Democracy in Mexico – a magic moment or magic realism?

Posted on October 20th, 2014 by Claire Wright

Great expectations have been created by Mexico’s recent reform of the energy sector but little has been said about the important political and electoral reforms that are currently being implemented. Will these reforms facilitate or frustrate hopes of more citizen participation in political processes? Given that Mexico’s fully-fledged democratic system has not yet celebrated its fourteenth birthday, perhaps – as Mexicans say – we need to give time some time to work things out.


This image was originally posted to Flickr by Rob Young at

In 1938 André Breton, father of the surrealists and grandfather of the Latin American magic realists, stated upon arrival in Mexico that it was the most surreal country in the world. The actor Daniel Radcliffe may have thought the same recently when the Mexican premiere of his latest film was cancelled, due to potential mobbing by over-zealous fans. Yet what is madness for some is opportunity for others and it can be tricky to tell the difference between magic realism and a magic moment.

For its part, the UK press has been awash with the idea of a “Mexican moment”, cautiously excited by the country’s promising growth rates in the context of a sluggish global economy. The BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) are out and the emerging MINTs (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey) are in. Mexico has become particularly attractive since the recent reform of its national petrol company (PEMEX), paving the way for foreign investment, as well as other highly ambitious structural reforms including the tax and telecommunications sectors.

However, all the fuss about Mexico’s economic reforms has overshadowed the important political reforms that are being implemented in the country. Why does this matter? Put simply, because politics and economics go hand in hand. Mexico is in a process of democratic consolidation, having become a fully-fledged democracy well into the third wave of democracy that rippled through Latin America, after 75 years of what Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa controversially called the “perfect dictatorship”. Indeed, following a series of political reforms that came from below (Mexico is a Federal State), it was in 2000 with the first change in presidential power from the PRI party to the PAN party that Mexico’s rather unique transition to democracy came to an end.

After twelve years of progress in some areas and setbacks in others, the PRI is now back in power and implementing mammoth political reforms in the framework of the “Pact for Mexico”, an informal coalition with the other two main parties: the PAN and the PRD. The issue of further political reform has been on the cards for several years, in part due to falling citizen satisfaction with democracy – Mexico follows the pattern of the OECD countries in this sense –   and the interests of minority parties and candidates. This continuing focus on institutional reform and party competition in the context of elections is undoubtedly a result of how democracy in Mexico came about. In political science terms, this is a “path dependent” process, because present day decisions and practices are to a large extent affected by those taken in the past.

In the official website of the Mexican Presidency, President Enrique Peña Nieto states that the political-electoral reform of 2014 aims to strengthen and consolidate Mexican democracy, highlighting the importance of several changes, including:

  • The possibility of coalition governments
  • Quotas for female candidates in elections
  • The creation of special prosecutors for corruption and electoral conflicts
  • The autonomy of the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy
  • The need for legislative ratification of certain Secretariats
  • Consecutive re-election of legislators for up to 12 years
  • The transformation of the historical Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) into the National Electoral Institute (INE)

The first five of these reforms (on paper at least) speak of opening up the system to multi-party governments, a need for gender balance, and the possibility of horizontal accountability, a term referring to effective oversight between different branches of government. Together, these changes point towards a consensus democracy, a model which promotes the participation and welfare of citizens. On the other hand, the last two reforms – re-election of legislators and the centralisation of the National Electoral Body – point towards a more majoritarian concept of democracy, which creates sharp divisions between those who hold power and those who do not, limiting the possibility for agreements and participation. Undoubtedly the message of this political-electoral reform for democracy in Mexico is decidedly mixed.

For political analysts, one of the key aspects of the reform has been the newly-regulated possibility of citizens running as independent candidates in federal elections, a proposal that has been a point of debate for several years leading to its tentative implementation at the subnational level. Despite initial enthusiasm, a concern has been raised: the fact that independent candidates suffer from greater formal barriers than political parties, meaning that this is just lip service to “citizen participation”. Another concern could be added: in the unlikely event that independent candidates were to succeed, we could see a rise of populist, anti-institutional politics. Lessons from other parts of Latin America suggest that permanent, institutionalised parties are an essential part of democratic consolidation. In Mexico in particular, the possibility of independent candidates is essentially oxymoronic, given the extent to which citizens feel that political parties structure their participation and political life in general.

The depth and breadth of the changes that Mexico is currently undergoing are worthy of much greater consideration than can be given in these brief lines. Nevertheless, beyond the economic reforms that have made the international headlines, it is important to consider the significance and potential impact of the political-electoral reforms that are also being implemented. Whether these reforms fulfil or frustrate hopes of greater citizen participation – or even do both at the same time – remains to be seen. More than a magic moment or magic realism, it would be fairer to say that democracy in Mexico is work in progress.



Claire Wright is a researcher at Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León Facultad de Ciencias Politicas, the Crick Centre’s partner organisation in Mexico. She specialises in Latin American politics.

Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series. For more follow our twitter discussion #understandingpolitics.

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