In 2018 Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) and his political party, MORENA, historically won not only the Mexican Presidential election but also the Senate and the lower house. Many have been concerned about AMLO consolidating power, as he has passed strict budget cuts to weaken institutions in government and free funds for social spending. His populist rhetoric alienates citizens outside of his base and has received substantial criticism for having vague economic plans and for not addressing high levels of violence. While voter turnout was the highest in this recent election and established parties such as the PRI and PAN were defeated, Mexico has not improved its democratic state as accountability through other branches of government is absent. The main threat to the Mexican public is not the current unorthodox populist President, but a lack of “horizontal accountability” that is a necessary step for Mexico to consolidate its flawed democratic system.
Political scientist, Guillermo O’Donnell, classified a “new species” of existing democracies that shift away from the standard principles of a representative democracy. A delegative democracy (DD) is a system where “vertical accountability” is manifested through elections that are utilized to keep elected officials in line. A DD lacks horizontal accountability as there are little to no checks on the executive and other parts of the government which leads to democratic backsliding. DDs are simply not consolidated, are surprisingly enduring, and grapple with an authoritarian legacy and the socio-economic demands of the public. Mexico and its history would closely fit such a definition as it struggled under the iron grip of specific authoritarian figures like Porfirio Diaz, Victoriano Huerta, and Alvaro Obregon during the early 20th century. After the Mexican revolution, the PRI dominated for roughly 70 years and elected presidents behaved as if they were the embodiment of the people and the custodian of public interest. This dynamic weakened in the late 20th century and the opposition party, PAN, was able to win for the first time in 2000. While comparatively, Mexico has improved in witnessing political competition for the Presidency, there is limited space for other branches of government to check the executive from undermining the constitution and the balance of power.
The Mexican President historically has been seen as the “champion” that would usher great political and economic change. Citizens are quite susceptible to being disappointed when learning that great bold ideas are just campaign promises. Since the 1917 Mexican Constitution, the President has had great sway in appointments for the Supreme Court, the Bureaucracy and in the past even controlled the Mexican Central Bank. The concentrated responsibilities of economic and foreign policy, as well as governmental duties, is daunting. That is why reforms that concentrate more on technocratic institutions can avoid “decretismo” as O’Donnell states that such a term explains the decision frenzy that usually leads to drastic and detrimental outcomes. Decisions like increased social spending are therefore for short-term political gain and are clientelistic. Mexico of course has experienced this as the PRI instituted drastic ISI policies in the 20th century and shifted entirely towards neoliberalism in the 1990s. Therefore the impact is countries that struggle to maintain horizontal accountability and must reconcile great demands of social change with volatile economic situations.
Mexico heavily embodies the characteristic of a DD as the executive branch has and is currently undermining the electoral system. According to a survey done by the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 2017, 74 percent of Mexicans believe that their electoral system is not transparent and distrust official results. For much of the 20th century, we saw the phenomena of the “dedazo” where successors were handpicked. While recent elections were not outright manipulated, the Federal Electoral Tribunal struggles to comprehensively address issues like misusing public funds, buying votes, ballot stealing, and the lack of transparent campaign financing. Previous administrations and even MORENA have taken steps to cut Mexico’s National Electoral Institute budget and to shorten terms of directors to reduce electoral oversight. Finally, in regards to security, citizens and public officials are intimidated and are subjected to violence by organized criminal groups such as cartels when exercising their civic duties. At least 145 politicians were murdered between fall 2017 and in July 2018. Mexico may barely fit Schumpeter and Dahl’s definition of democracy by meeting their criteria of holding elections, but even vertical accountability through the electoral procedure is being undermined.
For a representative democracy to possess a balance of power as defined by O’Donnell, it’s important for accountability to manifest itself through the judicial branch and its ability to conduct judicial review. The Mexican justice system is plagued by delays, unpredictability, corruption, and prevalence of impunity. Before a 1994 constitutional reform, the judicial system was submissive to the PRI and helped them in horizontally centralizing decision-making. Since 1928 appointments were made by the executive rather than the legislative branch and still today faces issues of clientelism and patronage by the party in power. Despite certain reforms in 1994, the “amparo” suit has inter partes effect, meaning it only applies to litigants of that specific case and does not set precedent for future cases which allows officials to circumvent the law. While the Supreme Court now has the power to decide a dispute between federal branches of government, recent appointments have been of controversial candidates with corruption charges. Additionally, when analyzing lower courts, it is undermined by widespread bribery and suffers from limited capacity due to budgetary constraints. To make matters worse, inefficiency affects many legal issues such as protection of private property, immigration procedures, anti-discrimination laws, and holding security forces accountable.
While the Congress of Mexico has exercised the “power of the purse” more than before, representatives tend to turn a blind eye to executive overreach when elections are around the corner. Most senior members and party bosses dominate the decision making and the integration of junior congressional members is minimal. Historically the legislative branch was heavily swayed by the executive branch as during the 20th century Congress was a “rubber-stamp” legislature for the PRI and the President in power. In the status quo, there is little incentive to gain experience or to be responsive to citizens, as term limits make representatives more focused on their next career decision rather than policy-making. As clientelism persists to this day, the basis of many bills is simple pork-barrel projects that take attention away from the President trying to undermine constitutional limits.
The status quo is less than ideal for Mexico and there is a sense of urgency to shift away from trends of clientelism and corruption, however, a single man of the people won’t resolve these structural issues. Gradual and consistent reform is needed to empower courts, to lessen the grip political party bosses have over representatives, and to strengthen technocratic segments of the bureaucracy when addressing complex issues. There is still a long path for reconciliation and the elimination of serious issues such as poverty, corruption, and violence. However, the Mexican people should be proud of the noticeable changes since ending the PRI’s one-party rule. Institutions and horizontal accountability may not be the silver bullet to all their issues, yet, is truly the necessary step Mexico must take to be a true liberal representative democracy.