political parties and groups and both national and international individuals and organizations that violate election laws.

Nonetheless, the Citizens’ Committee also noted that the proposal implied some significant steps backwards. The committee members expressed concern over the secretive nature of the discussions in Congress and among the three leading parties that had negotiated the agreement, along with the fact that they had failed to include key proposals made by several sectors of civil society. They noted that the proposal would make no significant campaign spending cuts and included no provisions for citizen input into electing the IFE’s General Council members, magistrates or the special prosecutor for election crimes. They also criticized the fact that the proposed legislation would do nothing to address the inordinately high salaries of council members.

On September 5, an election reform bill was introduced in the Senate. It would prohibit political parties from buying paid television and radio spots or programs. Campaign publicity could only be aired during official, state-sponsored time slots and the Election Institute would be the only entity authorized to administer these periods. The reform would also prohibit citizens and businesses from paying for or broadcasting messages in favor of or against parties and candidates. IFE’s Financial Commission calculated that the parties had spent some $250 million on radio and television ads in 2006—not including some 281,000 ads the parties did not report or the enormous media expenditures in the period preceding the official campaign.

Council members: in or out?

The thought of losing so much money—equivalent to 70% of the parties’ sizable spending—roused the major television companies. They fought back, accusing the parties of trying to destroy IFE’s autonomy by removing the current council members from their posts, a point on which the parties had not yet reached an agreement.

For several months, public discussion had revolved around arguments for and against such a move. IFE’s president used the media to defend his position, arguing that removing him would be tantamount to recognizing that the presidential elections had been fraudulent. The Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) argued that IFE’s president would have to go and in fact that all council members should be replaced, while the PRI agreed regarding the president but felt that some should remain in their posts. The PAN disagreed totally, significantly raising the political price of replacing council members. The PRI claimed that the PAN’s position showed the council members were at its service.

Writer Denise Dresser summed up the reasons why the council members should be replaced. She noted that IFE cannot play its role as elections arbiter if it does not enjoy the confidence of the parties whose actions it regulates and that confidence in IFE’s authorities had been undermined by events like the controversial formation of the institute’s General Council in 2003 and the errors and omissions committed by council members before and after the presidential elections, which had had a decisive, negative impact.

Former IFE council member Jaime Cárdenas wrote that IFE was facing a serious credibility crisis. He considered the PRI’s complaint that the institute is under the control of one political force to be well grounded. The solution, he suggested, was to reform the Constitution and the relevant laws, designing more competent and accountable institutions. The editorial page of the daily newspaper El Universal argued that IFE’s council members should be part of the solution not of the problem, and should place the institute’s well-being above any personal interests. It maintained that the loss of credibility and confidence affecting the institute was a powerful reason to replace all current council members.

Reaction of the television duopoly

Understanding that the election reform would cut into their profits, the powers of big media and big business used the discussion on replacing the council members as a pretext to try to block the reform itself. Acting just like gangsters, the television companies and some radio stations tried to intimidate the legislators, threatening to use the media to destroy their political images. The Senate condemned these attacks.

The daily newspaper La Jornado charged that the powers behind commercial television and radio were waging a disinformation campaign to harass, pressure, threaten and blackmail the legislators and poison public opinion. It further charged that the National Chamber of Radio and Television (CIRT), led by the powerful television duopoly of Televisa and Televisión Azteca, was falsely presenting itself as a spokesperson for “the Mexican people” in arguing against the replacement of IFE’s council members despite the fact that their biased actions had seriously discredited the Election Institute. Commentator René Delgado wrote that those who argue that keeping the council members in their posts is a way to defend the institute were in fact playing into the hands of the television companies that were trying to block the much needed reform.

Resisting the media pressure

In the midst of this intense public debate, the Citizens’ Committee issued another statement on September 10. Once again, it asked Congress to significantly change the way council members are elected to give the IFE a civic rather than partisan character. It noted how the illegitimate formation of the council responsible for organizing the 2006 elections had numerous regrettable consequences, and that without a true reform, a risk remained that this would happen again. It also demanded that proper procedures be used to replace the current council members rather than secret negotiations involving questionable compromises and deals.

The committee expressed strong support for the proposed constitutional reform, which would establish a new kind of relationship between political forces and the media. It denounced the media’s attempt to pressure the legislature and use the debate around replacement of the council members to defend their economic interests. It argued that freeing the political parties from the power of the media would be an important reform, but one that would only make sense if an austere democratic process congruent with Mexico’s situation were also created. Complaining that the goal of austerity was not evident in the proposed constitutional reform, the Committee once again summed up its proposal to make the cost of Mexico’s political life less onerous, and recalled that its own proposed election reform included many issues not addressed by the legislators.

