Hoover Daily Report

Mexican Gridlock

Monday, August 26, 2002

The electoral victory of Vicente Fox in July 2000 ended the Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) seven-decade monopoly of power. Fox promised dramatic increases in educational spending, tax reform, an end to government corruption and the Chiapas rebellion, an immigration agreement with the United States, and economic growth of 7 percent a year. Two years into the Fox presidency, virtually all those promises remain unfulfilled.

Fox's inability to make good on his campaign promises has not been for lack of trying. Rather, his reforms have either been scuttled or made toothless in Congress. Fox's sweeping tax reform was turned into a surtax on restaurant meals and hotel charges. His indigenous rights bill was so watered down that the Chiapas rebels rejected it. Congress even rejected Fox's request to travel to the United States in the fall of 2001, an act designed to embarrass him. Fox's only legislative victory was the passage of a Freedom of Information Act that opens up the files of Mexico's government to the citizenry.

Fox's legislative failures have surprised the Mexican public. From 1929 until 1997, when the PRI controlled the Senate, the Chamber of Deputies (Mexico's lower house), and the presidency, Congress simply rubber-stamped presidential proposals.

Now Mexico has three major parties: the conservative National Action Party (PAN); the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD); and the ideologically amorphous PRI. No party has a majority in either house of Congress. Given the differences and long-term strategies of each party, it is virtually impossible to form coalitions. The PRI wants to recapture the presidency in 2006 and thus refuses to form a coalition with the PAN (Fox's party). The PRD—ideologically opposed to the PAN—also refuses to form a coalition. Although the PRI and the PRD can form coalitions, their purpose is to block everything that Fox proposes.

This situation is unlikely to change. The two fundamental problems are that, first, Mexico's electoral laws specify that two-thirds of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies represent winner-take-all districts (the candidate with the most votes in the district wins the seat). The seats in the other third are allocated by proportional representation (parties are allocated seats based on their percentage of the total vote). In this system, voters do not "waste" votes by voting for third-party candidates: parties win seats via the proportional voting rules even if they lose in every individual district. Mexico is therefore unlikely to converge on a two-party system. Second, Mexico's electoral laws specify that senators and deputies may not run for immediate reelection, pegging their future not to their performance as representatives but to their performance as loyal members of their party (which determines whether they can be placed on the list of candidates for a proportional seat).

Thus even with congressional elections next year, it is unlikely that Fox will be able to form effective coalitions; it is therefore unlikely that he will have any more success in the next four years than he has had in the last two.