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Mexico: Democratization through Electoral Reform


Mexico has a presidential system with strong and independent legislative, executive and judicial branches. The doctrine of the separation of powers, which did not function in practice between 1929 and 1997, when the single official party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), controlled both the executive and Congress, has been resurrected and is now the dominant feature of politics at the federal level.

The president is elected by plurality vote. In the 1988 and 1994 elections, the winner won about half of the votes cast, but in the 2000 election the winner, Vicente Fox, won only 42.5 per cent of the votes. Proposals exist to amend the constitution to introduce a run-off election between the two front-runners if no candidate wins an absolute majority in the first round. Their success will depend primarily on the electoral prospects of the major parties, as well as considerations of the cost of a second round.

The president is elected for a six-year term and can never be re-elected or reappointed. This prevents presidents from becoming entrenched in power, but it also diminishes their accountability because they never have to face the electorate again. Considering the ideological and symbolic roots behind the prohibition on presidential re-election (it was a focal point in the Mexican Revolution), it is unlikely that this clause will be repealed soon.

The Mexican Congress is bicameral, the Chamber of Deputies elected for three-year terms and the Senate elected for six years (synchronized with the presidential term). Both chambers are elected through mixed systems, using FPTP and List PR.

The Chamber of Deputies has 500 members, 300 elected by FPTP in single-member districts (SMDs) and 200 elected by List PR in five 40-member regional districts. The 300 FPTP seats are apportioned to the states in proportion to population, with the restriction that no state can have fewer than two seats. The Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), the independent electoral authority, uses the pure Sainte-Laguë Method to allocate seats among the states. The IFE then creates SMDs of roughly equal population within each of the states, generally favouring following municipal boundaries over achieving electoral districts with equal populations, and also divides the country into the five 40-member districts for the purpose of elections to the List PR seats. Each party nominates a candidate for each SMD and presents a rank-ordered list of 40 candidates for each of the five regional districts.

Parties may form total or partial coalitions for electoral purposes, running the same candidate in some districts or sharing PR lists. If they do they must submit agreements to the IFE specifying how the votes in the coalition are to be allocated. If parties form a coalition to elect the president, then they must form a coalition for all the Chamber of Deputies and Senate contests as well. In the 2000 election, two of the three presidential candidates were backed by coalitions. In the 2003 legislative elections, there was a partial coalition between the PRI and the Greens, which ran together in 97 single-member districts and separately in 203, and had separate PR lists (the parties had agreed on how to divide the votes from the 97 districts for the purposes of assigning seats to the List PR candidates).

Voters cast a single ballot for deputies. The sum of all of the votes from the district FPTP contests is then used to calculate the number of PR seats to be allocated to each party, using the Largest Remainder Method and the Hare Quota, and there is a 2 per cent threshold based on the total national vote included in the law. The number of PR seats assigned to a party is independent of the number of FPTP districts won, with two important exceptions: no party can ever win more than 300 seats, and no party’s share of the 500 seats can be more than 8 percentage points higher than its share of the valid vote. A party must therefore win at least 42.2 per cent of the valid vote plus at least 167 districts to win 251 seats in the lower chamber. In 1997 and 2003, the PRI’s share of the seats was limited by the 8 per cent rule. In 2000, the 8 per cent rule did not affect either the PRI or the National Action Party (PAN).

Seats are assigned to party list deputies in the five 40-member regional districts, also using the Hare Quota with largest remainders. The lists are rank-ordered and closed, so that the deputies higher on the list are elected first, and voters cannot modify the order of the list.

