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Mexico: Federalism in the Democratic Transition

Mexican Federalism in the Democratic Transition JUAN MARCOS GUTIÉRREZ GONZÁLEZ During the twentieth century, the story of Mexican federalism was mostly one of centralization, which has only been countered since about 1982 by demands and policies for governmental decentralization, political democratization, and economic liberalization. The provisions of the current constitution, the Constitution of 1917, clearly reflect major issues and concerns prevalent in Mexico in the past that are still with us in the present. Among some of these issues are the overriding power of the president, decentralization, and the establishment of a truly federal system. Today, Mexico is struggling to define its own version of federalism and to put an end to the centripetal force that has dominated national life. Mexico has a long tradition of centralism extending back through the colonial era and into the Aztec and Mayan civilizations. In the creation of Mexico’s first federal constitution in 1824, while the framers did not possess any overriding vision of the federation, they knew what they hoped to avoid. Among the reasons for creating the Constitution and adopting a federal regime was the intention of abolishing absolutism through the foundation of a system of weights and counterweights between the government and the people, as well as granting the states a representative government Even though Mexico’s current Constitution is relatively young, its federal principles stem directly from the first federal constitution that came into effect in 1824. From 1836 to 1854, however, Mexico had a centralist constitution, but experiences under this constitution triggered a resurgence of federalist ideas, which culminated in the federal Constitution of 1857. This constitution, which failed to stem centralization, remained in effect until the outcome of the Mexican Revolution led to the 1917 Constitution that is in effect today. The victors of the Mexican Revolution had some clear federalist and democratic objectives, in part because the Revolution began as a rebellion in several states against the centralized, dictatorial regime of Porfirio Díaz. Under the federal model framed in the Constitution, however, the legislative and judicial branches of the federal government have been essentially subservient to the overarching power of the executive. From 1920 to 1995, the federal system was characterized by a constitutional centralization of powers in the hands of the federal government, which considerably diminished the decision-making powers of the states and municipalities. This system brought about a socio-political phenomenon that characterized Mexico’s political life during the twentieth century: the powerful presidential system. In addition, a single political party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI—Institutional Revolutionary Party), maintained nearly monopolistic control over the country’s political life. From its founding in 1929 until 1989, the PRI controlled the presidency, the Congress of the Union, the 31 state governments, the Federal District, and most of the nation’s 2,448 municipal governments. The PRI lost the presidency for the first time only in 2000, after opposition parties had already gained control of a number of state and municipal governments. Currently, political events never seen before in Mexico have arrived with the growing development of associations of municipalities, and the so called National Conference of Governors (CONAGO) which foster and demand the recovering of the political and financial autonomy lost during seven decades. The main agenda of these associations and the National Conference of Governors is to address the subject of fiscal federalism. Added to this mix is the increasing activism of legislators from both Chambers of Congress. They have developed various constitutional reform proposals with several focal points but all sharing the intent of reconsidering the federal model. Some suggested changes include limiting, perhaps substantially, the powers of the president of the republic, and strengthening the notion of Mexico as a federal republic by more clearly specifying the three orders of government. The structure of the Constitution was organized in the division of three powers: executive, legislative, and judiciary and three orders of government: the federal, state and municipal spheres. While the Constitution established a federal system with substantial powers residing, in principle, in the states, the document also established a highly secular social-welfare state that is largely under the purview of the federal government whose authority to intervene in such matters as foreign and domestic trade, agriculture, food supplies, labour, health care, education, and energy facilitated centralization, and whose ownership of land and natural resources fostered a highly nationalized economy. The Mexican system’s features resemble those of cooperative federalism which, in practice, ended up strengthening a great deal the federal sphere to the detriment of the states and municipalities, undermining federalism as such. Furthermore, in Mexico the distribution of concurrent intergovernmental powers and responsibilities provided in the Constitution is neither clear nor sufficient, and this has generated uncertainty, conflicts, duplicity, and has caused the centralization of great areas of national life. Proponents of change have argued that federal, state, and municipal responsibilities should be redefined and listed in the Constitution. Another ongoing debate in Mexico is whether or not the Senate should be changed to become truly representative of the states, and whether some or all of its members should be members of the state legislatures. A final point to consider is that one of the main actions to be taken for federalism to function properly is to grant all orders of government with a real ability to generate the majority of the financial resources that they require. Such a move would undo the current fiscal centralization, which has created an almost total dependence of the states and municipalities on federal transfers.