Four Decades of Democracy

Former Mexican President José López Portillo. Photo: Encyclopedia Britanica


When did Mexican democracy first get rolling? The question has a definite answer: Forty years ago, on Dec. 7, 1977.

On that day, then-Interior Secretary Jesús Reyes Heroles managed to convince Congress to approve what was then called the Federal Law for Political Organizations and Electoral Procedures with full approval of President José López Portillo. Fittingly, the new law had the acronym of (LFOPPE) which sounded very close to the name López. This was because the president wanted to go down in history as the man who opened up the system to political completion.

That was the first time that the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) recognized there were other political trends in the nation, even if the dream of a real two-party system (the other was the National Action Party, or PAN) was still more theory than practice.

But the truth of the matter was that the PRI had been playing dirty politics for decades and held a very tight rein over political freedom.

In fact, in the 1976 presidential election, the PAN refused to post a candidate and López Portillo had to run uncontended. The outright rejection by the Mexican people of the PRI dictatorship was made patent and obvious. Voter turnout for López Portillo was dismally low.

But the political landscape was not only strewn with an angry and frustrated population, but also the open mockery of the international diplomatic community because in their discourse, PRI politicos at the time bragged about what they called “the Mexican democracy,” which, of course, only existed in their hypocritical minds.

With the LFOPPE, there was at long last recognition of new political organizations, which, needless to say (history speaks for itself) were allowed to compete and participate over the next 20 years in what looked like mock elections. But even then, the hegemonic party began to yield political spaces.

An immediate example in 1977 was that the new law created the figure of “proportional representation.” The PRI’s overwhelming majority in the Chamber of Deputies permitted it to add 100 new seats to the already-existing 300, and those seats went to the new competitors, depending on the amount of votes they received in the 1979 elections for deputies. The amount of proportional representation seats was augmented in 1986 to 200, for a total of 500 seats, which is what we have today.

Still, after López Portillo and the president who followed him, Miguel de la Madrid, the Interior Secretariat (SeGob) maintained the process of holding elections every three years, and the PRI kept calling the shots and winning through a filthy procedure of rigged elections.

The smaller parties were not happy with their tiny morsels of political power, and with influence in legislating, they began introducing legal reforms to what was once the LFOPPE. A major change was the revamping of Article 93 of the Mexican Constitution, which for the first time in the country’s history gave the Chamber of Deputies real power to control the almighty executive branch, meaning the president.

Over the years, the myriad of small political parties that came out of the LFOPPE began to be more influential, but they were badly splintered. I could produce an alphabet soup of all the parties that came and went. But that would make no sense at this point since, at present, there are only nine parties.

But what did happen was that, by 1990, an independent body to organize and oversee electoral legality was created. First it was called the Federal Electoral Commission, and then the name was changed to the Federal Electoral Institute. More recently, it became the National Electoral Institute, which is now in charge of organizing the 2018 electionsOther organizations such as the Federal Electoral Tribunal and, finally, in 1994, the Special Fiscal for Electoral Crimes (FEPADE) came to into being. It still exists and is active after each election.

Most definitely, the Mexican electoral system is still far from perfect. Over the years, political parties have turned it into a system known as “particracy,” in which all parties have become private businesses with an insured juicy budget provided by taxpayers’ money to spend at will.

We can expect further changes to come after the 2018 elections, since this electoral system creates chagrin among voters who will vote for the party of their preference. Democracy in Mexico can only improve as the years go by, but today, Mexicans (I hope) are enjoying an electoral system all voters still take with a grain of salt, 40 years after it was conceived.

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