Freedom of speech at risk?

The debate continued, along with pressure from the television companies and CIRT. On September 10, a new bill was introduced in the Senate with some modifications to the one submitted five days earlier. The new bill clarified that the proposed changes would create a new model of communication between political parties and society based on the exclusive use of public airtime on radio and television for political campaigning. Government propaganda of all kinds would have to be suspended during campaigns. IFE would have the power to sanction those who unduly use their economic power or media influence to try to steer elections toward or against particular parties or candidates.

The Senate responded to accusations that the bill would restrict freedom of speech by explaining that its purpose was to prevent the parties from denigrating institutions or slandering individuals. The limitations were being placed on governments and parties, not on the right of citizens to express their criticisms and points of view. The bill would not restrict freedom of speech, simply the ability of those with money to buy ads to attack participants in political campaigns. Those who opposed these changes were the same people who were accustomed to choosing and removing candidates and financing campaigns behind the scenes.

Finally, on September 11, the negotiators agreed on a gradual replacement of IFE’s council members. When it appeared that all pending issues were resolved, however, CIRT pressured the senators on the committee into participating in a nationally televised meeting with a group of television and radio station owners, managers and program directors. They insisted that the issue was freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech
or just big business?

Although freedom of speech was the pretext for maintaining the status quo, it became clear by the end of the meeting—in which the media representatives arrogantly attacked the legislators—that what was really bothering them was the ban on paid political ads. The senators reiterated that the proposed law would not affect freedom of speech but would affect the freedom to commercialize a public good that belongs to the nation.

Commenting on this meeting, former council member Mauricio Merino said that the media was up in arms about the sudden loss of the business they had cultivated. They didn’t want to lose the hundreds of millions of dollars they get from the parties during each campaign, or the political power they wield in negotiating the fees and schedules allotted each party, in which webs of friendships, political sympathies and money invariably play a part.

These hidden negotiations between parties and the media were precisely what made it so hard to oversee campaign spending in the 2006 elections. Analysts continue to question the validity of the accounts presented to IFE and to ask where the nearly $100 million “lost” along the way came to rest. Behind these figures is not only a lucrative business, but also a political arrangement that suits the media and that would be eliminated by the proposed reform.

Delving deeper into these practices, legal scholar John Ackerman recalled that the television stations increased their prices during election campaigns and charged different fees depending on their support for the candidates. They offer more and better time slots to those who share their points of view, and charge inordinately high rates to opponents. He recalled that in January 2006, at the start of the campaign, CIRT signed an agreement in which it promised to deliver detailed information on paid political ads, including copies of the bills sent to each party. It only supplied general information, however, with no specific details on prices, time slots, and buyers. IFE reported that it didn’t know who had paid for some 281,000 campaign ads, since the media had not fulfilled its promise to provide the institute with a quarterly report of all their contracts.

Another huge problem in the fight against the proposed reform was that the media had formed a close alliance with the current members of IFE’s General Council. In the wake of this alliance, could these council members have the independence and moral weight to oblige CIRT to reveal who was behind these ads?

Despite attacks, the reform is approved

In response to widespread public concern that illegal, illegitimate monetary interests shouldn’t influence the actions of political parties or the course of the election campaigns, the corresponding committees approved the bill despite the pressure. The clear message was that neither the media’s money nor its power should be determining factors in the campaigns or the country’s political life.

The reform’s main provisions would prohibit parties from buying ads in the media. Instead, they could use only those periods allotted to the state by the media to conduct their campaigns. No public or private individuals acting either on their own or for others could buy ads on radio or television aimed at influencing voter preferences either for or against political parties or candidates to elected office. The bill also established a constitutional ban on negative campaigning, i.e. using denigrating expressions in political ads. Another step forward would be the establishment of a right to reply.

The bill then moved to debate in the full Senate. In one last attempt to derail it, CIRT, in alliance with leading business associations including the Chamber of Commerce, again went on national television, this time challenging the senators to hold a referendum on the bill supervised by IFE. The powers that be once again presented themselves as the voice of civil society and tried to disguise this new attempt to block the reform as a struggle to defend freedom of speech. They clearly trusted their capacity to manipulate public opinion through the media.

