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August 25, 2021
Mexican mid–term elections in the context of institutional weaknesses and economic short–sightedness
(Image by Author)
Written by Fabian Tigges
On June 6, 2021, Mexico experienced the largest elections of the country’s history. According to the National Electoral Institute (INE), 93 million Mexicans were eligible to vote on governorships, a new lower house of Congress and thousands of mayoral and local legislator posts. While Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador (known as AMLO) was not on the ballot, last week`s mid-term elections were largely a referendum on his policies and decisive for the remaining three years of his presidency. Central to the success of his term in office will be his ability to deliver on economic development, guiding Mexico out of the Coronavirus slump. So far, however, the Mexican president has been known for his intolerant and impulsive decision-making. Meanwhile, his illiberal populist policies have not only failed to deliver on made campaign promises, but threatened Mexican checks and balances. As the country has been plagued by years of short-sighted and non-inclusive economic development policy, AMLO’s style of politics is paradigmatic of Mexico’s failure to live-up to its economic potential. Instead of developing a long-term strategy, the Mexican president puts personal interests first, promoting a short-sighted and unsuccessful strategy to combat poverty, crime, and corruption.
In 2018, AMLO entered office with a landslide electoral victory, making populist promises to the poor, advocating an economic nationalist stance, and promoting a state-centred economic model. Three years into his presidency there is, however, no sign of economic development, as the Mexican economy stagnated at -0.06 per cent GDP growth in 2019, while suffering a devastating decrease of over 8 per cent in GDP growth in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, instead of investing into the education and health system to promote economic development and prospects for Mexico’s youth, AMLO has been cutting down on essential funds in research and development as well as in cultural and social institutions, arbitrarily redirecting the money to Mexico’s poor. For instance, rather than establishing targeted skill development, tutoring or entrepreneurship programmes, and attracting investment to create long-term job opportunities, the Mexican president implemented a programme of non-targeted and unconditional transfer payments to Mexico’s high percentage of youth not in employment, education or training (so called NiNis). Hence, rather than finding long-term solutions to the Mexican economy’s challenges, AMLO convinces his people with populist claims and short-sightedly treats symptoms of a sick economy, which brings in votes but does not provide development prospects for Mexico.
Judging on the first three years of AMLO’s presidency, he is about to join a group of former Mexican presidents – from different political camps – who failed to reach long-term economic growth and inclusive development in the country. Throughout the 1980s, Mexico experienced a drastic shift in economic policy away from a developmentalist approach towards economic liberalisation. In subsequent years, Mexico opened-up its economy, influenced by US-trained technocrats, following the playbook of the Washington Consensus. While in the short-term trade liberalisation had positive effects on increasing exports and FDI inflows, it failed to significantly improve long-term inclusive economic development in Mexico. Over the last two decades, universal access to education was established, yet, there are large regional differences in the quality of education and only half of students attend upper secondary education. In addition, the labour force participation rate for women is far below that of men, and low in comparison to other countries within the OECD as well as in Latin America. Meanwhile, total factor productivity has had no positive impact on overall economic growth, indicating extremely limited productivity growth in the Mexican economy. The consistently high rate of migration to the US can be interpreted as a symptom of the limited economic opportunities in Mexico. While AMLO explained the increasing number of migrants, referring to US president Biden's friendlier migration policies, the motivation of many Mexicans to cross the border rather lies in people’s dissatisfaction with the economic prospects in their home country and the hope for a better life.
Looking back at the mid-term election results, while the president’s ruling party Morena (National Regeneration Movement) has lost its supermajority in the lower house of Congress, it will hold on to power in coalition with the Labour Party and the Ecologist Green Party of Mexico. However, the ruling coalition falls short of a two thirds majority, thus, unable to make amendments to the constitution, which are necessary to push forward the president’s ambitious agenda. Yet, far more significant for the assessment of Mexican development and its state of democracy are the following numbers: since the beginning of campaigns in September 2020, the political risk consultancy firm Etellekt registered 100 assassinations of politicians, 36 of which were candidates, as well as over 900 acts of violence against politicians, ranging from verbal threats to kidnapping of and violent attacks on politicians and their family members. The violence is mainly motivated by drug cartels, seeking strategic power in local municipalities.
