Sergio Aguayo
"Mexico’s 2006 Presidential Election:
The Factors and Actors Involved

April 13, 2004

Professor Sergio Aguayo spoke on April 13 at the Women's Faculty Club on the run-up to the 2006 presidential election in Mexico. Concentrating on the gradual process of democratization in Mexico, he argued that, while competitive elections in 2000 were a good starting point, both asserting elected officials' control of the powers of government and reform of the Mexican campaign finance system will be necessary to the further growth of Mexican democracy.

Mexico 2006: Structural Challenges Transcend Party Rivalries
By Simeon Tegel

With the euphoria of the historic 2000 presidential elections spent, Mexicans continue to face a major challenge: extending the democratic reforms of the federal electoral system to all of their nation’s social and political institutions. However, there remain major structural impediments to the deepening and broadening of Mexico’s transition. During his CLAS talk, Sergio Aguayo, one of Mexico’s leading commentators on democratization and human rights, argued that these obstacles transcend the jockeying for position ahead of the 2006 presidential contest.

“We are uncertain about the future of the Mexican transition,” Aguayo warned. With no legislative majority and no apparent strategy to build one, it seems highly improbable that the flagship reforms that President Vicente Fox wants to introduce to Mexico’s fiscal system, energy sector and labor market will become reality. Executive indecisiveness has encouraged the legislative deadlock as well as resistance to change from a wide range of social sectors. The resulting paralysis is neatly reflected in Fox’s poll results. In September 2000, during his interregnum, 80 percent of the Mexican electorate approved of Fox — nearly double the proportion that had actually voted for him three months earlier. But by February 2004, Fox’s approval rating had fallen to 54 percent as the electorate grew impatient for the promised changes.

Many of the structural problems result from the relative strengths of the three main political parties at all levels of Mexican public life, from the municipal to the federal. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) might have lost the presidency, Aguayo argued, but it remains a formidable presence throughout the republic, especially in government bureaucracies, with a national capacity to organize and mobilize that Fox’s National Action party (PAN) and the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) cannot match. Meanwhile, Mexico’s bicameral congress remains divided in both chambers with none of the three main parties holding an absolute majority. Fox has also faced stiff resistance from Mexico’s private sector, with many actors reluctant to cede influence, status and interests acquired under previous administrations where big business and government often shared intimate and corrupt relationships. Finally, Fox has, of course, faced a hostile international environment post-September 11, above all for his vaunted migration pact with the United States.

Nevertheless, Fox and his team might have proved more effective had they avoided a series of “childish mistakes” on taking office. The decision to divide the cabinet into three committees to deal separately with economic matters, social policy and security was a major blunder. In particular, having each committee report to a commissioner who in turn would answer to the president caused a political and administrative logjam. Without political clout or any legal status under the Mexican constitution, the commissioners compounded the disorder among cabinet members whose lack of discipline was given full rein by Fox’s preference for delegating responsibility. As a result, some secretariats worked well while others foundered, depending on the energy and vision of the individual ministers: The Secretariat of Foreign Relations (SRE) was a success under Jorge Castañeda but Santiago Creel has proved ineffective at modernizing the Interior Ministry (Secretaría de Gobernación).

However, miscalculation has not been the only source of Fox’s political errors. “He was not psychologically prepared to make the necessary transformations that the country needed,” Aguayo said, arguing that the president’s tendency to procrastinate and avoid confrontation with political friends and foes alike has caused a series of political defeats.

Despite modeling himself on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and publicly declaring that the first 100 days of his administration would see landmark changes, Fox delayed for more than a year on the pivotal question of how to deal with the PRI. By the end of 2001, when he decided to negotiate with the party en bloc, members of the former ruling party had realized they might actually be able to weather a PAN presidency. This poor timing, Aguayo suggested, compounded Fox’s failure to take advantage of internal party splits by negotiating with different PRI factions on specific issues or throwing down the gauntlet and launching a raft of criminal prosecutions against senior PRI figures. Fox also failed to swiftly replace the federal secretariats’ representatives to the 32 state governments, key positions in the implementation of any federal reforms, despite the incumbents’ connections to the previous PRI administration which had appointed them.

Meanwhile, Fox spent one-fifth of his first year in office traveling abroad, reveling in the international acclaim for his landmark triumph as the first Mexican president elected from the opposition in 71 years. Instead, Aguayo argued, Fox should have stayed at home to deal with the urgent challenges facing Mexico. The result was to cede vital breathing space to Fox’s defeated opponents, allowing them to recoup and reorganize. Now, after three years of stasis, Fox has lost credibility among the electorate, despite a widespread acknowledgement of his good intentions. In February 2001, 64 percent thought Fox had control of his presidency. Last February just 28 percent thought that. “We still like Vicente Fox,” said Aguayo, “but we don’t respect Vicente Fox.”

