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Term limits in Mexico don't serve people, some argue
David Agren -
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November 22, 2011
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Term limits in Mexico don't serve people, some argue
By Gilberto Villasana, AFP/Getty Images

When the Grijalva River and six other waterways in the oil-rich state of Tabasco flooded this fall, nearly 300,000 people fled their homes.

As was the case with two other floods, government officials promised that this time they would get moving on flood-control projects and comprehensive hydrological plans to prevent future inundations and headaches for the people.

The closest any government has come to delivering, says Tabasco native Raúl Abreu, "is bringing in some sandbags."

Federal and local officials attribute the frequent flooding to unfavorable geography and unusually heavy rains. Abreu, however, blames politics.

More specifically, he blames the idiosyncratic political system that has been in place in Mexico for decades in which candidates are banned from running for re-election. Voters never have the opportunity to pass judgment on the record of their elected officials, so those officials see no incentive to having a record at all, good or bad.

"The incentives are set up so that it doesn't matter how you do your job," says Abreu, director of the non-partisan think tank Fundación IDEA.

The principle of no re-election has been part of the Mexican political system for much of the past century. It endures as a holdover from the days of one-party rule, when politicians served at the pleasure of the president. The president, governors and senators serve single, six-year terms, while mayors and legislators are done in just three years.

Abreu and others say mayors and legislators tend to ignore constituents and spend their time doing the bidding of unelected political party bosses and state governors who control ballot access. The political system fosters an unresponsive and unprofessional political class that seldom become expert in any policy areas, they say.

Among examples:

•Poor tax collection. Politicians avoid doing anything about it because the benefits to the taxpayers of the increased local revenue will likely not be seen during their term, says Manuel Molano Ruiz of the Mexican Competitiveness Institute, a free-market think tank.

"There is no incentive to collect taxes from my neighbors or fine them or put them in jail for tax evasion if I know that in less than three years time I will have to leave office," he says.

•The drug war. Some legislators say mayors do not get enough time in office to pursue a long-term vision to stop the killings and make streets safe. Mayors are yanked from office even if their efforts show promise and have the support of the people, critics say.

"What mayor in Mexico, in a short period of three years, can design implement and evaluate and correct strategies … in security matters over the medium and long term? None," said lawmaker María Antonieta Pérez of the governing National Action Party (PAN) during a recent debate in Congress.

Elected officials kowtow to the bosses, not the people, to ensure they are placed in another position somewhere in government as a reward for loyalty, says Aldo Muñoz Armenta, political science professor at the Autonomous University of Mexico State.

"Politicians can't be re-elected, so they don't worry about their districts," Muñoz Armenta said. "They worry about party leaders who can send them to another position."

The problems produced by a lack of re-election play out at all levels, advocates say.

On the local level, politicians generally avoid promoting projects that lack visibility (like water and sewers) or likely won't be completed before they leave office, says Edna Jaime, director of the non-partisan think tank México Evalúa.

They find it more politically profitable to ply voters with giveaways come election time and ride to the rescue during disasters with cash and cleanup crews than propose preventive measures.

"Spending is done on things that could be electorally profitable, but not necessarily things that improve quality of life," Jaime says.

With Congress rolling over every three years, few lawmakers become expert in their craft or specialists in specific policy areas, says independent political analyst Fernando Dworak. As a Mexican political maxim states: "Politicians spend their first year learning, second year governing and third year seeking another job."

The idea of allowing politicians to seek a second, consecutive term has had little traction in Mexico, where the principle of no re-election took hold after the Revolution of 1910. The issue became an integral part of the political system developed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled for 71 consecutive years and controlled candidacies for much of that time, Dworak says. The strength of the entrenched political parties perpetuates the system, he says.

"Mexican parties … have legal and constitutional power that American parties can't even dream of," says Federico Estévez, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

"They can override state parties and put from the center … the candidates they want in local races down to the last candidate for a spot on the town council."

There is a movement to give politicians an incentive to answer to the people. President Felipe Calderòn included re-election in a package of political reforms but the PRI-controlled lower house of Congress omitted it from reforms approved Nov. 4. The Senate, which previously approved re-election, is trying to revive the issue.

PRI members said re-election already occurs: Some members serve non-consecutive terms, usually winning via proportional representation, not direct-election. Lengthening terms in office would better improve governance, they say. And others say re-elections are bad for the people.

Early PRI presidential front-runner Enrique Peña Nieto told the newspaper Reforma that re-election would give "economic powers" more influence over politicians, as opposed to political parties.

+ Wexico

Advocates such as Abreu recognize that breaking the parties' grip on the political system and implementing re-election won't solve all of Mexico's problems, "but it's necessary," he says. "We would have better public administrators, better technical people to resolve problems."

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