Feature Article: The Challenges of Democratic Consolidation in Mexico

By Luis Carlos Ugalde

Six years ago, Mexico faced a turning point in its political history. After more than 70 years of one-party rule at the federal level, an opposition candidate, Vicente Fox, won the presidential election, a clear outcome that was readily accepted by all political actors. The challenge for the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) at the time was to conduct free and fair elections, and Mexico’s citizen-directed institution lived up to these high expectations. Today electoral fraud is a thing of the past, campaigns are largely publicly funded, and ballots and vote counting procedures are well established and respected.

However, there are new challenges of democratic consolidation involving the electoral system. In this article, I will briefly describe two central topics of the upcoming 2006 federal elections: first, the challenge of regulating the complex relationship between money and politics; and, second, the decision to allow Mexicans living abroad to vote in the 2006 presidential election.

MONEY AND POLITICS: REGULATING POLITICAL MARKETS

During the 1990s a series of electoral reforms helped to promote democracy and competitiveness in elections. In order to level the playing field, sufficient public funding for all political parties was introduced in 1996. Although private contributions are allowed, they cannot exceed the amount of public resources granted by the IFE. Campaign contributions made by private firms are prohibited, and individual contributions cannot exceed 0.05 percent of public funding per year. These restrictions were set in order to avoid the “capture” of political parties by particular interests by reducing parties’ dependency on private donors.

However, as political competition has increased, so has the cost of campaigning for political parties. This, in turn, has brought about new challenges for IFE’s ability to “follow the money,” in two ways: the oversight of undue private contributions and the enforcement of the spending cap, which for the 2006 presidential election was set at $62 million U.S.

In the past, parties found ways to get around these financing rules and engaged in questionable practices. In the 2000 presidential election, two of the largest national political parties found ways to finance their campaigns illegally. These cases were later known as “Pemexgate” and “Friends of Fox,” and illustrated that the legal means at IFE’s disposal faced some shortcomings. The Institute heavily penalized these parties for about $150 million U.S. It was clear then that the IFE needed to enhance its ability to “follow the money.”

For this year’s election, the IFE has introduced a new set of regulations allowing it to track political parties’ expenses more closely and in a timelier manner.

First, the IFE introduced new rules of financial accountability, requiring political parties to disclose more information about their campaign expenses during the campaign period itself. Besides the possibility of imposing legal sanctions for the violation of these new rules, the IFE is also making this information public, thus allowing citizens to pass judgment on the legitimacy of their preferred party’s or candidate’s contributors and the amount of their expenses. Transparency and disclosure will thus, it is hoped, act as a deterrent for illegal behavior.

Second, since most of the campaign expenditures of political parties are devoted to the mass media, particularly radio and TV, the IFE tracks every spot aired on stations and networks nationwide. In addition, the IFE has signed an agreement with the Radio and TV Industry Association to obtain information on parties’ acquisitions of media time. This will allow the Institute to compare the information provided by the parties with the independent information obtained by the IFE via media monitoring.

Third, the IFE requested the parties to present, for the first time ever, a report on their primary season expenses, known in Mexico as “pre-campaigns.” For the 2006 election, several politicians started to campaign as early as 2003, which raised questions about the origin and amount of money used. As pre-campaigns are not regulated by the electoral law, candidates and parties could get around party finance regulations. It was evident then that such a loophole could represent a back door to illicit money in political campaigns. The IFE consequently acted, requesting all parties to present a detailed financial statement of the expenditures made by their pre-candidates, once their candidate selection procedures (such as primaries) concluded. The adoption of this important measure demanded from IFE both political and institutional resourcefulness, and, in the end, political parties willingly submitted to this extension of authority.

BROADENING DEMOCRACY: THE VOTE OF MEXICANS LIVING ABROAD

In 2005, the Mexican Congress amended the electoral law to allow Mexican citizens living abroad to cast an absentee vote. Until then, voters could only vote at the designated poll sites. While the decision to permit Mexican nationals living abroad to participate in the presidential election addressed what was perceived as a democratic deficit in our political system, this measure also posed distinct challenges to the organization of elections.

Several mechanisms were considered by the Mexican Congress to achieve political inclusion, from full-fledged elections taking place in foreign countries (campaigns included) to more conventional procedures. In the end, the Mexican Congress decided to pass a law enabling registered voters abroad to mail in absentee ballots. While this outcome did not fulfill the expectations of everyone, for lawmakers it was a feasible way to accommodate two legitimate concerns: the demand for political inclusion of a significant number of the voters residing abroad, and the safeguarding of the electoral process’s reliability as a whole. Citizens with a valid voting ID card had to apply to be included in a list of voters abroad. Ballots will have to be sent through registered mail before the election day. In spite of some drawbacks, such as the cost of postage, postal suffrage was deemed by legislators as the best way to preserve the secrecy of the vote.

Around 56,000 Mexicans sent their applications to participate in the July election, 40,644 of whom fulfill all the legal criteria needed to be registered. To some, this figure falls below expectations created by the fact that, standing alone, there are millions of Mexicans living in the U.S. To others, this is a good first step to incorporate Mexicans living abroad into our evolving democracy. Whatever the reading, the effort to broaden democracy beyond our borders should be evaluated not only in numerical terms, but also in terms of the historical opportunity to participate in the democratic process that has been opened to Mexicans living in other countries.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Twenty years ago, elections in Mexico were deemed an ineffective ritual by most citizens. Today, the situation is completely different: Mexico can boast a competitive and democratic electoral system. The Federal Electoral Institute has become one of the foundations of political stability and ranks among the public institutions with the highest levels of public confidence.

Nevertheless, democracy is a process of permanent evolution and change. The IFE has addressed some important challenges in order to enhance the regulation of political markets, bring about more transparency and accountability to party finance, and promote the participation of our nationals living abroad. These and other new challenges faced by Mexican democracy will require both political leadership and an imaginative policy design to bring about a new generation of political reforms. Clearly, the IFE will continue to have a pivotal role in this important task in the years to come.

Luis Carlos Ugalde is the Councilor President of Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), and was a DRCLAS Visiting Fellow in 1999.