Mexico congressional result and “governability”

With all the international media focus on the disputed outcome of the presidential race in Mexico, attention to the equally important congressional outcome has been minimal. Whichever candidate is ultimately inaugurated–and while it is likely to be the PAN’s Felipe Calderón, a reversal in favor of the PRD’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador can’t be ruled out yet–how effectively will the president be able to govern?

The answer depends on which one is president, because the PAN performed far better than the PRD in the congressional seat-allocation process.

The PAN has won 207 of the 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, against 160 for the PRD-led coalition and 119 for the PRI. Two smaller parties obtained representation: Nueva Alianza (9) and Alternativa (5). The votes percentages for the three leading parties split: 33.4, 29.0, 28.2. The PAN’s enormous advantage ratio (41.4% seats/33.4% votes) of 1.24 is a stark reminder that Mexico’s mixed-member system is not MMP. In fact, the PAN’s degree of over-representation is just short of the legal cap of eight percentage points. Mexico’s MMM (parallel) system greatly advantages the party that performs best in the single-seat-district plurality races. With 139 such wins in 300 districts (46.3%) on just over a third of the vote, that was the PAN, by a big margin. (The PRD-led alliance won 99, or 33.0%, and the PRI a paltry 62, or 20.7%.)

(The result is classic three-way competition in plurality SSD races: The PRI undoubtedly lost votes to the PRD, but seats to the PAN.)

In the Senate, the PAN will have 53 seats, the PRD-led coalition and the PRI each will have 37, and one seat will be held by Nueva Alianza. (Votes percentages were: 33.4, 29.7, 28.1.)

If the narrow victory of Felipe Calderón in the preliminary official count is upheld after legal challenges, he will be in a strong position vis-a-vis the congress.

Much commentary that I have seen and heard–that which has even referred to the congressional result, that is–has lamented the supposedly difficult “governability” that Mexico is in for. I have to put the word, “governability,” in quotation marks for two reasons. One, I never know precisely what the concept is supposed to mean, and two, whatever it might mean, it appears to imply a bias in favor of the president. That is, a situation of “low governability” is loosely defined as one in which the president lacks the ability to assure passage of his policy proposals, as though it were completely natural that such proposals should pass. The Fox years have been described as years of “deadlock” in numerous quarters. But, of course, the very nature of presidential democracy is that there are two elected branches (with one of them, as in Mexico, divided into two chambers). If the president has been unable to win a majority in the legislature for his party, we should have no expectation that his proposals should pass, at least not without compromise and alteration. That’s democracy.

So, how would a Calderón presidency compare with that of Fox, based on the performance of the president’s party in congress? Pretty well, we can expect.

Consider that in 2000, the PAN-led coalition managed 223 seats. Superficially, this looks like a stronger position than the PAN will find for itself in the new congress. However, that coalition included the PVEM (green party), which was an unreliable ally and later aligned itself with the PRI. Moreover, the PRI itself had 209 seats. In the Senate, the situation was worse for Fox, as the PRI held the plurality (44 to 41).

So, after the 2000 election, the PRI and PAN were close in seats in both chambers. The PRI could make the calculation that it was likely to make a comeback. Indeed it did, in the 2003 midterm deputies election, increasing its total to 223 against only 155 for the PAN. The PRD was a distant third in both the 2000 and 2003 elections, but its best known national officeholder, Mexico City mayor López Obrador, was considered the front-running presidential contender for 2006 throughout most of Fox’s term. The expectation that it would win the next presidential contest put the PRD in little mood to help Fox and his party. There was little incentive for either major opposition party to work to help Fox succeed, because both parties expected to improve their electoral position in the near future. Helping the PAN and Fox could only hurt their own cause.

Now, on the other hand, the PAN will have more than a forty-seat margin over the next largest party in the 500-seat Chamber and a 16-seat edge in the 128-seat Senate. While the PRD is unlikely to offer much of a hand of cooperation to a Calderón presidency, the PRI is not likely to be as much an obstacle as it has been. It will want access to policy-making and patronage to sustain itself in the states where it remains strong. It should be willing to bargain, as it is no longer in a position where a return to national plurality status is realistic.

