Saturday, October 04, 2008

Mexico's Supreme Court upholds major portion of 2007 electoral reform

Yesterday, Mexico's Supreme Court decided to throw out a case regarding the constitutionality of last year's major electoral reform. While there are still components of the reform the court will deliberate on, the major reform to Article 41 of the Mexican Constitution will not be debated by the Supreme Court. (In fact, they threw out the case because they are in charge of upholding the Constitution, and cannot debate the merits of the Constitution itself).

Before I get into the reforms themselves, I should provide a little background. Back in 2007, Mexico's Congress passed a comprehensive electoral reform that involved several amendments to the Constitution. All three major parties (the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, the right-leaning National Action Party, or PAN, and the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD) supported these reforms. These reforms were seen in part as a recognition from the major parties that Mexico's electoral institutions failed in the 2006 presidential elections, which led the PRD to claim fraud after narrowly losing the presidency to the PAN. (You can read more about the reforms here).

The electoral reforms themselves were passed fairly quickly without much debate in Congress. Like in the United States, Mexico's process for reforming the Constitution requires ratification by the states. The Mexican states ratified the reforms fairly quickly, with only Coahuila opposing them. However, unlike the U.S., Mexico's federal system serves little purpose in regard to constitutional reforms. The political parties are strong enough whereby they can pressure the state parties in the state legislatures to basically serve as a rubber stamp to any legislation approved by the parties in the national Congress.

When these reforms were passed, the media went ballistic, primarily because the new reforms were going to drastically reduce their profits come election time. Mexico's minor political parties also spoke out against the reforms because campaigning is now biased in favor of the larger parties. While the media's claims were pretty selfish, the minor parties were generally right in my opinion that the reform is going to create an unequal playing field. But, since very few support these minor parties or care what they say, their concerns were largely ignored.

There number of changes to electoral law and the Constitution are fairly extensive, but there are a couple major changes to Article 41 that will have a profound effect on Mexican elections.

First, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) now has sole control over the administration of radio and television campaign advertisements. Political parties, individuals, interest groups, etc., are now constitutionally prohibited from purchasing any type of air time on radio or television for electoral purposes. Each media outlet is required to now give 48 minutes/day to the IFE, which then is in charge of distributing this campaign time in a fairly unequal manner. Of this time, 30% is distributed equally among all competing political parties, and the remaining 70% is distributed in proportion to each party's vote in the previous election of federal representatives to the lower house. If there are any new parties that are competing without representation in Congress, they are only entitled to a portion of the 30% that is equally distributed. 

Second, negative ads that attack other parties, individual candidates or political institutions are constitutionally prohibited. 

Third, presidential campaigns are now limited to 90 days, and midterm elections are limited to 60 days.

I think there are going to be two major consequences to these reforms. First, the prevalence of the media in political campaigns is now going to be greatly diminished. Electoral success is going to now be even more dependent on an individual party's ground campaign and its ability to mobilize people through other means, including many kinds of clientelistic behavior. This incentive to privilege the ground campaign over the media campaign is going to benefit the major parties especially, but mainly the PRI, which still has the most extensive party organization in Mexico. Second, to the extent that the media campaign has any effect, the major parties, especially the PRI and the PAN, are going to dominate the airwaves, and this inequality in campaign time will be constitutionally protected. 

In previous posts I have written about the likelihood of the PRI dominating the upcoming 2009 midterm elections. The potential consequences of these reforms reinforces the importance of these elections, as the percentage of votes won in this election will determine each party's portion of airtime in the 2012 presidential elections.

From an academic standpoint, I am excited about these reforms because I plan on being in Mexico to see how this actually plays out next year, and also because I am unaware of any other country's electoral laws that will restrict the role of the media in politics to the same extent as these new reforms. From a normative standpoint, these reforms are pretty troubling as they bias electoral competition in favor of the current major players and make it extremely difficult for any new party to emerge and compete successfully. The long term consequences may be even worse (although reforming electoral laws is one of Mexico' national pastimes) as those parties that are the most successful in the next few elections will have an easier time of maintaining their dominance for the foreseeable future, and have few incentives to change the current law.