The Forum in Mexico
Ever since 1810, when Mexico became an independent country, tensions between the states and the centre have dominated the political landscape. Indeed, the war of independence started in the states as a reaction to the excesses of a powerful central government. The precarious equilibrium between the centre and the periphery in Mexico has been crystallized in the different constitutions that have been drafted since independence.
The first constitution, the Constitución de Cà¡diz of 1812, was modelled after the Spanish system and defined two institutions at the regional level: municipal and state governments. Municipal governments were elected, but the state governments were appointed by the central government. This constitutional arrangement allowed the first independent government of Mexico, the short-lived monarchy of Agustàn de Iturbide, to centralize power in the capital.
In 1824 an insurrection led by General Santa Anna forced Iturbide to resign, and he was later assassinated. With the downfall of the monarchy, the states reacted by establishing their own governments. In the new Constituent Assembly (1823-24), representatives of the state governments were able to exert a considerable influence in the drafting of the new constitution. It was in the 1824 constitution that federalism was first introduced. It was conceived by the Constituent Assembly as an institutional mechanism to preserve the union and prevent the secession of several states and, thus, what it reveals most is a fear of national disintegration. This is why its drafters sought to create a strong executive while at the same time recognizing some form of state autonomy and the separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
The tensions between the states and the centre made the 1824 constitution inoperable. The desire for independence on the part of some states could not be contained, and thus, in 1836 Texas declared its independence from Mexico. More importantly, the tensions between the Liberals (federalists) and the Conservatives (centralists) seriously divided the country. Political instability was so high that no government was able to rule effectively. By 1835, a new Constituent Assembly had amended the constitution and eliminated federalism as a form of government. The centralization of power became more explicit during the dictatorships that followed.
In 1857 a new constitution was drafted after dictator Antonio López Santa Anna was removed during an armed insurrection. In reaction to the strong powers granted to the executive in the 1824 constitution, the 1857 constitution sought to limit the power of the executive by strengthening Congress. As a mechanism to do this, the constitution eliminated the Senate. It was thought that a single legislative chamber would be more powerful and more effective in checking the power of the executive. Although this constitution recognized federalism as a system of government, it granted the central government great economic and political powers vis-à -vis the states. Moreover, by eliminating the Senate, the states lost their representation in the federal government.
In practice, this constitution also proved unmanageable, particularly given the political instability that was still prevalent in the country, and given that it did not create the institutional mechanisms to allow the executive to govern effectively. As Marvà¡n argues, this constitutional design granted Congress enormous power without accountability or appropriate checks and balances, and at the same time, granted the executive enormous responsibilities without sufficient autonomy.
The 1857 constitution was drafted by the Liberals, and the Conservatives’ opposition to it culminated in a civil war. The war between Conservatives and Liberals ended with the victory of the Liberals in 1867. In order to strengthen the executive, President Benito Juà¡rez sought to reform the constitution and, although he died in 1872, a constitutional amendment was passed which re-installed the Senate in 1875. Juà¡rez promoted the Senate as a means of strengthening the central government which he thought was necessary in order to reconstruct the country. The fact that the Senate was re-established did not mean that it was empowered, as many prerogatives remained with Congress’for example, the ratification of all Cabinet members and Supreme Court justices, the suppression of Presidential veto power, and the right to subject the President to a political trial with a simple majority. Also, the Senate was excluded from participating in the discussion and approval of the budget. With this limitation, federalism was impaired, for the states were excluded from taking part in the budgetary decision-making process. This limitation continues to the present.
Porfiro Dàaz took power in 1876. This began a period of prolonged and repressive dictatorship. Although during his time in power Juà¡rez used extraordinary provisions to govern and suspended individual rights, the regime of Porfiro Diaz took this to greater extremes. Dàaz gained control over the press, the Church, Congress, Governors and local elites. He also managed to amend the constitution to allow for his indefinite re-election.
A severe economic crisis, combined with popular disenchantment with a repressive regime that rested on a highly unequal distribution of wealth, and the emergence of a new generation of leaders who reacted against the entrenchment of a political elite who obstructed their political ambitions, made the conditions ripe for revolution and indeed that is what happened. In 1910, the start of the Mexican Revolution forced Porfirio Dàaz to leave the country. As in the past, the revolution originated in the periphery, but was won in the centre. It ended when two moderate northern generals (Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregón) defeated the more radical faction. Carranza and Obregón consolidated their victory when they took control of the centre and were able to dominate the periphery.
After the civil war, a Constitutional Assembly was convened to draft a new constitution. The constitution of 1917 was modelled after the 1857 constitution and the 1875 amendments, but it granted the executive greater discretionary powers and it included a series of ‘social rights’ (education, labour, health) that institutionalized the ideals of the Revolution. This constitution, which is still valid today, became one of the most important institutional pillars of Mexico’s political regime.
The other major pillar of the regime was the official party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which maintained virtually hegemonic control of power from its creation in 1929 to 2000. With the victory of an opposition candidate in the 2000 presidential elections, a significant number of politicians, academics and journalist have started to talk about the need to draft a new constitution.