Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A link between political institutions and crime in Mexico?

In a previous post about rising violence in Mexico, I mentioned in the comments that Mexico’s constitutional prohibition on consecutive reelection had an impact on citizens’ abilities to hold their politicians accountable for their actions. The comment was a little off the cuff and not well thought out, but I was careful not to suggest that removing this impediment to reelection was a partial solution to inducing Mexican politicians to be more responsive to citizen concerns about security issues. However, this post over at Mexidata has suggested just that, that allowing for reelection would allow Mexican voters to hold their leaders accountable for the way they address issues of crime and violence. A recent editorial in the Mexican daily El Universal has also addressed the issue of reelection and its link to accountability. In the growing debate over how to respond to the rising violence, many people in Mexico have been voicing their support for a recall provision, in a sort of knee-jerk, throw the bums out, type of response to the seeming incompetent government attempt to combat drug traffickers and kidnappers. In the editorial, the author suggests recalling public officials is less effective in holding leaders accountable than allowing for reelection.

Why is this important? One of the unique features of the Mexican political system is this prohibition on consecutive reelection, with only one other country in the world (Costa Rica) having a somewhat similar set of institutions. Therefore, the potential impact of prohibiting reelection or removing it once it has been in place after 70-plus years is not well understood either theoretically or empirically. I think in this case, especially with the serious problems Mexico is currently facing, allowing for reelection would not only have several unintended consequences, but would actually be dangerous.  Hopefully it becomes clear by the end of this post why I think so.

First, a little background. In Mexico, term limits have been in place since 1933, when the Mexican Congress approved a constitutional amendment that prohibited consecutive reelection for federal deputies and senators, as well as for state legislators and municipal presidents (i.e. mayors). Governors, as well as the President, are barred from reelection for life. Unlike term limits in many U.S. states and a few other countries around the world, Mexican politicians must sit out one term in most offices (except for executive positions), before being allowed to serve again. This means that an individual can potentially move up and down the ladder from being mayor to being senator, but cannot make a career in any single elected position.

            Part of the justification for term limits was to reduce the instability over presidential succession that had plagued Mexico since the end of the Revolution. The ban on presidential reelection has stabilized alternation in power since 1934. In addition, the reform was seen as implementing a key tenet of the Revolution, “Sufragio Efectivo, No Reelección,” or “Effective Suffrage, No Reelection,” which had been raised by Francisco Madero against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz in 1910. However, the ban on reelection for all public offices was not part of the revolutionary platform, and several scholars have convincingly argued it was put in place for other motives. A ban on consecutive reelection contributed to the centralization of power in the hands of the PRI’s national party leaders and the president, and also centralized power nationally by weakening local political parties and local power structures.

Since the 1990s, many scholars of Mexican politics have advocated for removing the ban on reelection for two reasons. First, allowing reelection is supposed to create politicians who are responsive to voters and allow voters to hold their elected officials accountable. Second, allowing reelection creates incentives for individuals to develop a career in a particular office. Drafting legislation is not easy and those who are allowed to become professional legislators have the skills and experience necessary to make better public policy. I don’t have much of a problem with the second argument, but I take issue with the idealism of the first.

The link between reelection and democratic representation is a fairly basic tenet of democratic theory and is a fairly pervasive part of most work on American politics. Democratic elections are theoretically supposed to allow for the representation of people’s interests because if voters are not adequately represented, they have the possibility to vote that person out of office the next election cycle. It is thought that reelection is a powerful incentive to force politicians to respond to people’s demands. The theory is great, the reality is something entirely different. The theory assumes all voters have perfect information about an incumbent’s record and the challenger’s policy stances. It also assumes equal competition between incumbents and challengers. Finally, it also assumes that people vote for particular individuals based on their own policy interests, rather than other non-policy reasons. Any casual observer of the reality of American politics should laugh at these assumptions, and political scientists have written literally millions of pages showing these assumptions don’t hold. What is the reality? Most voters are uninformed, many vote based on easy cues such as party, or the personal qualities of the candidate, and incumbents have a resource advantage in campaigns that makes it difficult for many challengers to gain recognition.

Moreover, just as there is a resource bias that favors incumbents over challengers, there is a bias in who is represented by these incumbents. Organized interests are generally better represented than the unorganized, primarily because organized interests are easier to mobilize to support one’s reelection and/or to donate money to one’s campaign. In the U.S. context, organized interests can mean many things, both positive and negative. However, translated to the Mexican context, the type of organized interests present at the local level are not comparable to what exists in the United States. In Mexico’s current state with the prevalence of organized crime and drug traffickers, the better comparison to what might happen with reelection is Guatemala and maybe Colombia, not the United States.

While this claim is really speculative, the involvement of drug traffickers in Mexican politics seems to be much lower than in other Latin American countries where drugs are a major part of the economy. Sure, stories surface every once and a while of individual politicians having links to different cartels, but the lack of reelection also seems to be a powerful incentive to keep organized crime out of electoral politics, unlike Guatemala. Politicians have to depend on their political parties, not local organized interests for their next job and are therefore not dependent on raising money to wage a reelection campaign. The cartels may have short-term interests in trying to buy off politicians, but they would have to do this every few years since the individuals would always be changing. For this reason, allowing reelection in Mexico could have some dangerous consequences.

            Right now, the possibility of removing the constitutional ban on reelection seems remote, although the issue has not gone away since the mid-1990s. Under the Fox Administration (2000-2006), numerous initiatives were introduced in the Congress to allow for reelection, and several months ago, a couple members of the National Action Party (PAN) introduced new proposals to remove the ban. The major parties are generally against removing the ban, likely because it would reduce their control over the party membership and elected leaders who use the party label. The people are overwhelmingly against removing the ban, at least according to a 2006 survey (See table on page 143 of the document). However, major institutional reforms are generally more likely in times of crisis, and if supporters of reelection are able to make a link between reelection and the security crisis, then it is possible we could see dramatic changes, maybe not for the better, and not in the directions advocates of reelection had hoped.

This post ended up being much longer than I had planned. In the unlikely event readers are interested in this topic, I definitely have more to say on this issue.