A Requiem for Calderon

The outgoing Mexican president had a golden opportunity to change his country for the better -- and he blew it.


There are less than two weeks to go before the presidential election in Mexico on  July 1st, and things are not looking good for President Felipe Calderón and his party, the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN). While Enrique Peña Nieto is still in the lead, according to the latest polls, the Partido de la Revolución Institucional (PRI), which ruled Mexico for more than seventy years until its defeat in 2000, could be making a historic comeback. Meanwhile, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the combative former mayor of Mexico City and runner up in the 2006 elections for the left-leaning Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), has been gaining ground. The PAN’s own candidate to succeed Calderón, Josefina Vázquez Mota, now trails in third place.

This balance of forces is a damning indictment of Calderón’s six years in office. The outgoing President has presided over a lost sexenio, and he will leave Mexico in worse shape than when he took office. Perhaps more fundamentally, this election epitomizes the formidable challenges that Mexico continues to confront twelve years after its transition to democracy. The Mexican electorate is profoundly disillusioned with the country’s dysfunctional political system.

According to Consulta Mitofsky, only 30 percent of the Mexican voting public believes the country is headed in the right direction. And a poll conducted by Vanderbilt University as part of the Latin American Public Opinion Project has found that, since 2004, public satisfaction with democracy in Mexico has dropped from 50.3 to 40.6 percent.

This disillusionment is behind the recent rise of the YoSoy132 (or "I am 132") movement, which has mobilized tens of thousands of students since emerging only last month after Peña Nieto made derogatory comments about the protestors during a visit to the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. People are clamoring for change — though it is far from clear that any of the candidates is up to the task of delivering it.

Calderón’s failed administration has a lot to do with the president’s war on drugs, which has generated an unprecedented wave of violence and insecurity in Mexico. Over the past five years, it has become evident that the Calderón administration was ill-equipped to fight this war effectively and deal with its fallout. The president launched the war on drugs without a sound understanding of the nature of the enemy, adequate planning, or a clear exit strategy, and its resolution remains as elusive as ever. Its social costs have also become untenable: the war has claimed as many as 60,000 dead, and under Calderón’s watch, Mexico has become one of the most violent countries in the world, ranking 135 out of 158.

Clearly, there is much more to Mexico than the war on drugs, and Mexico is far from turning into the failed state that is often portrayed in the international media and policy circles. Yet the fight against drugs has been the president’s flagship initiative since 2006, and the Calderón administration has focused on it with obstinate single-mindedness. This sexenio has offered little else in the way of an alternative discourse — except for self-congratulatory rhetoric about how, under Calderón’s leadership, Mexico successfully navigated the global recession that began in 2008. Yes, Mexico’s economy has recovered, and the middle class has continued to grow. But Mexico has grown more slowly than other emerging countries in Latin America, notably Brazil and Colombia, despite all-time high oil prices. As under President Vicente Fox (2000-2006), the economy grew at an average annual growth rate of only 2 to 2.5 percent, which is not enough to promote the kind of job generation the country needs (especially among youth), or to provide the resources necessary to address other vital social needs, including security and education.

But this is only part of the story. The problems ailing Mexico’s incipient democracy run much deeper than the ill-fated war against drugs or meager economic growth. Mexico’s biggest challenge remains the institutional pathologies embedded in the political system, much of which was inherited from one-party rule under the PRI and remains unreformed. Having made a conscious choice to expend his political capital elsewhere, Calderón accomplished notably little in the way of needed reforms during his six years in office. Yet if these problems are not addressed, progress in all other areas will be futile.

The fate of much of the president’s legislative agenda, which has been stalled, blocked or diluted beyond recognition, is a stark reminder of this. There has also been little progress in promoting the kinds of structural reforms within state oil company PEMEX and the big national monopolies that are essential to promoting growth. Attempts to change the political system have yielded little more than a narrow electoral reform that seems to strengthen established political parties even more. And almost six years into the war on drugs, important laws to reform the police and the judiciary have yet to materialize. Meanwhile, corruption remains endemic. The latest scandal regarding the graft that enabled Walmart’s astonishing expansion in Mexico is a stark reminder of this. Mexico has left the impression, especially at the international level, that there is a lack of commitment at the top to follow through on reforms. During his term in office, Calderón has failed to alter that perception.

The institutional framework set up by the PRI has led to a number of dysfunctional dynamics that cripple the Mexican political system. The "winner-takes-all" principle on which the old system was built continues to be the driving force of Mexican politics. The three major political parties — the PAN, the PRI, and the PRD — are consumed with electoral politics and the need to win the next contest (be it at the municipal, state, and national levels) above and beyond any concern with the national interest. This has generated a fiercely competitive and often acrimonious dynamic between them. And as a result, the three parties have failed to develop any kind of basic agreement on how they can work together to address the multiple challenges that Mexico faces. Often the divisions among the parties are not even ideological (all of them have managed to build strategic electoral coalitions when it suits them), but based on petty grievances and recriminations and the desire to ensure the other side loses no matter how high the cost. Their refusal to collaborate across party lines and to build consensus has kept Mexico in a state of governmental gridlock since the advent of democratic rule.

Parties can get away with such behavior in large part because there is no mechanism for re-election, another legacy from authoritarian rule. Because politicians depend on party bosses rather than voters for their political future, they tend to be much more accountable and responsive to their party than to the electorate. Among other things, this makes it difficult to build coalitions across parties in Congress, because parliamentarians have a greater incentive to toe the party line.

Under one-party rule, the legislative process was also set up for an all-powerful president and an aligned parliament controlled by his party. Since the introduction of a genuine multi-party system, Congress is no longer a rubber-stamp institution, particularly because the governing party has not been able to secure a majority. But the legislative has had a hard time adjusting to a new role based on more even relations with the executive. It often seems like opposition parties in parliament have turned blocking government initiatives into a national sport. But being obstructionist should not be confused with being effective, and Congress remains a particularly dysfunctional institution. Finally, unions, another integral part of the political system under one-party rule, remain extremely powerful in Mexico and are often opposed to reform. Given their ability to mobilize votes, they continue to hold sway over politicians, and as such they have had considerable veto power on important reforms, notably in the oil and education sectors.

Calderón’s failure to implement needed change leaves behind a daunting legacy. There is a fundamental lack of trust and confidence in government and in the dysfunctional political process. To be sure, the recent student movement could mark the start of a "Mexican Spring." But Mexico is still waiting for its Gorbachev, a visionary figure who is willing to take on the entrenched system. Sadly, this kind of leader is not likely to emerge come July 1, no matter who the winner is.

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