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Somewhat more effective sufferage, some re-election?

3 December 2013

In this country we not only name streets for national heroes (every town has a calle Juárez) and even national holidays (I happen to live on calle 16 de Septiembre) which foreigners find a bit odd, but even stranger, we name streets for historic slogans.   I did once run across winding, hilly  “Effective Suffrage, No Re-election!” (¡Sufragio efectivo, no reelección!) street…  a slogan taken  seriously, though like the direction and altitude of that street, the meaning given the slogan changes regularly, and is likely to undergo a few more in the coming days.

Sufragio efectivo, no reelección!  was coined for Porfirio Diáz’s 1871 Plan de Noria — which sought the overthrow Benito Juárez on the grounds that one term was enough for any politician — and was picked up by Francisco I. Madero in 1910, who had the impertinence to use it to justify an uprising that cut short Don Porfirio’s seventh term in office.

And, while Mexico has never quite had effective suffrage (though I think it’s got a good voting SYSTEM, it still is not the votes that count, but the men who counts the votes who decide who wins and who loses), the “no re-election” rule has not only withstood serious challenges following adoption of the 1917 Constitution (Carranza attempted to extend his term past its expiration in 1920, was overthrown and acting president de la Huerta held office until new elections could be held.  Obregón was elected in 1921, serving out the remainder of the regular term until 1924, when Calles assumed office. Obregón’s abbreviated term was the rationale for allowing him a second run… but he was assassinated before he could assume office, and — while he continued to pull the strings behind the scenes — Calles did not, as expected, remain in office, but th followed the constitutional procedures,  which called for Congress to elect an acting President until the next scheduled national election.   Constitutional procedure, and custom, now holds that even an “acting president” is ineligible for a second term.

Over the years, the ban on re-election has been extended to state and federal legislators and executive officers (governors and municipal presidents).

Other Latin American nations have not been nearly as strict on term limits at lower levels, but they have tended to adopt the Mexican ban on presidential re-elections,  which has been something of a mixed blessing.  Although meant to prevent a quasi-monarchal permanent presidency, like that of Porfirio Diáz, it has also meant a President is a “lame duck” from the time he or she assumes office… and, while the face may change, the party or faction in control of the administration is often perpetuated (as here, where the PRI held office, even with complete changes in ideology,  continuously since 1948 to 2000… or, 1929 to 2000 if you count the two previous parties that the PRI considers their direct ancestors).

At the legislative and lower executive levels, there have been two problem with the ban on re-election.  In-coming administrations tend to put their own supporters into key positions, who then put their own clients into lower level patronage jobs… needlessly disrupting bureaucratic procedures as the new people figure out the system (less patronage positions, and more permanent civil service jobs is the obvious solution here).  In the legislatures, the “institutional memory” is short-term.  With the entire Chamber of Deputies replaced every three years, there is no such thing as senority, and — although the various Deputies are usually experienced office-holders who may have served in the Chamber before — no continuity in leadership (that is, while in the U.S., the House minority leader might become the majority leader if his or her party had a particularly successful run at the polls, the incoming legislators would begin their term with some sense of who exactly spoke for their party and who to turn to within the House for leadership on any particular issue).

AND… just to complicate matters:  no one presently holding  elective office can be a candidate for elective office.  So, for professional politicians, for whom being elected and holding office IS their career path, it means resigning the last day possible… 90 days before the next election.  Luckily, at least for legislative positions, voters not only chose a candidate, but a “substitute” … who will step into the elective position if anything happens to the elected official.  While a few resign, die, or otherwise leave during the normal term, 90 days before the next election, there are massive resignations in the legislatures… which leaves the substitutes (who then can’t run for office themselves).  The “B” team are generally not professional pols, but usually party regulars or people with outside jobs who don’t mind a part-time job with no heavy lifting and unbelievably generous perks… and so, for the last three months of any elective term, nothing really gets done.

The Senate today approved some changes in the Constitution that would undo at least some of the quirks in the Mexican system that would open up some offices to re-election.  One sticking point is whether a candidate must run on the same party he or she was originally elected from, or if they can switch parties.  The present system — in which a candidate is rewarded for their support for the party by being nominated to at least some suitable other office at the end of their term — would be somewhat undermined by candidates who could run for re-election on their record in serving their constituents rather than their party might find it difficult to do so when party and local interests collide.   Right now, the proposal on the table is to allow deputies and senators to stay in one party up to half their term (deputies serve three years, senators six, so 1.5 years and 3 years into their first time, they’d have to decide whether to run for re-election from their original party, from a different party or seek another office… or do something more useful with their lives).

There is no proposal to allow presidents to run for re-election (and no one is even considering that),  and if anything, the limits on the Presidential powers are slightly limited.  Under the Senate proposal, the Attorney General could only be fired for cause.  The “causes” still to be worked out.

As to “effective suffrage”… nothing’s perfect, but much of the Senate bill deals with how elections are controlled.  The Elections Board (IFE) which worked well in the past has been roundly (and I think correctly) criticized as a creature of the various parties rather than an arbitrator of fair elections.  IFE’s governing commission is composed of party representatives, in proportion to the various party’s strength in the previous election, which puts new parties (which have no representative) and smaller parties at a distinct disadvantage, and makes it all too easy for decisions on electoral irregularities to be decided not on the basis of the voters’ best interests or the integrity of the election, but on a party’s own interests in the results of that decision.  Notoriously, IFE heavily sanctioned PRD (the smallest of the three main parties) for relatively minor financial reporting irregularities, while overlooking major campaign spending limit overruns by PRI (the largest party).

In the bill are provisions for a new electoral commission that would replace IFE, and. so we are told have more independence from the parties than IFE does.  And, what is probably the most interesting part of the bill, would give the new commission the power to nullify elections if a party goes over the agreed upon spending limits for campaign expenses.  Whether it would be five percent, ten percent or some other percentage of overspending that would toss out the election is still being debated, but I imagine what we’ll be hearing are more complaints from losers about winners expense accounts, and … if we’re lucky… a turn away from the U.S. style campaigning of recent years which has been about image and salesmanship and a return to the quaint idea of campaigns about ideas.


Andrea Becerril and Víctor Ballinas, “El Senado reanuda este martes discusión de reforma política” (Jornada, 3 December 2013)

Ricardo Goméz, “Senadors perfilan cambios a Reforma Política” (El Universal,  3 December 2013)

Gods, Gauchupines and Gringos

Political Constitution of the United Mexican States (update as of 23 February 2013)

One Comment leave one →
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