Mexico needs a runoff election process

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Mexico Needs a Runoff Process” , published on Jan 13th, 2012. Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

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On July 1, Mexicans will choose their president for the next six years. This will be the fourth time the electoral process is not organized by the government but by a supposedly non-biased institution, the Instituto Federal Electoral or IFE.

Mexico likes to boast (especially since 2000) that we hold free, fair and transparent elections. And while that may be the case to some extent, the country could learn a lot from its Latin American neighbors with regard to the process in itself. More than ever, Mexico would benefit from the implementation of a two-round runoff election as opposed to its current majority rule system.

Prior to 1994, general elections were but a façade to legitimize the perpetuation in power of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). Without an independent regulatory body to observe the process, elections results were heavily and systematically manipulated, voting booths with opposition preference were ransacked and official tallies always placed the PRI as an absolute majority winner. Under these circumstances, the official rules of the process were irrelevant and a second round of elections would have never made sense as the PRI would always get over 50 percent of the supposed electorate preference. 

The PRI’s control over elections had been so blatant that the country was led to believe that José López Portillo had won fairly in 1976 with an impressive 87 percent of the vote. In 1988, Carlos Salinas de Gortari was the last president to win an absolute majority (50.7 percent) of the vote.

Not by coincidence, and after four years of the IFE existing, the first non-government organized elections saw Ernesto Zedillo win with only 48.69 percent of the votes in 1994. Besides recovering from the 1994–1995 crisis, which started with the so-called “Error de Diciembre ,” Zedillo’s most important legacy was probably to pave the way for the IFE’s full independence, and thus allow for the democratic transition of power. In 2000, Vicente Fox of the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) won the election with 42.52 percent of the votes. He was the first president to take power in a situation in which the sum of votes from the two other major parties was actually larger than those awarded to him (52.75 percent between the PRI and a Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD)-led alliance). The trend continued in 2006, where President Felipe Calderón (PAN) took power with only 35.89 percent of the votes—a less than 1 percentage point advantage over one of his closest competitor.

Single election, majority rule voting systems work in situations of a two-party system or when one of the candidates is able to conjure up an absolute majority on the first try. But as Mexican electoral history has shown, it’s time to reassess the situation for the country and consider second-round voting.

Mexico has developed into a multiparty system and that system is here to stay. The country has seen the strengthening even of previously discarded small parties such as the PT, PVEM and PANAL. But, more importantly, three major players have emerged and none looks to be going away anytime soon.

Thus, 30/30/30 scenarios become more likely; in fact, since 1994 the country has been run by a person most of its citizens voted against.  This is not just a problem of mathematical relative majority, but  it also reflects on the ability of the leader to govern. It raises the probability that the president might not have been a voter’s second choice had they been given a shot at a runoff.

A two-round system like in Argentina, Chile, Peru, and many other Latin American countries would permit citizens to express their real preferences on round one. Then when two front-runners are left, they could vote for the “least bad” alternative, or as we say in Mexico “el menos peor.”

It would also eliminate the vice of the “useful vote” in which voters cast their vote based on how they think the majority will. In 2006 when Calderón took power, he did so in great part due to “useful votes.” These people did not necessarily agree with Calderón’s proposals or principles but they thought he would be the only one to be able to beat Andrés Manuel López Obrador (PRD) so they gave him their support as a means of blocking the PRD from taking power. While it is understood that in a two-round process the useful vote predicament does appear in the latter round, at least citizens can freely vote their conscience initially. Their first choice can be made for the right reasons and their votes are not thrown out on a whimsical guess.

Runoff elections also provide the elected leader with a level of legitimacy we have not had in Mexico since Zedillo took power. Further, if you consider the fact that elections were fixed before him, one could say that it is a legitimacy no Mexican president has ever had. In clearer terms: no Mexican president has been freely elected by an absolute majority (on a first or second round).

In the 2012 elections people will be voting against PRI because they don’t want them back in power, against PRD because they believe López Obrador to be a danger for the neoliberal model and against PAN because they have deemed them ineffective in the war against drugs and organized crime (and yes, a few constituents will vote for their preferred candidate). This conjecture is way too complex for a single majority vote electoral system to resolve in an effective constructive manner.

Arjan Shahani is a contributing blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. He lives in Monterrey, Mexico, and is an MBA graduate from Thunderbird University and Tecnológico de Monterrey and a member of the International Advisory Board of Global Majority—an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of non-violent conflict resolution.

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