Is it the end of the popular consultation?

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The decision of the Mexican Supreme Court of Justice of rejecting the requests for a popular consultation on minimum wage (PAN), reducing the number of multi-member Congressmen (PRI) and the energy reform (PRD and MORENA), has put an end on the first attempts of using this mechanism approved in the 2012 political-electoral reform, and which was ruled on March of the current year. The failed experiment of the popular consultation cannot be solely explained to the Court’s decision, although several stakeholders may want to point all fingers to it. As a matter of fact, such a failure comes from a faulty legislation and a poor choice of words on the questions put into the consultation from political parties. The risk that this failure will completely smear the popular consultation as a mechanism of semi-direct democracy – it is not completely direct, given that its legally binding character was subject to the will of Congressmen – and the population will disregard it as a tool for citizen participation. This acquires a greater relevance when considering that voters have little opportunities to express their political will, while, as it was shown in this first attempt to implement the popular consultation, parties prefer to kidnap these mechanisms with the intention of protecting their short-term interests.

The feasibility of popular consultation was doomed to fail from the beginning of its design, mainly due to a lack of precision in legislators, who, when designing the modifications to the 35th Constitutional article and constructing the Federal Law of Public Consultations (LFCP) kept a wording that proved to be too ambiguous on taboo issues to be consulted. According to LFCP’s 11th article, popular consultations cannot be carried out if they question electoral issues, State expenses and profits, national security, military structure, way of government and human rights.  Regarding the issue of expenditure and revenue, it was evident that the tax structure, fiscal exemptions and similar matters were not topics that could be put into question. However, it was not clear if the restriction was extended to every private stakeholder that would directly or indirectly affect the budget – as is the case of energy reform. The Court declared the proposals by PAN, PRD and MORENA to be unconstitutional, since they considered that State income and expenses should be understood in a broader sense and that these proposals implied an alteration of the aforementioned. The recent Court resolutions have restricted – if not eliminated – the possibility of carrying out popular consultations since it is impossible to think that there are issues of “national transcendence” that will not affect the budget. Especially when considering that every public policy implies at least one budget reallocation. Regarding the PRI initiative, the reduction of multi-member Congressmen can be seen, as settled by the Court, as both electoral and governing matters.

The inadequate institutional design and the uselessness of popular consultations calls into question its benefits as a tool for semi-direct democracy when, in fact, they offer the general population a channel for decision-making, enable the induction of external issues to programmed agendas within political parties, enhance debates and force political stakeholders to take a position on several controversial public policies. Undoubtedly, popular consultation, as the rest of direct or semi-direct democracy mechanisms, has a limited approach and is not a solution for the problem of representativeness in the Mexican political system. However, they contribute on enhancing the traditional electoral mechanisms and enable a greater participation for the everyday citizen. In that sense, it is essential that legislators and political stakeholders leave aside the traditional logic where the decision-making process involves just a few and citizen participation, beyond submitting a vote, is disregarded. Popular consultation should not be seen as a tool for debauchery for the masses, but as a mechanism that is democratic, feasible, timely and complementary to all decisions.

In short, the current judiciary framework of the popular consultation is inoperative, which is why it is important to make a stance. If parties have the genuine willingness to open new spaces for citizens to enhance political action, it would be necessary to revise not only the popular consultation but other tools such as the recent political reforms like the citizen initiative or independent candidacies. These mechanisms have the same problem as popular consultation: lack of feasibility. If these were to be useless, the most coherent thing to do would be to make them disappear, or else they will join the large catalogue of disappointments and hypocrisy within the transition to democracy.


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