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Column 073106 Corcoran

July 31, 2006


Might a Parliamentary System Better Serve Mexico?


By Patrick Corcoran


The editorial pages these days abound with structural remedies to Mexico’s governing crisis. Arturo Valenzuela detailed one of the more drastic of these suggestions in a lengthy piece in El Universal on July 7: a shift from a presidential to a parliamentary system in Mexico.

Valenzuela, who served as the Latin American specialist in Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, wrote, “If [Mexico] had the system that prevails in Europe … the society would not be turned upside down figuring out which individual … will obtain the responsibility of presiding over the country for six years. It would be watching with much serenity which political forces could take shape from the range of proposed options….”

As Valenzuela outlines, a parliamentary system in Mexico could make great strides in alleviating problems related to two broad issues: Mexico’s present electoral crisis, and the legislative gridlock that makes economic reform impossible.

According to Valenzuela, in a parliamentary system Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) would not be staging street protests, but rather would be looking to strike a deal with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to give his coalition a majority in the parliament, and vault himself into the prime minister’s office. Leading massive demonstrations would be unnecessary as well as counterproductive, as it would not be the surest way to power and discourage other parties from allying with them.

Another bonus of the parliamentary system is that prime ministers tend to operate with more legislative freedom than presidents. Even if a prime minister’s party doesn’t win a majority of the votes, a majority of the members of parliament back his government and, in theory, his agenda. Compare this to Mexico’s system in the early 21st century, where each of the three major parties holds a substantial minority of the seats, and the two opposition parties can (and with great frequency do) combine forces to defeat the president’s initiatives.

Over the past six years, President Vicente Fox’s lack of legislative support and the resulting gridlock led to a raft of promised economic reforms that went nowhere. Ostensibly, a Prime Minister Felipe Calderón would be able to succeed where President Fox failed, and a revitalized Mexican economy could in turn attack the globalized world with gusto.

However, there are several reasons to doubt that simply substituting a parliament and prime minister for separate legislative and executive powers would solve either Mexico’s immediate electoral impasse, or the long-term intractability that plagued Fox’s sexennial.

First, today’s problems.


Thinly veiled threats of violence and mass protests are not a product of the presidential system per se as much as they are a product of AMLO. Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and Al Gore, just to name two notorious examples of presidential runners-up, each had more legitimate reason to call marchers into the streets than AMLO, but neither man (both lacking AMLO’s messianic victimhood) did so.

Moreover, confused and angry transfers of power are by no means impossible in parliamentary systems. In the past year alone, Italy, Germany, and the Czech Republic each suffered through a period of uncertainty following elections for parliamentary elections. In Germany, Angela Merkel and Gerhard Schroeder battled for two months after the election before the settling on the former as the next chancellor.

Now on to Mexico’s long-term challenges.


A further glance at Europe (Germany and France, specifically) demonstrates that it is likewise a dubious proposition that Mexico governed by a parliament would immediately be able to solve the stubborn problems (an antiquated tax code, an inefficient national oil company, a lack of competitiveness in certain industries) that proved too much for Fox.

The underlying problem is that the Mexican populace is starkly divided. As in Germany and even more so in France, giant portions of the population oppose the proposed overhauls to the nation’s economy. Whether serving as a prime minister or president (or anything else short of a totalitarian dictator), not even the Mexican incarnation of FDR could initiate a program of reform that doesn’t enjoy the backing of the electorate. Before the government embraces a reform agenda, consensus-supporting change must develop among Mexican voters. Until that happens any structural changes in the system are beside the point.

As Valenzuela points out, a presidential system functions best when two broad-based parties on opposite sides of the political spectrum dominate, but tends to run into problems when there are three potent forces. One can see the possible beginnings of just such a two-party system in Mexico today (and, it would then follow, the end of the muddled three-party calamity), with the formerly dominant PRI ceding ground to AMLO’s Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) on the left, and Calderón’s National Action Party (PAN) on the right.


As both parties have grown, they have broadened their appeal and at least paid lip service to platforms normally associated with the other side (AMLO courting Wall Street, Calderón promising social schemes). If such a seismic shift is in the offing, it makes sense to give the political landscape time to sort itself out, rather than resorting to drastic changes that will surely bring unforeseen complications.

Lamenting the shortcomings of the presidential system of government is a proud American tradition that has roots deep in the 19th century. No matter what the specific problem at hand, some people are always going to recommend a parliamentary system as the solution. But each system has its own set of benefits and drawbacks. Not surprisingly, lamenting the shortcomings of the parliamentary system is a proud British tradition. While some issues facing the nation might be more easily confronted by a prime minister, it is too soon to start digging a grave for the Mexican presidency.


Patrick Corcoran, a MexiData.info guest columnist, is a writer who resides in Mexico City.  He can be reached at corcoran25@hotmail.com.