The move towards pluralism and multiparty politics in Mexico has been a slow process of evolution. Since 1979 there have been extensive reforms to the electoral formulas used to elect the Chamber of Deputies. The formula used in the 1979, 1982 and 1985 elections had 300 SMDs and 100 party list seats, which were restricted to parties that did not win more than 60 districts. The formula used in 1988 increased the number of party list seats to 200, but guaranteed that the party that won a plurality of districts would win a majority of seats, regardless of its share of the vote. A ceiling was established to the number of seats a single party could win, at 350 seats. The 1991 reforms maintained the ceiling and the majority-assuring clause, but required that the winning party win at least 30 per cent of the vote. It also created bonus seats for the winning party, so that it would not have to function with only a narrow majority in the Chamber. In return, the government ceded some control over the electoral process to a partially autonomous electoral management body (the IFE) and to a federal electoral court. The 1994 reforms eliminated the majority-assuring clause and created a Parallel system, in which the elections to the List PR seats were completely decoupled from the elections to the plurality seats. No party could win more than 60 per cent of the seats (300 of 500) in most circumstances. However, this led to the most disproportional result that Mexico has experienced under mixed systems, with the PRI winning 60 per cent of the seats with about 50 per cent of the vote. So in 1996 the electoral law was adjusted again to set the limit to the number of seats a party could win at 300 and the maximum level of over-representation, as described above, at 8 percentage points. This electoral rule has been as stable as any since multiparty representation was established in 1964, having been used in the 1997, 2000, and 2003 elections. No party has won an absolute majority of seats under this rule. The 1996 reform also made the IFE fully autonomous and enhanced the powers of the federal electoral court. Currently there are proposals to make the Chamber of Deputies either more or less proportional, decreasing or increasing the proportion of list deputies, and decreasing or eliminating the margin of over-representation. However, since no two parties have similar goals, reforms are unlikely to come about. The Senate before 1994 had 64 members, two for each of the 31 states plus the Federal District. The senators were elected under various plurality rules. The result was that until 1988 all senators were members of the PRI. The PRI monopoly in the Senate allowed the government to make concessions to opposition, making the Chamber of Deputies more proportional.

By 1994, there were calls for the Senate to be made more widely representative as well. It was expanded to 128 members, with at least a quarter of the seats guaranteed to the opposition. For the 1997 election, a mixed system was established. Each state elects three senators, and in addition 32 are elected by PR on a single national list. In each state, a party nominates a ranked slate of two Senate candidates. Both candidates of the party that wins the most votes are elected as senators, and the first listed candidate of the party that is placed second wins the third Senate seat. Voters cannot adjust the order of the candidates. Each party also nominates a closed, ranked list of 32 candidates for the national PR list. All the votes for the Senate in each state are totalled at the national level. The formula used is a Largest Remainder Method using the Hare Quota and a 2 per cent threshold. Unlike the Chamber of Deputies, there is no linkage between the plurality and the PR seats; instead, the two systems run in parallel and the PR seats do not compensate for any disproportionality. This electoral formula would create a majority for the largest party if it wins around 40 per cent of the national vote, favourably distributed, and has a margin of three or four points over its nearest rival. Winning two-thirds of the seats in the Senate (important for constitutional reforms, electing Supreme Court justices, and internal procedural matters) requires two-thirds of the national vote. No party won an absolute majority of Senate seats in the 2000 election.

Several proposals have been submitted in Congress to eliminate the party list senators, with arguments that a national list is not appropriate for a chamber that represents the states. However, simply eliminating the PR list would benefit the PRI, which is placed either first or second in all but one of the states, and is thus likely to be opposed by other parties. Alternatives would have three or four senators per state, all elected by PR, most likely using the D’Hondt Formula.

Re-election for consecutive terms is prohibited for all federal deputies and senators (and also for governors, state legislators, mayors, and municipal councillors). Legislators can be elected to the other chamber when their term expires, and they can be re-elected to the same chamber after sitting out a term. The ‘no re-election’ reforms were implemented in 1932 to resolve problems in the PRI by increasing loyalty to the central committee and reducing the power of local party bosses. At the time, the reform was sold as the natural conclusion of the ideology of no re-election from the Mexican Revolution. However, it has served to reduce the autonomy of legislators, because their career prospects after their term of office depended on the party machinery, and for many years increased the power of the president because of his control over his party’s machinery. Party discipline has thus been traditionally very high, approaching 100 per cent for the federal legislators of the PRI up to 2000. This has had profound effects on accountability and representation. Voters can neither reward good performance nor punish poor representation.

All the parties use relatively closed procedures to select candidates—elite designation, closed conventions, or closed or highly controlled primaries. In general, nominating procedures have been opening up in recent years, but candidates are still highly dependent on parties. Additionally, parties control most campaign expenditures, even in district and state contests, and closed lists reduce the incentive for candidates to campaign.

Mexico’s slow democratization has seen frequent electoral system change as a series of concessions by the dominant party to defuse dissent, which has resulted finally in a multiparty presidential system with very strong parties. Further change may now be less likely, as different parties have different interests and any change is seen as a zero-sum game.

Contributors: Weldon, Jeffrey A.

last modified March 14, 2006 07:54



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