The weak Mexican democracy


Seventeen years ago, Mexicans believed they had finally achieved a truly democratic government with the election of a president different from those of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or P.R.I., who had governed for 71 years under a sophisticated simulation of democracy. For the first time, an independent citizen electoral institute took charge of the election and vote count and, to everybody’s surprise—since they doubted that the still-dominant P.R.I. would permit it—Vicente Fox, of the rightist National Action Party, or P.A.N., was elected president.

Since then, through almost three administrations, the illusion of democracy has faded. Though Fox reduced presidential authoritarianism and promised major changes, he retained the corrupt and bureaucratic structure of the old P.R.I. In spite of this failure, PAN won again in 2006, with Felipe Calderón gaining a doubtful 0.5 percent victory over the leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Democratic Revolución Party, or P.R.D., whom the polls all had as the winner. Democracy had also failed in 2004, when the political parties appointed partisan citizens to the independent electoral institute, compromising the nascent democracy.

The disappointment of the Fox and Calderón regimes was of such depth that the P.R.I. came back with a new leader, the young governor of the State of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto. For five years preceding the 2012 election, the party mounted an aggressive media campaign to promote him, funded by dirty money from the governors of the P.R.I. who were freed of presidential control during Fox’s term. Peña won and promised big changes with a democratic and modern P.R.I., and other young candidates won state governorships. 

Five years have passed, and after the failure of the structural reforms at the beginning of Peña’s administration, we see an increase in corruption at every level. Many of the promising young governors and other governmental officials have been arrested or accused of enormous diversions of resources for personal, family or group benefit. This, along with continued human rights violations and violence linked to the war on drugs initiated by Calderón, show voters again favoring López Obrador, with his new Nacional Regeneración Movement, also called “Morena,” in the lead-up to the 2018 election.

Public disenchantment with Mexico’s so-called democracy deepened a few weeks ago, after gubernatorial elections in Coahuila, the State of Mexico—a Peña stronghold—and Nayarit, where the P.R.I. returned to its old practices of manipulation, cooptation, vote buying and other new tricks. Public resources and money from the federal government were illegally used in each election. The Morena candidate, Delfina Gómez, was expected to beat the P.R.I. in the State of Mexico, but lost by a narrow margin. In Coahuila, where the illegalities were substantial, the P.R.I. won a very doubtful victory. Only in Nayarit did the opposition make gains.

Given its flagrant abuses and lack of scruples, things do not look good for the P.R.I. in 2018. But though its chance of a victory is slim, those of P.A.N. and P.R.D. are not much better. Now the two parties are considering forming a coalition to confront the apparent favorite—López Obrador and his new Morena party. Obrador has lost credibility too, however. Many accuse him of being messianic, foolish and unclear, and of manipulating Morena members and candidates.

Thus the limited but pretentious Mexican democracy is facing a serious crisis of credibility, with all political parties and their members seeking power at any cost—not for the benefit of the people, but to control the money, conduct shady business deals and steal as much as they can. They are even willing to align themselves with criminal organizations and other obscure groups, always under cover of hypocritical and deceptive speech. 

To top it all off, the New York Times recently reported that the Mexican government has spied on journalists, human rights defenders and anti-corruption groups that oppose Peña’s actions through the use of an expensive and sophisticated Israeli spyware program called Pegasus. The program, installed through fake messages on smart phones, was developed to sell to governments for use on criminals and terrorists. The Mexican government issued a brief statement denying the use of Pegasus, but the front-page news brought widespread criticism. Despite the fact that three government agencies bought the program, Peña denied that his administration spied on anyone and, complaining that he feels spied upon, ordered an investigation into the claim, saying that he had asked for international help but was denied it by government officials. 

Meanwhile, his government insists that everything is going just fine and that they are doing their best for the country. But the reality is clear: the high levels of corruption, violence, impunity, injustice and inequality are increasingly threatening Mexican “democracy.”


Victor Reyes is a writer, translator and native of Puebla, Mexico, with decades-old ties to the Light. A Spanish-language version of this column is available on our website.