For decades, Mexican governments have struggled to put an end to organised crime and violence. Yet, insufficient economic opportunities in the formal economy and weak state institutions create patterns of incentives that strengthen the power of drug cartels. In addition, the ties of organised crime go deep into Mexican politics. In one of his morning press conferences, AMLO stated that there is no war on drug trafficking anymore. Unlike his predecessors, the Mexican president changed the strategy to tackle organised crime with “hugs not bullets”. In other words, he follows the approach of alleviating poverty and thereby diminishing the incentives to turn to drug groups in absence of state presence. Yet, his strategy lacks clear measures to directly address the power of organised crime in Mexico. On the contrary, instances like the bungled and brief capture of the son of Mexican drug boss “El Chapo” Guzmán in October 2019, or AMLO’s controversial handshake with Guzmán’s mother raise doubts about the Mexican president’s allegiance. In addition, various candidates of Morena are wanted in the United States. For instance, in the state of Guerrero, Félix Salgado Macedonio (Morena), the former candidate to the governorship and father of the new governor-elect, Evelyn Salgado (Morena), has been investigated for being involved in organised crime in the state’s largest city of Acapulco as well as on various accounts of violence and abuse. Despite these heavy allegations, AMLO defended Salgado. Furthermore, Mexico’s impunity rate of over 90 per cent gives drug cartels plenty of rope.
All in all, Mexico still has a way to go on the route to development, as it faces deep gender inequalities, significant deficiencies in the education system and lacking economic perspectives for its youth. Changing governments have not allowed for continuity and a long-term strategy in economic development that is focused on creating economic opportunities for its people. Meanwhile, the influential position Mexican drug cartels hold in politics and society is incentivised through patterns of corruption and impunity, and lies at the root of Mexico’s problems. Yet, instead of fighting the power of drug cartels through strengthening state institutions and the rule of law, the ties of organised crime go deep into the ruling party’s members.
Fabian Tigges is a Postgraduate student of International Political Economy at the University of Warwick and of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Konstanz. His MA dissertation was titled “From Austerity to Recovery Spending: Contemporary Economic Thought in Times of Crisis”. Since October 2020, he is an executive board member of the Warwick Global Development Society (WGDS). He is also a student Research Assistant at the chair of Political Science and International Politics of the University of Konstanz.
July 27, 2020
Authors: Renske Doorenspleet, Abdul Mohammed, Michael Saward, David Welch
Editors: Briony Jones and Maeve Moynihan
This post is part of a larger collection covering the Global Insights webinar series, hosted jointly by Balsillie School of International Affairs (Canada), the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick (UK), the Institute for Strategic Affairs (Ethiopia), American University’s School of International Service (USA), and Konstanz University (Germany). This series of Global Insights has finished and the next series will resume in September. You can access a recording of this week’s webinar here.
Panellists: Ann Fitz-Gerald (Chair, BSIA), Renske Doorenspleet (University of Warwick), Miles Kahler (American University), Abdul Mohammed (African Union High Level Implementation Panel), Michael Saward (University of Warwick), David Welch (University of Waterloo)
What impact has the pandemic had on the current rules-based international order of the post-World War II era?
The breakdown of the international order started long before COVID-19, but it has accelerated during this period. If major national governments do not see the COVID-19 crisis as a cause for collective response, the international order will decline. One must acknowledge that there are different kinds of international orders, including the liberal, rules-based, and American hegemonic orders. COVID-19 has clearly had different effects on each. The world has seen challenges to all aspects of democratic practices and structures and is experiencing widespread democratic disengagement. Representative democracy, closely linked to liberal democracy, faces all sorts of challenges. Who speaks for whom? Where does credibility and authenticity come from? The pandemic has threatened global supply chains and may indeed lead to isolationist policies in which countries ‘go it alone’ if they are faring better socioeconomically.