It is worth noting here that on any matters for which the president–either man–wishes to change the constitution, the PRI is not in a pivotal position. Its votes in the Chamber of Deputies remain short of the necessary two thirds when combined with those of either the PAN or the PRD.* That is, any major structrural changes–such as opening up oil extraction to foreign partnerships–the PRD and the PAN would have to agree. That seems like a good thing, given the closeness of the result and the “dinosaurness” of the PRI. Mexico’s two modern, programmatic parties will have to cooperate for anything really major to be done. Which probably means not much will be, which is not a bad thing, given the evident absence of consensus within the Mexican electorate.

So, on legislation (but not constitutional amendments) the Calderón “governability” outlook is actually pretty good. For regular statutory and budgetary politics, 40% of both chambers and a large margin over the next largest party provide a good bargaining situation for Calderón. If he is indeed the next president of Mexico. What if AMLO is instead? Then things are not so bright. A president López Obrador would have his party in command of less than a third of the seats in either chamber. In other words, not even enough to sustain vetoes (which can be overridden by two-thirds votes), let alone much of a base around which to build positive majorities to pass administration programs. He would be highly dependent upon the PRI to accomplish much of anything (just as he would have owed his narrow plurality in the presidential race to voters who cast PRI votes for congress but AMLO votes for pesident). The alternative is that he and his party come to agreement with the PAN. He would have to bargain.

Or would he? There are those who think he would be a “Chávez” and govern without regard for the niceties of checks and balances. The idea of an AMLO presidency is at this point very hypothetical, but let’s think a bit about the validity of these scary scenarios. The short story is I do not find these claims credible. It is not as though presidents can circumvent congress by force of will or even through mobs in the streets. Especially presidents who won barely 35% of the vote. Chávez won a solid majority in 1998–the largest in the then 40-year history of multiparty elections in Venezuela (and in a single-round election). He likely would have won a comparable share of congress had not the old-line parties changed the electoral cycle before the 1998 election to prevent a “coattail” effect (holding the elections separately and long before the Chávez phenomenon had really taken off). Chávez, a cashiered Lt. Colonel, also had elements of the armed forces on his side. The Venezuelan Supreme Court was highly corrupt and politicized and in little position to defend the constitution against Chávez and the obvious popularity of his planned “revolution.” Federalism in Venezuela hardly mattered at all. In fact, de-facto federalism probably was a less significant constraint on the central government in “democratic” Venezuela than in “authoritarian” Mexico.

AMLO would have none of these advantages: A small personal electoral plurality, a poor showing in congress, a quite professional Supreme Court, control of few states, and no prospect of the Mexican army coming to his side. An AMLO presidency would be weak. There are some of us who, regardless of how we might feel about the candidates (and full disclosure here: were I Mexican, I almost surely would have voted for Calderón**), do not think such an outcome would be so bad. After all, who is to say that AMLO was not, in fact, the Condorcet winner, regardless of whether or not he won the plurality? Not me.

I’ll address the Condorcet issue–and the related questions of the value for Mexico in adopting, or not, a two-round presidential election system in the future–at another time.


* I suppose, theoretically, the PRI could make itself pivotal by first making an accord with the Nueva Alianza (9 seats). (The other small party does not have quite enough for its votes, plus the PRI and PAN to equal two thirds of the Chamber.) I suspect this is highly unlikely and even if it were to occur, on the other side of this equation it is worth noting that the PRI will not actually have all the 119 seats I attributed to it above. Some of those are actually PVEM seats as part of the parties’ pre-election alliance. Similarly, the PRD does not have 160 seats, as some of those have been won by its alliance partners, the Worker’s Party and Convergence. The PAN, on the other hand, is just the PAN; it did not offer any nominations on its lists (or districts) to other parties.

** Though I am just as sure I would have given una de tres to the Nueva Alianza.

14 thoughts on “Mexico congressional result and “governability”

  1. Nice analysis. My guess is that ‘governability’ is used in part because that is the translation of gobernabilidad, which is often used to describe the lack of effective policy-brokering during the Fox administration. Though it may have a slight implication that the President doesn’t ‘get his way,’ I heard non-political scientists in Mexico use the term to refer a general lack of effective policy making with _and_ in Congress, along the lines of what we would call ‘deadlock.’ Mexicans looked to the President to take a leadership role in breaking such deadlock.

    I also think that though many recognize the problems of divided government or many parties (with strong party discipline) in Congress, many also (rightly) blamed Fox for the governability problems. Yes, he faced a divided and opposition Congress, but many of the policy failures had to do with his inability to maneuver effectively. His failed attempts to reform the fiscal system in 2001 is a prime example; Fox just wasn’t a very astute politician when it came to brokering deals. (Granted, he was in an unprecedented position with a steep learning curve.) But still, he made several political miscalculations. [Maybe, if I have time, I’ll elaborate on these on my page.]

