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 CalderÃ³n, a reversal in favor of the PRD’s AndrÃ©s Manuel LÃ³pez 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 CalderÃ³n 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 CalderÃ³n 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 LÃ³pez 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 CalderÃ³n 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 CalderÃ³n “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 CalderÃ³n. If he is indeed the next president of Mexico. What if AMLO is instead? Then things are not so bright. A president LÃ³pez 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 “ChÃ¡vez” 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. ChÃ¡vez 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 ChÃ¡vez phenomenon had really taken off). ChÃ¡vez, 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 ChÃ¡vez 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 CalderÃ³n**), 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.