From the perspective of the African continent, the multilateral world order is in turmoil and breaking apart, or indeed paralysed, in many places. This paralysis has far reaching implications for peace and security in Africa. Transactional politics and the use of resources, coercion and deceit over rules-based institutional politics has increased. In many cases, the conduct of politics has become akin to running a business as opposed to governing a polity for the common good, which the pandemic only exacerbates. Substantial gains should be recognised and defended, but transactional politics need to be understood in the context of resurgence of power competition. The pandemic has created a deep divide between the fact of being elected and the inclination to represent. In countries such as Brazil and the United States, individuals have been forced to represent themselves, in the Black Lives Matter movement, for example. Questions remain about what further challenges and crises the pandemic will provoke in the coming months and years.
Traditionally, liberal democracies have been the champions of the rules-based international order. But can democracies survive the pandemic?
It’s too early to understand what kind of political systems have responded the best to the pandemic. Some democratic governments have performed well, such as South Korea and Taiwan, whereas others have performed poorly, such as the United States and Brazil. Taking a global view, the structure of a political system alone is not necessarily the key to success or failure. Similar variance in the success of authoritarian regimes reinforces this idea.
In general, governments that responded early, quickly, and strategically have seen the best successes. In many cases, these are small liberal democracies able to mobilise resources quickly. Many of these are ruled by women. New Zealand, Iceland, South Korea, and Taiwan have been particularly successful. On the other hand, many larger countries typically understood as main actors in the international order, such as China, the USA, and the UK, have been criticised for lack of transparency and late and sometimes even cavalier responses to the crisis. Minority ethnic groups have been hit particularly hard in liberal democracies, especially the USA and the UK, in terms of health and unemployment during the pandemic. Additionally, countries led by populist governments have generally fared poorly, perhaps signifying a moment from which populism’s appeal may decline in the longer term. When looking to the context of the African continent, most African governments are now the product of some sort of election, of varying degrees of legitimacy. The pandemic has also highlighted that Africa is in a position to manage tension between China and the USA’s interests in Africa.
We have seen a rise in illiberalism and a reaffirmation of state sovereignty since 2016, and the pandemic seems to be accelerating this trend. Is the future illiberal?
The pandemic may not extend the trend toward illiberalism, but it has indeed had a strong impact on polarisation. Although illiberalism is unlikely to triumph, the polarisation that it generates will lead to deep problems for global governance and may threaten collaboration in future crises, such as the climate crisis. The countries that have fared better in managing the pandemic are countries with a strong, people-oriented state history and robust public health systems. Countries like Germany and Taiwan, for example, have fared better. Others however, such as the USA and the UK (since the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions) have dismantled the state and privileged the private sector at the expense of public goods and thus have not fared well. Countries with a strong tradition of a capable state that delivers public goods could re-organise themselves and play an important role in the restructuring of the global order and serve as influential leaders moving forward.
Strong-man governments, whether democratic, authoritarian, or populist, have performed very poorly (India, USA, Russia, Brazil). In their refusal to consult experts or admit to the true nature and scale of the virus, these regimes have been most disruptive to the international order. In Africa, the anti-scientific perspective has not been as much of a problem, as countries within the continent have a history of dealing with pandemics more than others, relatively speaking. Dictatorships have used this crisis to decrease civil liberties, as in the case of Chinese journalists, the censorship of information, and other tools. However, it is important to acknowledge that illiberal trends within the established liberal democracies have also increased during the pandemic, such as new surveillance technologies in contact tracing apps. This is not necessarily antidemocratic, but it is a significant risk, as political abuse of these new measures is likely. Citizens may get used to measures of control that include not only surveillance, but the quashing of protest and civil disobedience. This ‘new normal’ could lead to a reduction of individual rights and freedoms after the peak of the crisis. It is important to keep a close eye on how those rights can be protected, and checks and balances, transparency and oversight are more important than ever.
The defining features of the concept of democracy, or the interpretations of the defining features, may be debated moving forward. The idea of burden sharing and a more collective form of social democracy as a kind of modifier or diluter has interesting potential. Similarly, the idea of protective democracy—the idea that states are there to protect the rights of individuals, takes on a wider meaning of protection of citizen lives and wellbeing during the pandemic. Finally, the machinery of democracy has new questions posed against it, not least how to run elections and conduct deliberative forums while keeping social distancing. With regard to the conduct of elections, we have seen good examples from South Korea, and more concerning examples from the USA, in Wisconsin for instance.
