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Those devilish details: Calderón’s 10 reforms

16 December 2009

Perhaps seeking to make the last half of his term relevant, Felipe Calderón has made ten proposals for radically restructuring the Mexican political system.  While so far, the proposals are getting a good reception from foreign observers (and seem to be widely supported in Mexico) there are, of course, some objections to the specifics.

Points one and two, allowing for re-election of lower office holders (up to federal deputies, who would be term limited to 12 consecutive years) doesn’t seem unreasonable — in theory making local officials more beholden to the voters for their activities in office.  In theory, this will mean local office-holders spend less on rewarding their party, and ensuring their party’s survival in office, but there is a counter-argument that this will just mean the office-holder will be building his or her personal power-base.  At the federal deputy level, this could mean building a family dynasty in office, not that there aren’t political dynasties here now.

Re-election has the advantage of building “institutional memory”, one complaint about our legislative system being that deputies are always “freshman legislators”.  On the other hand, expecting to leave at the end of three years, they aren’t, as in the United States, working on their re-election from day one.

Point three would reduce the size of the Chamber of Deputies (from 500 to 400) and the Senate (from 128 to 96). The argument here is for “efficiency” although I’m not sure efficiency is the standard by which democratic representation is measured (a unitary single executive — i.e., absolute dictatorship — is extremely efficient).  In practice — together with point four which would raise the threshhold for proportional representation in the legislature and for party registration from 2.5 percent of the voters to 4 percent — this will stifle minority representation, and marginalize dissenters.

Although the complaint that point three is stilling minority voices would seem to be answered in point six — opening up the process to independent candidates — independents would have to be self-financing, or with strong outside backers.  As it works now, candidates are vetted in some fashion by the parties — even mini-parties like the PT — and have equal media access to voters (something the “mainstream” media, like Televisa, would dearly love to jettison).  And serious non-establishment candidates — like Cuautémoc Cardenas in 1988, or Andres Manuel López Obrador in 2006 — only had viability by garnering support from the mini-parties, and probably would not have had the impact they did running as independents, or on a single major party ticket.

Secondly, look at the potential “independent” candidates that have cropped up:  “Dr. Simi” and Jorge Casteñeda.  Both were ostensensively on the “left” but their campaigns were designed to siphon off votes from more electable leftist candidates.  In the situation where the party’s “official” candidate is rejected by a sizable portion of the electorate, the standard operating procedure now is for the dissidents to back another party’s candidate.  There have been a few disasters (see Juanito, the joke of Iztapalapa), but generally, this is the usual practice in democratic electoral processes.  In New York States (one of the few in the United States with a multi-party system), dissatisfaction with Republican Senator James Goodall led to the election of Consefvtive James Buckley to the United States Senate (and Buckley wasn’t a bad Senator by any means) and the defeat of the Conservative’s candidate in a recent by-election, but with a candidate more matching the dissident’s choices.  I’m not sure independent candidates in Mexico would give dissenters a reasonable shot at success with a defacto limited party system.

Point five would allow for legislation by citizen referendum. Based on those places where this is done — Venezuela and California, for example — one can presume that referendum drives will be well-financed operations (either by the State, or by private interests).  As it is, point nine specifically allows the Presidency to propose referendums, by-passing the legislature.

And, the most likely referendum drives would be reactionary:  to redefine “personhood” as starting at conception (as several states have done in response to liberalized abortion laws in the Federal District) or to limit marriage to persons of the opposite sex (in response to Coahuila’s 2005 passage of a same-sex marriage bill, and the Federal Districts expected passage of a bill by the District Assembly this year).

Point seven — having presidential run-offs if no candidate receives 50 percent plus one of the vote — makes sense, but the left is quick to point out that the practical result is that a dubious electoral victory like Felipe Calderón’s in 2006, would be less investigated than it was, and a run-off (which he would have won with PRI support) would have worked to his personal advantage.

Point eight gives the Supreme Court the power to initiate legislation. I’m surprised none of my foreign colleagues have used the phrase “legislating from the bench” in reference to this.  It’s not necessarily a bad idea, but I haven’t seen the whole proposal.  Even if such legislative proposals would require a majority of justices, there is suspicion that the intention is to strengthen the Presidency.  It’s easier to persuade six judges than a majority of one’s party in the legislature (especially if you are an unpopular president with a legislative minority, like Felipe Calderón).

Point nine I discussed above.

Point ten has been reported as just increasing Presidential veto power. Patrick Corcoran (ganchoblog.blogspot.com) suspects it’s a “line item veto” and it does seem to give the President authority to revise the federal budget without legislative approval.

Mexico is undergoing a transition from Presidentialism to a more balance of powers system, which was hailed in the United States when the often anti-U.S. PRI had all the marbles.  Now that PAN holds the presidency, even with a weakened resident at Los Pinos — and the likely PRI candidate is “malleable” to U.S. interests — there is support for re-invigorating the presidency from North of the Border.

These proposal are, so far, popular within Mexico (and the benefit the two large parties), and are likely — with modifications — to actually give Calderón a good part of what he’s proposing for once.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 16 December 2009 10:36 am

    Hi Richard,

    I’m no expert on James Buckley’s senatorial career, but he doesn’t strike me as someone you’d be particularly fond of. Just out of curiosity, any reason (a piece of legislation, a particularly honorable stance he took on some issue) that makes you say that?

    • 16 December 2009 11:50 am

      I worked on his campaign, having just turned 18 when he ran, as an environmentalist (which he was… of the old school, weathy conservative variety). One bill that he sponsored — and I can’t remember the name — gave college students access to their university records, basically emancipating students from “in loco parentis” which until then treated adult students as legal children under the care of university administrators. he was also influential in getting Environmental Protection legislation through the Senate. The Conservatives then were kind of sane — trying in the State Assembly to scale back the Rockefeller Drug Laws and resolve land disputes with the the Iroquois nations… something of vital interest to those of us “apple-knockers”

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