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A spirit will go through Mexico

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The Zocaló Public Square in Mexico City

A spirit will go through Mexico


There is great momentum for direct democracy in Mexico at the moment. Carlos González Martínez of the Mexican Institute for Democracy of Proximity explains why now is the time to push for substantial direct democracy reform.

Three centripetal forces are on the brink of colliding in Mexico, set to unleash the spirit of popular consultations and citizen participation. First, the President of the Republic carried out and announced a number of consultations. Second, formal citizen participation mechanisms are increasingly being used by local electoral institutions, sometimes referred to as "OPLE's" (They are fundamentally consultations and plebiscites). And finally, social movements of citizen participation are emerging that achieve successful, replicable experiences, even outside of institutional mechanisms.

In effect, all of this has tabled the idea of reinforcing the national democratic toolbox with mechanisms of modern direct democracy for a nation-wide public debate, taking place from the local level to the international one. Now let's hope that this renewed interest in direct democracy is not only for the benefit of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration, but also for the benefit of the Republic’s administration. We should aim to embed direct democracy not just in one six-year term government but, above all, in the legal and institutional structure of the country, in the way it already exists in most of the states. At the same time, these instruments need to be ingrained in the civic and political culture of Mexican society, including for those who govern it.

First things first, of course nobody proposes to replace representative democracy with direct democracy (that is what the “modern” stands for). The idea is actually to strengthen representative democracy with direct democracy. Paraphrasing Bruno Kaufmann, Director of the Swiss Democracy Foundation, including forms of direct citizen participation can help us move from an inefficient representative government to an effective representative democracy, which is a very different thing. We should move from the prevailing democracy of distance to a nascent democracy of proximity, where the democratic exercise is practiced on the local level and its communities, and consolidated on the national  level and its institutions.

This increased interest in the practice of participatory forms of democracy became tangible during the visit from Mr Kaufmann and a delegation from Democracy International to Mexico City earlier this year. Mr Kaufmann participated in a Mexico-Switzerland dialogue on the subject, together with the National Electoral Institute (INE) and the Institute of Legal Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The Mexican Institute for Democracy of Proximity coordinated a set meetings for them with the academy, committees and civil society organizations, presidents and counselors of local and national electoral institutions, as well as authorities of the federal government.

In all these meetings, one thing became abundantly clear: there is an enormous political momentum in Mexico. At the moment, we have a window of opportunity to strengthen Mexican representative democracy with forms of modern direct democracy, rolled out at the local level and regulated at the national level and reaching there when necessary. To do this, it is essential to learn from successful local experiences that allow us to determine, with the participation of the relevant stakeholders, a platform that adequately combines the national and the sub-national and that is legally and institutionally engineered to enhance citizen participation -  either formal or institutionalized or functioning within the framework of legality but outside the formalized instruments.

These practices of modern direct democracy are neither new nor infrequent in our country. We just do not use them sufficiently at the national level - with the exception of a legislative initiative that championed the "three out of three" declaration for public officials and that gave rise and shape to the promotion of a national anti-corruption system, that is yet to be straightened out. But these practices are already frequent at the local level. A citizen consultation led to the cancellation of the Chapultepec - Zona Rosa Cultural Corridor project and to the approval of territorial zones for native populations in Mexico City. With a popular consultation, the Ciclovía of Guadalajara, which ensures car-free Sundays in parts of the city, was confirmed; with a plebiscite, a concession for public garbage collection service was denied in the municipality of El Marqués in Querétaro; with another popular consultation, the installation of first aid modules in public parks of Nuevo León was approved; also with a plebiscite, the dividing of Ensenada in several municipalities was cancelled; with consultations the indigenous communities of Michoacán, Chiapas and Guerrero, among other entities, decided to elect authorities through indigenous customary law of traditional "uses and customs" (usos y costumbres). In Yucatán, priority municipal projects are decided on with mechanisms of direct democracy, and millions of dollars have been set aside for participatory budgeting in Mexico City and Jalisco. Probably upcoming are consultations on the installation of a brewery in Baja California and the exercise of election by ancestral uses and customs in Tabasco. And these are some of many examples.

Modern direct democracy is not a novelty in Mexico. What is new is its national potential. It will depend on us that this spirit effectively travels the country and sows the possibilities of a proximity democracy that contributes to the new twist in our tangled transition: from a representative government to a representative democracy.

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