Update on Mexico

In a matter of two years, Mexico’s ambitious reform agenda–spanning across educational, electoral, and energy initiatives–has fallen short of  expectations. President Enrique Peña Nieto’s approval ratings are sinking and his Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) only won last June’s legislative elections through an alliance with the Partido Verde Ecologista de México (PVEM), the most sanctioned party in the history of Mexico. Violence and corruption remain unpunished across the country, and the political sector is at risk of deteriorating. The shocking escape of drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán from a maximum-security prison, the murder of numerous journalists, including Rubén Espinosa in Mexico City on July 31, and the unsolved case of 43 disappeared Ayotzinapa students all have taken a toll on the credibility of both the president and the Mexican government.

Dr. Denise Dresser, professor of political science at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM), and Amb. James R. Jones, former US ambassador to Mexico, offered a thorough perspective on the challenges that political institutions in Mexico face at a public session held by the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, DC on August 5, 2015.

Dr. Dresser described the situation in the country as four “I”s: incompetence, insecurity, impunity, and inequality. The set of reforms underway in Mexico, according to Dresser, have succeeded only in re-concentrating power in the presidency and the PRI instead of reconstructing democracy and state institutions. Following a disappointing initial bidding round of the energy projects auction, she argued that most of the reforms come too late, are badly implemented, and may prove to be insufficient. In short, they “were built by corruption and compromised by corruption.”

Dr. Dresser also argued that in Mexico “conflict of interests is not even a conflict, it is just the way of life.” Corruption is rampant and has not only compromised state institutions, but also has harmed Mexico’s competitiveness in international markets. Due to a lack of regulation, the income gap has increased to the point that the wealthiest 1% earns 21% of the national income.

On the electoral front, the June elections showed that the Mexican people are fed up with the current political elite and political parties. Dr. Dresser stressed that the newly formed National Electoral Institute (INE) is losing credibility through its failure to levy significant sanctions on political parties when they violate the rules.

Finally, she also criticized the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a response to this institutional crisis. Instead, there is a sense of rearrangement of the “deck seats.” As a result, widespread discontent is “empowering a left (that is) anti-modern in its use of the economy,” referring to Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a long-time anti-establishment figure, and his MORENA party.

Amb. Jones, on the other hand, provided a slightly more positive outlook of the crisis in Mexico. He argued that the country has improved greatly in the last thirty years and that its leaders will likely be able to get out of the crisis. Twenty-five years ago, he reminded the audience, Mexico “was one of the most closed economies” and “one of the most closed, non-competitive political systems in the entire world.” Today, the country has made enormous strides, and looks almost nothing like it did in the past. The work still to be done should not overshadow what has already been accomplished. However, he stressed, “a competitive country needs a competent, open political and economic system and a rule of law that people can trust.” Although the improvements have been significant compared to the Mexico of the past, it’s important to hold the country to higher standards.

In any case though, what most matters most how Mexicans view their country. To Dresser, this is a sharp and powerful indicator. The Mexican people see things getting worse and although they are supportive of reforms they are deeply “wary about the implantation and secondary legislation.” In fact, public confidence has been shaken to the point that, upon hearing of another disappointment—such as El Chapo’s escape—the most common reaction is not to be angry, according to Dresser, but rather simply “to laugh.” While Amb. Jones did not disagree, he stressed that this could actually be a positive development, as “public outcry” helps to get the country on the right track. In either case, it is hard to argue against the conclusion that Peña Nieto has missed many opportunities to win his country back. What will happen in the years ahead is not clear, but the second half of his Presidency is off to a bad start.

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