The dilemmas of participative democracy

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The two major packages of political/electoral reforms that have been in the making during the past two years – August 2012 and January 2014 – have focused on three tools of participative democracy: referendum, citizen’s initiative and independent candidacies. Over the past years, political discourse has hailed these mechanisms as ways in which the citizen may “regain” the sovereign power that he or she has, theoretically, lost with the abuses made by politicians and the lack of an efficient linkage between voters and their public representatives. Regardless of the secondary legislation related with these mechanisms – two of them have already been materialized and the other one (independent candidacies) remains a pending issue – it is worth asking whether these tools will actually contribute with building democracy in Mexico.
Taking into account previous international experiences, the use of participative democracy presents varied results. While in countries with very advanced democracies such as the Scandinavian nations it has become a way of offering new options that contrast policies of traditional elites, in other cases that are closer to Mexico – and which have directly been involved with the latter – such as the United States, the concept of citizens’ initiative has been the entry point for mistakes that oppose to the most basic human rights, all based in a so-called “popular will”. Some of the cases that exemplify the latter are California’s Proposition 187 (1994) or Arizona’s Proposition 200 (2004), where voters of those states approved restricting the access of public health services to illegal immigrants. Although the California initiative was challenged by the Supreme Court and ended up fading away, the Arizona example was quite successful. Although the Mexican citizens’ initiative presents several restrictions to its powers – such as the inability to vote on issues related to public expenditure, revocation of human rights established in the Constitution or changing the form of government – , there are some considerations regarding the possibility of a judiciary nonsense from becoming a reality or, at least, may prove to be a disruptive element within the already irregular dynamic of Mexican legislation. By the way, given the way under which the energy reform’s secondary legislation was presented, having it revoked using a referendum may prove to be a complicated task.
The citizens’ initiative was implemented on May 20th with its publication in the Mexican Official Journey and it is possible to find important details within its functions. It requires the 0.13 percent of signatures from the total registered voters – although it does not state if that number refers to the previous immediate election, something that the citizens’ initiative does contemplate – in order to accredit a draft decree. As of 2012, the number of registered voters was around 80 million individuals. After the latter is certified by the newly created National Electoral Institute, Congress would accept the initiative. Nevertheless, the legislative process could prove to be eventful if those who propose it do not possess whether a powerful lobbying structure or the endorsement of any of the political factions sitting in Congress. In addition to the aforementioned, there is also an (alleged) need for the initiative to contain a judiciary tool that will survive the discussion process that will be submitted to commissions within Congress. (that is, if the procedure is made in a professional manner, not like it has been done with the secondary legislation of the political-electoral reform). In short, the citizens’ initiative is on its way to become a self-fulfilling prophecy of failures and simulations.
Lastly, regarding the independent candidacies and not taking into account that, as of now, its regulation is a pending issue that needs the Executive Power’s approval, the possibilities of success for this mechanism also seem to be quite low due to the consolidation of the current “particracy” via, paradoxically, of the very same political-electoral reform that was issued on January 31st. Additionally and under exceptional circumstances, independent candidacies may serve interests that are far from being part of the democratic flag, especially when considering that its chances of success greatly depend upon the economic and electoral mobility resources that it may access. In a country where financial intelligence is still in its infancy and organized crime is currently moving as it pleases, independent candidacies may turn out to be a double-edged sword.
Thus, is participative democracy a fallacy? Naturally, it is not, at least not in its essential structure. It can certainly become a useful tool with the purpose of filling representation voids that the interests of political elite may create. However, in a democracy with a weak foundation, such as Mexico, and in a country with a cracked rule of law, participative democracy may lead to unwanted results, such as becoming a disruptive factor within the current disorganization of the political system.


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