Mexico: ‘The Iron Law of Oligarchy’

The Federal Electoral Institute's advisory president, Luis Carlos Ugalde Ramírez (L), and its executive secretary, Fernando Zertuche Muñoz, have a private conference during the extraordinary session of the institute, Nov. 3, 2003 (Photo: Guillermo Ogam/Notimex/AFP-Getty Images).

One of the few prestigious Mexican public institutions is the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE). The credibility it established from 1996 to 2003 was based on convincing results: three clean, legitimate elections. The key was the IFE’s autonomy from political parties. Unfortunately, the [recent] process of selecting new board members was seriously flawed from the beginning, since political parties—some more than others—refused to maintain the independence of this arbitrator. Now they want the IFE to be more pliable and less autonomous. Political parties and their factions in the House of Representatives placed their own interests above those of the country and abruptly turned their backs on the Electoral Institute that has been part of Mexico’s democratic transition.

The negotiation process was deplorable from beginning to end. The profile of ideal new board members was never defined. Instead, what prevailed was secrecy and the use of a quota system. A small group of legislators was charged with preparing lists of candidates, exercising veto power, and supporting their own prospects. In view of the results, we can see that the objective was not to establish a group of board members who would be capable and knowledgeable in the area, with proven independence from political parties and a clear sense of what is needed at the current point in time for consolidating democracy. On the contrary, the criteria for selecting new members was based on party affiliation, sympathies, links, and compadrazgo [literally, “copaternity,” in this case, cronyism—WPR]. One needs only to compare the proposed list that “won” with the proposal made by the PRD (the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution) to see the contrast.

We listen to what could happen if the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party] returns to power in the 2006 presidential elections with trepidation [the PRI ruled Mexico for more than 70 consecutive years before losing the elections in 2000—WPR]. But with the selection of IFE board members, we can see that this is a very real possibility. The only step left for the PRI is to return to Los Pinos [the seat of the Mexican presidency], since it is already dominating the country’s political scene. During the negotiations to select IFE board members, the PRI helped itself to the pickings, dominated the negotiations, imposed its majority, used its veto power, and placed one of its own in the chairman’s position. PAN [the right-wing National Action Party], the current governing party, went back to being the “cornered” opposition, incapable of assuming a broader state vision, and the PRD behaved like an opposition party far removed from power, taking an honorable, but ineffective, stance.

For the PRI, the problem was not the opposition, but its own internal dynamics, the rebellion of groups obedient to the PRI governors’ faction, and the sinister voice of their national leader. A party that has lost its discipline is dispersed into “tribes,” which becomes a problem for achieving any agreement and moving forward with structural reforms.

The IFE experience is one more point added to a constellation of regressions. Our Partidocracia [the excessive control of the elites] has shown itself to be incapable of overcoming its structural and oligarchic limitations. [The turn-of-the century German sociologist Robert] Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy” has been fulfilled during recent days at San Lárazo [the seat of the Mexican legislature and bureaucracy] with historic exactness [Michel postulated that all complex organizations produce self-interested ruling cliques—WPR]. It is extremely worrisome that political parties want to take over an institution that has been very difficult to build and that has represented, until now, one of the few guarantees that votes will be counted fairly. The current situation is dreadful. The electoral board has no autonomy. It is controlled by the political parties and by board members who cannot even begin to arbitrate the next presidential succession, which will be a very complicated one. We are facing the possibility of returning to elections of questionable legitimacy.

When we see that the only objective of PRI legislators is to have a majority of board members associated with them, we can understand why they remain part of the old regime that dreams of restoring itself. The perverse notion that political parties should be the ones to choose their own arbitrators sparks a huge contradiction. If parties want to compete and respect the rules, they should be interested in promoting a capable, impartial arbitrator, not one that is playing on their side. But behind this mistaken vision is the false conviction that they were victim to “unfair” fines imposed by the IFE [In recent months, both the PRI and PAN were fined large sums of money for illegal campaign financing in the last presidential elections—WPR]. If the arbitrator fails to guarantee impartiality in elections, then the country will return to the situation before the 1996 reforms. The emerging democracy is so fragile that the dangers of returning to the past are already with us.

We will soon see what happens with the electoral-reform process. The next error would be to cut the IFE’s budget, reducing resources where they should not be cut, affecting its structure and professional service. Little will be gained if IFE departments are condensed, since the root of the problem lies elsewhere, in our model of campaign finance and in political parties’ access to the media.

With this episode, political parties have demonstrated grave irresponsibility, historical blindness, and selfishness. They fail to understand that the IFE is not their property, that they cannot “privatize” it on the basis of their partisan interests, and that they do not have the right to endanger one of the few reliable institutions within a context of political discontent and [institutions that] lack credibility among citizens. The IFE will not return to what it was, because now it must win back the legitimacy that political parties have stolen.