The senators explained that the Constitution contains no provisions for holding a referendum. Moving to discussion of the bill itself, they replied to the radio and television companies that, despite their public and private threats, lies and attacks, the relationship between parties and the media was being radically changed so that neither money nor paid ads would decide campaigns and candidates. During the debate they also recognized that a great deal of public money, legal private money and money under the table had played a part in previous campaigns.

Final step for the reform:
The state legislatures

Once approved by the Senate, the bill then went to the House of Representatives. CIRT now demanded that House members hold a televised meeting with it, as the senators had done, but they remained firm and refused this attempt to delay the vote on the reform.

As a proposed constitutional reform, the bill required approval not only of both houses of Congress, but also half plus one of the state legislatures. The media announced that with support from the business community they would take their battle to the states to stop the reforms, now approved in the House as well as the Senate. The federal legislators also began contacting their state counterparts to explain the benefits of the reform.

The Citizens’ Committee also set out to support the reform at the state level, arguing that it doesn’t violate freedom of speech. While applauding the progress made in changing the media-money-political parties relationship, it reiterated its demand to reduce overall campaign spending and subject political parties to the country’s transparency law.

The committee not only denounced the radio and television companies’ aggressive, defamatory campaigns against Congress, but also called for further reforms on elections and the media to promote greater democracy. It reiterated the need for a new model of communication and a new kind of relationship between the country’s institutional powers and the public that would involve further reforms in the area of radio and television.

Why so upset?

Mexican society once again entered the fray. Businesspeople, the media, its employees and some academics and other intellectuals attacked the reform, again on the grounds of freedom of speech. Civic groups argued once more that no one should be fooled; that freedom of speech was one thing, but the fact that a second of television time cost a huge amount of money and only those with a lot could buy paid campaign ads was something else altogether. The reform merely sought to limit the abuse of the powerful.

Journalist Carmen Aristegui commented that she was concerned by the belligerent attitude she perceived in many of her colleagues. She didn’t share the idea that the reform risked her freedom or that of any other citizen to express his or her opinions simply by setting limits on the money used to influence campaigns. Civil society organizations and indigenous groups described the power of the television duopoly as unacceptable. They also criticized the attempt of the powers that be to claim to represent civil society and noted the irony that media owners invoked the very freedom of speech and democracy they so often trod on. Freedom of speech in Mexico shouldn’t depend on purchase of air time.

Academics specializing in research on the media noted that CIRT’s members tend to think of themselves as the owners of the airwaves, which in fact belong to the nation. They revealed the weaknesses in the media’s arguments, showing that underlying their anger was the realization that they were going to lose a lot of money as well as the control they’ve traditionally exerted over politicians.

Former IFE council member Jaime Cárdenas called attention to the fact that the media were not only making boodles from each election, but were also weaving networks of complicity and influence peddling with the parties and candidates that allow them to maintain their own privileges to the detriment of society. Legal scholar John Ackerman pointed to another source of their anger: CIRT was worried that IFE would now have the power to effectively regulate the media, since in addition to withdrawing advertising that violates the law, the elimination of secrecy in banking would allow the institute to sanction individuals and institutions. Another issue that was not addressed out loud but was also clearly bothering the media was the constitutional recognition of the right to reply. This would interfere with their bullying custom of destroying public figures who are not servile to them.

Important, but insufficient

The reform, important but still insufficient, was approved. It represents obvious progress, especially in making political campaigns less dependent on the power of money and the media, but the process revealed the flaws of partiocracy. Public consultations were rather cosmetic with important issues left out as the interests and behind-the-scenes negotiations of the largest parties prevailed. The parties continue to be wary of transparency. Political ads will be regulated on radio and television, but not on other media such as the Internet and cell phones. The parties will still receive considerable funds from both the federal government and from each of the states, which they could use to extend the practice of buying votes.

A bigger challenge ahead

This has been an important skirmish between the partiocracy and the media, in which the former succeeded in shaking off the very heavy yoke placed on it by the latter and began to resolve in its favor a contradiction in the workings of the oligarchy. But many of civil society’s proposals were left out.

The social movements that have renewed their struggle for an authentic democracy now face a deeper contradiction, since they have to confront both the entrenched power of the parties and the ideologizing powers of the media and a business class that use a false mantle of democracy to mask their economic interests. True democracy is possible, but it will require a long, persistent struggle by active social movements.

Jorge Alonso is a researcher with CIESAS West and envío correspondent in Mexico.

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