Mexican Political Reforms, Something New, Something Old? - The Expert Take

Oct 16, 2013

As President Enrique Peña Nieto continues to pass new legislation, much of it highly controversial, are his efforts breaking new ground, or does Mexico have a well-established track record of major reforms? A brief look back at the last two decades alone suggests the extent to which current legislation, both proposed and passed, is unique in content and in the legislative process. Several path-breaking political reforms in the 1990s, under the last two PRI presidents in the 71 year reign of that party, illustrate some revealing precedents.

A strong case can be made that the most challenging political reform introduced under President Carlos Salinas, which has not received the attention it deserves, was his decision to introduce major alterations in Article 130 of the 1917 Constitution, which focused on the lengthy and deep conflictive history of the Church-State relationship. Provisions in that article imposed severe restrictions on the Catholic Church and other religious institutions, a product of the 1910 Revolution, as well as a nineteenth century conflict between Liberals and Conservatives represented in the 1857 Constitution. The president initiated these reforms in 1992, which for the first time in seven decades, allowed religious institutions to have legal standing, thus they could own property, and permitted priests and ministers to vote. It removed other outdated limitations as well.

Salinas’s motives have been debated, ranging from self-interest in creating a new political alliance for his party that included the Catholic Church, to bringing Mexican law into the late 20the century, making it compatible with human rights treaties to which Mexico was a signatory. The fact is, however, that many influential members of his own party were not in favor of these reforms; I can personally confirm that in interviewing President Miguel de la Madrid, his predecessor, before the bill was passed, that he believed such revisions might be necessary, but it was too politically risky to introduce them. One of the influential, long-term consequences of this bill was to reinforce the Church’s active role as a leading voice favoring democratic elections, eventually contributing to the dramatic change in control over the executive branch achieved in 2000. Salinas, unlike the current president, had a much easier task given the fact that his party controlled 64 percent of the seats in Congress, just a few seats short of the necessary two-thirds to alter the Constitution.

An equally significant political reform occurred under his successor, Ernesto Zedillo, when his administration passed a major bill altering many structural aspects of Mexico’s electoral mechanisms, dramatically increasing the separation and therefore the independence, of the Federal Electoral Institute to oversee electoral procedures. The changes included expanding the electoral council, removing partisan party members from the council, and appointing an independent as the chair. Most important, the law increased public funding for elections, including free television and radio advertising, which was translated into increased financial support for smaller parties. The law also implemented adjustments in the boundaries of the 300 majority districts to reflect, in many cases, significant demographic changes. This legislation required constitutional changes to Article 41, thus PRI, which alone controlled three-fifths of the seats, could easily achieve its passage in 1996 with additional, limited support. Most analysts, myself included, believe that the new law played a fundamental role in determining the outcome of the 2000 presidential election, which brought the National Action Party (PAN), and Vicente Fox, into power, ending the long reign of PRI.

President Fox’s victory increased the expectations of Mexican citizens generally, and especially those who supported his election, that democratic governance would result in numerous, positive developments for Mexico. While those expectations, by most accounts, were not fulfilled, Fox passed a significant political reform of Article 6, involving citizen rights to information, known as the transparency law, which received little attention compared to the two previous pieces of legislation. His party controlled only 218 seats out of 500, thus it required considerable support from other parties to achieve passage. This legislation went into effect in the summer of 2003. While it does not rank in importance with the previous two examples, it is influential for several reasons. The law required all federal agencies to provide information, on request, regarding most aspects of each agency’s responsibilities. The law was designed to increase accountability, an essential ingredient in a functioning democracy. It has strengthened the press and media in Mexico, as journalists have used the law widely to seek out relevant material. As a scholar who has been engaged in research on Mexican politics since the 1970s, I can personally attest to the dramatic difference between the level of information that can be obtained today using the transparency law, compared to what could be obtained previously, even from such cabinet departments as national defense, with well-deserved reputations for secrecy. While it remains an imperfect tool, and accessibility though the law has increased and decreased since going into effect, it was strengthened in 2012, and complements those reforms which go beyond electoral democracy in Mexico, thus reinforcing long-term political consequences of the religious and electoral reforms in the 1990s.

Peña Nieto already has passed some extraordinary legislation; the most prominent to date are penetrating educational reforms, which if fully implemented will exercise a decisive influence on the quality of education, the level of poverty, and on economic growth. The most significant reform currently under debate, which also requires constitutional change, is directed at the state’s control over subsoil, mineral rights, specifically the petroleum industry. New legislation would allow domestic private and international investment in the exploration and extraction of oil. But the political path Peña Nieto has taken differs greatly from that of his PRI predecessors, or for that matter, President Fox, because unlike his PRI counterparts, he leads a party with only a plurality of votes in Congress. Consequently, he chose an imaginative and original strategy to achieve success with such a controversial reform: the Pacto de Mexico, a prior agreement among the three leading parties as to what issues should be addressed, including an outline of specific, concrete policies to be incorporated in the legislation.

Similar to President Salinas’s experience with his religious reform bill, some individual members of his party oppose the petroleum reform even though he officially achieved his party’s complete backing on this issue at a national assembly in March. However, unlike the religious reforms, where surveys suggested overwhelming public support for modifying some of the restrictions on the church, at least a third of Mexicans are opposed to petroleum reforms, which is linked in the minds of many citizens to the mythology of the 1910 Revolution, the legitimacy of the 1917 Constitution, and perhaps most important of all, to the nationalism inherent in President Lázaro Cárdenas’s 1938 nationalization of the petroleum industry, the most unifying political decision since 1920 in Mexico. If Peña Nieto succeeds in passing and effectively implementing this reform legislation, and others which still remain, it not only will produce a dramatic impact on Mexico’s political and economic development, but introduces and legitimizes a revolutionary, political strategy for passing such legislation.

Experts & Staff