    Even if Calderon has a better situation given the PAN’s lead in seats (instead of the PRI) than Fox had, it’s no guarantee that Calderon will have fewer ‘governability’ problems. That implies that Fox’s problems came solely or mostly from divided government, which I don’t they did. The distribution of seats in Congress may be better for Calderon, but he’s still going to have to prove to be a better politician than Fox, if he hopes to improve ‘governabilidad.’ I’m not sure Calderon has the experience necessary to provide that type of leadership, but I certainly hope he’s a quick learner.

  2. So, who has the better prospects for coping with a divided congress and all the other challenges of governing:

    The former business executive whose political experience consisted of running a state where his party is dominant and who won the presidency because he was not the PRI and with the help of super-partisan “Amigos”?

    Or the long-time party official and former cabinet minister who ran a much more partisan campaign (and hence presumably is more “unconditionally” backed by his own party members)?

    I’m betting on the latter. But then I think the actual balance of power vis-a-vis other institutions and parties is far more important than the skills or background of the president. Unfortunately for analytical purposes, both sets of factors point the same way. If Calderón is the next president of Mexico, he should be more effective than Fox.

  3. Yes, Calderon should have more support from his own party than Fox (who essentially did an end-run (is this the right phrase?) around the party to get nominated). Fox seemed to think that he could do the same thing with opposition parties in Congress and was very much mistaken.

    Calderon will not only have to rely on his own party for support, but needs to be able to build bridges to other parties to get those extra votes for a majority. His early statements regarding building a coalition government suggest that he understands that this is important, but does not guarantee that his team will necessarily be able to pull it off.

    In several instances, the party of the president has thought that it had the votes in Congress the night before a big vote, only to find the next day that their ally (for reasons inexplicable to the party of the president) defected and voted against a policy. This happened to the PRI under Zedillo. It happened to the PAN under Fox. And given party discipline, when the coalition for a bill falls apart, it really falls apart.

    The kicker is that I suspect that the times the coalition falls apart it only partly has to do with the particular policy in question. And this is where I think a lot of studies of particular policies (including those like mine of social security, but equally things like privatization, tax reform, etc.) have a pretty big weakness. We [political scientists who study policy outcomes…or what Mexicans may call governability in some respects] often only consider one policy at a time, when coalitions are probably negotiated/built around multiple policies at once.

    When legislators start bargaining with unions or with other parties about social security, do they strictly keep only on the topic of social security? Probably not, especially if some of the key vote holders don’t have strong social security preferences. Those vote holders are likely to bring their ‘pet’ policies into the discussion given their willingness to sell their vote on social security for support for their pet.

    Ok. So this was a rather long digression from the original point, but it’s that process of political negotiation that the President and his cabinet must be able to coordinate with their leaders in the Congress. And this is probably where you and I do differ….because I believe that process does have to do with political skill more than institutional rules of the Congress. I’m actually skeptical that if such rules even exist that they are stridently followed.

    [BTW, has anyone done a study of the internal rules of Congress and the extent to which in practice they are really followed? I wonder if the rules are becoming more contested/important since 2000. My hypothesis would be that competition will increase policing of the rules, which were probably often ignored in the past. And therefore, parties would become more interested in formalizing internal rules. Since I don’t study Congress, I’m not familiar with that literature.]

  4. “the President and his cabinet must be able to coordinate with their leaders in the Congress.”

    Well, yes.

    “And this is probably where you and I do differ….because I believe that process does have to do with political skill more than institutional rules of the Congress,” added Michelle.

    It’s not “institutional rules of the Congress” that I am talking about (if by that we means internal procedures or even the formal procedures by which executive proposals are debated, veto/override rules, etc.). I was referring to the balance of party bargaining power in Congress, along with the incentives of those parties. Given party discipline, those incentives indeed come down to relations between and among party leaders and the President.

    I just don’t really know what “political skill” is. I mean that seriously. I do not know how one would operationalize such a concept.

  5. You probably can’t observe or operationalize political skill. You can only observe coalitions that ‘make’ and those that don’t. You could maybe come up with a way to predict coalition behavior on a range of legislation and “skill” would be the error term. As a social scientist, it would be hard to measure emprically, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. [Of course, everything can be measured somehow…though potentially with a lot of error. Legislators, for example, could be asked to rate the abilities of particular leaders to handle certain issues….but I’m not sure that would be a reliable measure.]

