Mexico – A Democracy for the Brave Few

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In Ciudad Juarez, Federal Police were deployed in attempts to stop the drug-related violence, courtesy of Jesus Villaseca Perez/flickr

Mexico is at a crossroads. As last week’s gubernatorial elections demonstrated, the Mexican state can no longer provide basic security and ensure the rule of law in many urban environments, signaling that Mexico might soon join the ranks of international failed states like Somalia, Afghanistan, and Haiti.

The New York Times adopted an optimistic perspective, noting the strength of the Mexican democracy amidst all the violence perpetrated by the drug cartels, as evidenced by the surprisingly positive voter turnout in many areas. These elections, however, also witnessed “the most blatant evidence of traffickers interfering in politics since Calderon came to power in late 2006,” with voter turnout at historic lows. Coming close to a stand-still in areas where drug violence has been prominent—in Ciudad Juarez, voter turnout was only 20 percent, and in the state of Chihuahua  as whole, only one-third of voters showed up—turnout can be explained by the violence surrounding electoral campaigns. Leading up to the elections, candidates had been killed and threatened, campaign offices had been bombed and general fear of the power of Mexico’s infamous drug cartels had uncomfortably set into everyday life in the country.

Is democracy really about having to decide between voting and dying or having to live in constant fear while trusting the government’s country-wide troop deployments to take care of the violence? The New York Times adopts a minimalist conception of democracy based simply on the act of voting. Democracy, however, should be about being able to live freely and safely within a state capable of securing the rule of law to guarantee that all citizens can enjoy their rights freely. This is nowhere close to the reality in many of Mexico’s cities. And as admirable as the courage of the few that turned out to vote is, it is nevertheless vital to emphasize that in a true democracy citizens shouldn’t have to be brave to vote.

Felipe Calderon’s ‘war on drugs’ has relied on a highly militarized approach to combating the drug cartels, an attempt that has yet to prove any progress—some 5,000 deaths so far this year have been blamed on drug-related violence. The US has been a staunch partner in this war. As the ISN’s Samuel Logan has pointed out, “the relationship between Mexico and the US is one in which the US holds Mexico by the throat over the edge of a cliff. Mexico is certainly in a bad situation, but the US will never drop its southern neighbor.”

Mexico must use its unique position to demand that the US adopt better means of lowering its own population’s high demand for drugs while also working to better secure the movement of drugs in, as well as the movement of weapons and money out of the US. This effort must, however,  be carried out alongside a concerted domestic effort to shift the focus from aggressive military operations to governance reform and institution-building seeking to quell corruption, lower poverty, and professionalize local police structures.

5 replies on “Mexico – A Democracy for the Brave Few”

“Shining light at the end of a tunnel” , but all victories in favor of human rights came in time of struggles and someone vision really compromised with the humanity rights contributed in favor of a better life around the world… ,Yes, I think that we can do something in favor of the Mexican people by using this important weapon called “internet “ to dissipate e enemies of the democracy, encourages Mexican voters and help them to conquest better life to the whole Mexican people.
Bright is the thought of the Author

Dear Mr. Klaus,

Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. Please allow me to offer you a reply. I believe that holding elections is, of course, vital to establishing a direct social contract between the populace and their political leaders. I do, however, wish to emphasize that I believe democracy (and all means of measuring and assessing it) should go beyond electoral considerations to include popular involvement and participation in the periods between elections. The strength, inclusion, and overall participation of a vibrant civil society should be crucial in evaluating how accountable a government really is to the people that elect it; popular oversight is crucial.

However, to focus on the main objective of the blog post, I wish to turn to the issue of voter turn out. The everyday urban violence does indeed corrode people’s ability to enjoy their political and civil rights, that is no question. But how “healthy” can a democracy really be if the people that are meant to enact a referendum on the government’s policies through election are too afraid to actually exercise their right to vote?

Perhaps PRI’s ability to win 9 out of the 12 gubernatorial races shows a desire for change, but the PAN and PRD also managed to maintain and gain some governor’s seats. The fact is that we will never really know what the Mexican people as a whole (or as close as we can get to it) feels about Calderon’s policies because most Mexicans didn’t turn out to vote.

Thank you,
Albert Souza Mulli

magnific article, it is clear and well written. congratulations to the author
i loved it

By political science standards, Mexico is a young democracy. The first real alternation of power took place in 2000 with Fox’s win. And now the PRI is making an electoral comeback. I agree that living in fear is bad and affects electoral turnout, but does it downgrade Mexico’s democracy “score”? Is the violence in any way a result of democracy?

The drug war is a real threat to political rights, as any kind of war is, but voting at least allows people to decide whether or not they agree with the course of action taken. Voting does render the country an opportunity to render itself a better country. Its time to focalize on better alternatives to fighting the drug war – as noted by Messrs Souza Mulli and Muelli – and watch out for eroding political rights. Viva elections! It’s the surest way to consolidate democracy and end the violence.

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