Is the sun setting on the rules-based international order?
The danger to this new future of the international order is that liberal democracies have granted themselves significant powers that may not disappear, making a conversation about such powers necessary. There may be a new high-water mark in terms of state intervention into individual lives and businesses, and emergency powers may need to be debated openly. To what extent and over what timeframe and how much accountability are emergency powers tolerable, legitimate, and acceptable? Equally as concerning, many conversations around COVID-19 have excluded children, who are not well-represented in our current political systems - we do not talk much about them, let alone talk with them. The pandemic is having devastating consequences for children and their rights. It has had a massive impact on education, socialising, poverty and more. Children in conflict zones and refugee camps suffer most. COVID-19 will undoubtedly add to varying forms of trauma that children everywhere experience. The international community needs to take measures to protect children in health, education, and other areas of rights. Save the Children and World Vision, among other organisations, have a role to play. In April 2020, Terre des hommes launched the #CovidUnder19 initiative by mobilising a group of young people, child rights activists, civil society organisations and UN stakeholders. The initiative set out to understand children’s views about and experiences of life under Coronavirus, and amplify their voices to inform policymakers, professionals working with children, and governments.
What might the future of international order look like?
The economic consequences of the pandemic are grave and there will be a tendency to withdraw and look inward, which is as much as a threat to the international order as disruption by one country or another. As states look inward, the pandemic could facilitate the end of state-centric politics, as there are a host of influential non-governmental actors, civil society organisations, and international corporations that are becoming more aware. These actors maintain a certain level of interest and engagement when governments are so focused on inward domestic affairs. The future could allow us to redefine what constitutes a fair, democratic, and accessible participatory global order. Right now, the global order is defined by military and economic power. We can play an important role in having other public goods form a part of this global order. Importantly, the new global order should not reorganise itself based on the current status quo.
The pandemic has created an incredible opportunity for cooperation in a self-selected, voluntary way. Countries previously excluded from playing a dominant role in international order (such as Finland, Norway, Iceland, Germany, France, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea) now have the opportunity to take a creative leadership role. Such a group could think about real policy options that would boost international cooperation and strengthen the existing structures for promoting and defending democracy. The decentralisation of power could also play an interesting role in the idea of a rules-based international order. The pandemic has highlighted the role of local and city governments that were previously often unacknowledged.
While a new international order could have positive elements, there are also grave threats that could lead to the potential for stagnation and fragmentation in global order due to disengagement and deepening conflict between the USA and China. The USA presidential elections in November will play a significant role in the future international order. Similarly, changes in the EU could have an impact on its capacities in the international order, as the EU in some ways lacks democratic legitimacy and it lacks a hold on the imaginations of European citizens. Its mechanisms are effective but capacity to generate legitimacy is weak. The pandemic will have a significant impact on economic inequality and the role of democracy in our societies, as tendencies toward authoritarian regimes may rise. We need a new multilateralism that is suited to the contemporary order and leadership that will make it possible for us to facilitate this. Collective leadership of countries that had previously been content to follow the United States must now provide leadership and come together to articulate a new collective global order. Leadership will need to address the global challenges of gross inequality, climate change, and other challenges in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recommendations for Policy Makers
1. Revise democratic practices to be more participative and heal the disconnect with citizens.
2. Be more aware of illiberal trends in established democracies, so protect rights and liberties while also safeguarding transparency and oversight, checks and balances, because they are more important than ever.
3. Include children in the democratic process and let them be heard.
4. Do not lose sight of other key global challenges and crises, particularly climate change. Consider the lessons to be learned from this crisis in order to deal with the next.
5. Create a more cooperative and open international order that includes a much larger public than it has in the past.
6. Defenders of liberal order should get together and collaborate (particularly countries indicated previously: New Zealand, Taiwan, etc.)