The result has been a geographical and social “atomization of power.” With three years to go until the next president takes office, the executive has lost its way while both the legislature and the judiciary remain in need of significant reform. Meanwhile, the decentralization of power, through the massive redistribution of federal fiscal revenues to state governments, has been premature; although the national government was ready for the change, no structural reforms had been implemented at the local level to prepare them to administer the new funds in an accountable and transparent way. The result has been to increase the power of local bosses and revive Mexico’s tradition of caciquismo.

Lavish state funding for political parties, originally designed in the 1990s to even the playing field for opposition candidates, has encouraged professional political participation by opportunists rather than idealists, seeking both lucrative employment from parties awash with money and access to extravagantly remunerated public positions. In last year’s mid-term elections, the 11 registered parties shared federal funds totaling $450 million. That sum is due to double in 2006. It is also supplemented by corporate donors who often expect the favor to be returned once a candidate or party has reached public office. “It is absolutely ridiculous and provokes corruption,” said Aguayo. “Voting in Mexico is the most expensive in the world.”

The Mexican electronic media, concentrated in the hands of a small number of owners, are also still coming to grips with their role in the transition. Some 70 percent of the federal funds handed out for last year’s midterm elections found its way into the pockets of radio and television companies. Some local stations perpetuate the “system of blackmail” that functioned under the PRI and still openly insist on payment in return for airing interviews with political candidates. Poverty and low levels of education among many Mexicans also mean that working class voters routinely expect gifts in return for their ballots, particularly in rural areas. The result is the “low professional capacity” and “low levels of formal education” of many elected servants in Mexico.

Yet the alternatives to the existing players are limited by some of the world’s highest obstacles to participation in electoral politics. To gain preliminary registration, which enables its name to appear on ballots, a party must have 175,000 paid-up members and have convened 200 meetings each attended by a minimum of 300 people. Alliances between parties are also prohibited. Aguayo’s own embryonic party, México Posible, which campaigned on a raft of progressive and social democratic policies, lost its legal status in 2003 after failing to break the established parties’ lock on voter preferences.

However, there are grounds for optimism. Mexico’s democratic transition has been a gradual process. Those who fought for change with such determination down the years are still present and active. Change has been such a long time in coming that some of the reforms that have been realized are now relatively deeply-rooted. External factors also impede a return to the bad ways of the past. NAFTA has bound Mexico closer than ever to its northern neighbor. The flow of goods and people, both legal and illegal, across the border creates and demands deeper ties with the United States. NAFTA has also given the U.S. a profound, if sometimes unrealized interest in the fate of Mexican democracy, and political and economic stability. Another important trade treaty, with the European Union, came into effect in July 2000. Crucially, this one contained a democratic clause, the first ever, conditioning Mexico’s commerce with Europe on its domestic record on issues such as human rights and electoral fairness.

Meanwhile, the jockeying for position among parties and politicians in the run-up to the 2006 presidential election has increasingly moved center-stage. Currently, there are 25 presidential candidates for the 2006 elections, 22 male and three female. Leading the polls is Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the PRD’s populist mayor of Mexico City, with 37 percent of public support, Aguayo noted. He is followed by Roberto Madrazo, the “corrupt” leader of the PRI, with 29 percent and the PAN’s Creel, the current interior minister, with 23 percent. Notable long shot contenders include Castañeda, the mercurial leftwing former minister of foreign relations, and Fox’s wife, Martha Sahagún. Castañeda, however, has a mere 6 percent of public support and is most likely vying for another influential appointment under a PRD president. Sahagún, despite strong public recognition, is widely disliked by the rank-and-file PAN members who will choose the party’s presidential nominee.

However, the identity of the next resident of Los Pinos is likely to be less important than his or her strategy for tackling the formidable structural impediments to the flowering of a modern, entrenched and accountable system of democracy, Aguayo concluded. The question for those with a stake in the success of Mexico’s transition is not how to win elections but how to change the formal rules of the democratic game.

Sergio Aguayo is Professor of History at the Colegio de México. He is a founding member of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights and was a candidate in the 2003 midterm elections for the México Posible party. He spoke to CLAS on April 13.

Simeon Tegel is a graduate student on the Latin American Studies program.

Professor Aguayo also addressed some of the pitfalls of Mexico's current party system, and the strained relationship between central authorities and state and local governments. Those governments receive a large share of their funding from the national budget, yet resist central government attempts at oversight and auditing of their projects and budgets.

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