    Perhaps it’s easier to observe/measure political learning. For instance, Fox initially seemed to use a strategy much like the one he used to get the PAN nomination to try to pass legislation. At the beginning, he seemed to believe that if he had a popular proposal and took it to the people, the other parties would fall in line behind him because his proposal had the support of the people. So he highly publicized his proposals and sent them to Congress where they promptly blew up in his face. By the end of the term, he would start to build coalitions first and submit to Congress later. He understood that he needed to negotiate terms before it got to a public forum like Congress.

    Now, that doesn’t mean that strategy was always successful either, because parties would string him along only to later turn on him when the issue was raised in Congress. In the one instance of this that I observed (alsmost first-hand), I thought it was pretty naive of the administration to think they had support for their policy. It was clear to me that it would backfire, and I’m not sure why it wasn’t clear to them (lack of political skill? knowing your enemy? arrogance?). It suggested a lack of political skill or understanding of the motives/positions of the other parties. It also suggested that the Administration didn’t know which carrots to offer to get the cooperation that they wanted.

    Maybe it’s about trust. If you view Congressional relations as an iterated game, the actors have little experience cooperating in the new context of divided government (and the no reelection rule ensures that inexperience in the congressional leadership may be structural unless non-congressional party elites are involved behind the scenes). Perhaps they will learn trust over time. Defectors will be punished. And political skill (the error term) will become less important. [Because, in a way, political skill is used to prevent defection where perhaps other tools aren’t available? I’m hypothesizing off the cuff here….]

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  7. Am I correct in saying you argue that Calderón’s ability to get congressional majorities will rely heavily on the PRI wanting to bargain more now than than under Fox, because after these elections it realizes that for the foreseeable future it will not get a plurality?

    I think that’s an interesting hypothesis, because it could explain both deadlock under Fox and successful passage of legislation under Calderón. If the PRD remains intransigent with a PAN president, then it’s all about how the PRI perceives its position.

  8. Greg: In far fewer words than I used up, yes, that’s my hypothesis.

    The PRI may think it can win a plurality again, but its immediate prospects are not as bright as they plausibly were in 2000-03.

    Of course, the PRI strategy depends in part on Calderón’s (assuming he is the next president). As Michelle notes, Fox assumed he had a mandate and that it was super-partisan (which, in a sense, was true, at least initially). Calderón will know, rather obviously, that he did not. He barely outperformed either his party or his main opponent. That should make him more open to making reasonable offers to the PRI than Fox (The Great Dinosaur Slayer!) was.

    I would guess he might make more reasonable offers to the PRD, also, but that the latter is far less interested in “playing ball.” It is in a stronger position than it was after 2000, and that should make it more likely to perceive itself as on the upswing, and thus in a position to benefit electorally from perceived failures of the Calderón administration.

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  10. So Mexico’s MMP system is not MMP? How is this so? Is it disproportionate or more proportionate?

    Is a two vote MMP system more proportionate than a one vote MMP system?

    I know that the list tier of Mexico’s MMP is subdivided in 5 districts of 200 members, so that is 40 seats per district and in each district the threshold would be 2.5%. But how do the regional lists iron out the disproportionately?

    The problem with PR and presidentialism is gridlock, there is no prime minister, and no early elections to enforce party discipline. The only elections are Fixed Term elections.

    Are there any successful countries in Latin America with PR and presidentialism? Does it usually lead to minority presidentialism like the President’s party is the third largest party in the legislator, but he does not form alliances with the 1st or 2nd largest party.

  11. Just to be clear: as noted in the text above, Mexico’s system is MMM. Allocation is parallel. Exception: no party can have more than 60% of the seats or more than 8-percentage points of over-representation.

    The same system has now been used in 1997, 2000, 2003, and 2006. Only in the first of those elections was either cap triggered (thereby keeping the PRI short of a majority). Otherwise, it has been a pure parallel (MMM not MMP) system, and the results have shown it (as detailed above for the 2006 election).

    The list tier allocation to parties is nationwide; the regional districts matter only in terms of which lists a given party’s seats come from (i.e. the list tier is effectively districted only on the intraparty dimension).

  12. This seems a bit strange a parallel system that is just one vote system. MMM system in Mexico is a lot more proportionate than say just a SMD would be.

    Is there any proposals to make it more proportionate?

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