Mexico’s Authoritarian Democracy: Corruption and Lack of Accountability

Reforma: Lorenzo Meyer*

Translated by Amanda Moody


The return of the PRI to power could either mean that Mexican political development remains caught between the old authoritarianism and the democracy which could have happened but ultimately never did – or suffers an outright regression.

Philippe Schmitter was part of the group of political scientists in the last century who analyzed and encouraged the transition to democracy in Latin America. He once made a presentation in Mexico on the state of democracy in Europe, starting from the assumption that the content of democracy is dependent on the era, that the reality of democracy will always be one of approximations to the ideal.

In any case, if the democratic model has always been an aspiration, so too has been its modern counterpart: totalitarianism. Fortunately, this was only ever an aspiration, as neither Nazi Germany nor the USSR nor Mao’s China, fully achieved their objective of total social control.

By contrast, personal or group dictatorship and authoritarianism are real. And such systems have neither a framework of values ​​that is their “ultimate goal” nor seek full control of social life. They simply look for the raw imposition of the interests of an elite and, although their speech often uses ethical justifications, these are mere speech-making. Dictatorships are relatively simple political systems; authoritarian systems can be, as we know in Mexico, more sophisticated, but in the end both have a congenital problem of legitimacy.


If there are systems that will always be great projects – democracies and totalitarianism – and others which are realities without projects or grandeur – dictatorships and authoritarian systems – then how should we evaluate them despite their heterogeneity? Well, using the same yardstick by which Schmitter measures European democracy: its ability to address the fundamental problem of all politics: the calling to account, accountability.

If we use this indicator to judge the current political system in Mexico (or historical systems), we must conclude that we are now at a standstill, that what was implied by the brief “democratic spring” that began at the end of the last century was unsuccessful.

In the long “classic period” of the PRI monopoly on power, only the President could demand accountability and nobody could demand accountability of him. And on the rare occasions that he did it publicly, he always used the legal framework, as, for example, in the cases where the former director of Pemex, Jorge Diaz Serrano was brought before a judge in 1983, the Pemex union leader Joaquín Hernandez Galicia in 1989 and the brother of an ex-President, Raul Salinas, in 1995.

Upon the defeat of the PRI in 2000, the new government promised to go for the “bigshots”, the corrupt people most representative of the immediate past, but that wasn’t what happened. The impunity of the old times remained and was even reaffirmed under the PAN.

It is true that, upon its return, the PRI has imprisoned the once powerful teachers union leader Elba Esther Gordillo, but her case has more resemblance to that of Hernández Galicia – an exemplar punishment for defying the rules of the authoritarian presidency – than with genuine accountability, as the union structure that exalted Gordillo remains intact and operating.

The arrests of former Tabasco Governor Andrés Granier, accused of corruption, and of former acting governor of Michoacán, Jesús Reyna, which generated serious problems for the President, don’t break the fundamental pattern of impunity. They are petty PRI scenes, difficult to defend and which contrast with the cases of former governors or union leaders who are corrupt but have support, like Arturo Montiel, from the State of Mexico; Humberto Moreira, from Coahuila; and Carlos Romero Deschamps [Pemex union leader].

Demanding accountability of a Mexican president in office, as happened with Richard Nixon in the United States in 1974 or Fernando Collor de Mello in Brazil in 1992, continues to be an impossibility, as would be proceeding against former chief executives, as has successfully happened in Peru (Alberto Fujimori), in Argentina (Leopoldo Galtieri and Jorge Rafael Videla), in Italy (Silvio Berlusconi) or in Israel (Ehud Olmert), to name but a few cases.

This persistent inability to ask for and achieve accountability from high levels of political and economic power is an indicator that shows, among other things, how far we are from the democratic ideal. Therefore, the challenge is to overcome the demoralization of the democratic forces and reattempt the advance. If society does not soon generate enough force to break the deadlock, Mexico will remain in mediocrity or will move backward in its political development.

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*Lorenzo Meyer, academic and columnist, earned the Bachelor’s degree and a Ph.D. in International Relations from the College of Mexico and pursued postdoctoral studies in Political Science at the University of Chicago. Author of several important works on Mexico’s foreign relations and on the Mexican Revolution, he has also written on the Mexican political system, its authoritarian forms of power and democratization processes of the 20th century. He has taught in Mexico, the USA, Spain and England. He has been a columnist for NOTIMEX, Excelsior and currently Reforma. His most recent book is “Nuestra tragedia persistente: la democracia autoritaria en Mexico” (“Our Persistent Tragedy: Authoritarian Democracy in Mexico”).
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