Former head of Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute José Woldenberg. Photo: Google


Without having dealt with him closely, without actually having been his friend, I feel a distant brotherhood with political scientist José Woldenberg, who served as the first president of Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE).

Our initial trajectories were different. I belong to the generation of 1968 and I leaned toward liberalism early on. He belongs to the post-1968 generation, and he read — I suppose — the canonical books of Marxism, took and taught political science classes, actively denounced official trade unionism, fought for independent trade unionism, militated as a leader in university trade unionism and joined the left-wing parties heir to the Communist Party. He inhabited that intermediate zone between revolutionary statism and socialism.

But as time passed, something deeper than ideological passions and union or political militancy began to move him: an appreciation of the debate between different positions, a natural inclination to tolerance, a willingness to listen, a crack in doubt, a pause in faith, an instinctive civility. A man of mild temper, amiable character and natural decency, Woldenberg simply put those garments at the service of public life. In a word, without renouncing socialist ideals, but admitting that their historical and practical translation must be open to criticism Woldenberg became a democrat.

The winds of freedom were blowing in the world, and Woldenberg perceived and understood them. In 1989, he participated in the creation of the Institute of Studies for the Democratic Transition (IETD), where he coincided with his colleagues from the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), but also with members of the centralist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and a majority without affiliation.

At the same time, he began to distance himself from the PRD. In 1990, while his party refused to promote an agreed-upon transition with the government, the conservation National Action Party (PAN) negotiated reforms that it had proposed decades ago and that finally crystalized in the foundation of the IFE and the Electoral Tribunal.

Woldenberg resigned from the PRD in 1991. That same year, the IFE slowly began to gain accreditation in midterm elections. That resignation gave way to the most important stage in the public life of José Woldenberg: his work for electoral democracy. Between 1991 and 1994, while chairing the IETD, he devoted himself to an in-depth analysis of electoral legislation and to proposing reforms to support the transition to democracy. In the axial year of 1994, the qualified majority of the parliamentary groups of the Chamber of Deputies appointed him citizen advisor to the IFE, together with Santiago Creel, Miguel Ángel Granados Chapa, José Agustín Ortiz Pinchetti, Ricardo Pozas and Fernando Zertuche.

After the electoral reform of 1996 — which gave autonomy and citizenship to the institute — Woldenberg was appointed its president adviser, a position he held until 2003. His impeccable driving of the IFE earned him universal approval and a place in history that no one, ever, will be able to deny. The Woldenberg IFE is a benchmark of electoral institutionality and cleanliness.

However, something went wrong — in his opinion — at the start of Mexico’s political transition: Mexico went from a single-party regime to a multi-partied plural system of government, from elections without competition to highly competitive elections, from a world of single-color representation to a world of multifaceted representation. As a nation, Mexico was able to dismantle an authoritarian system and build a germinal democracy.

And yet, Woldenberg believed, there was not a sufficient pedagogy to communicate that this was something fortunate and worthy of protection.

I don’t know if I agree with Woldenberg on this issue. In democracy, as in life, it is the mistakes, sometimes extremely painful, that are the real pedagogues.

We are still in that transition today. And we have to get out of it.

My distant brotherhood with Woldenberg is not born from democracy alone. He and I are both branches of the European Jewish trunk transplanted to Mexico. We share a feeling of gratitude for this country that welcomed our parents and is our only home.

All of this perhaps explains why many years ago, when I turned 60, Woldenberg wrote a generous text in which he evoked — I don’t know if consciously — a prayer from Pesach (the Jewish Passover meal) in which the word “Daieinu” is repeated, which means “it would be enough for us.” He immediately mentioned some of my concerns, affirming that, at least for him, one would have been enough to justify his solidarity.

I am glad that now, at 70 years of age, I am the one who can tell him that just one of the many contributions of his life (intellectual, academic, editorial, political, electoral, institutional) would suffice to give him my full recognition and admiration.


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