Perceptions, once firmly established, can often obscure the truth. The homicide rate in Brazil is twice that in Mexico, but it is my country that is portrayed as lawless and violence-ridden. So it is important to note some sudden good news: On Sunday, in 14 of Mexico’s 32 states, millions of citizens went to the polls and, defying the threat of violence from drug cartels, decisively consolidated our young democracy.
They did not, as had been feared, simply entrust local government in all 14 states to the PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party), which had ruled Mexico for 71 years until 2000. That had seemed to be a strong possibility, given the widespread desire to return to the relative stability of the days before the drug gangs spread violence and death through much of Mexico. Complete victory for the PRI would have led to its inevitable return to nationwide power in the presidential election of 2012. What voters did in many places was simply vote out corrupt or ineffective incumbent governors, mayors and other state and local officials — regardless of party.
Now, though the return of the PRI in 2012 is still probable, it is no longer inevitable. Even if the next president turns out to be from the PRI, the party will still not regain its lock on power, since the other parties have made such substantial gains in state and city governments. This is cause for great optimism.
For most of its modern history, Mexico was a monarchy in disguise. Each president in turn was the Great Elector, dominating Congress through a permanent majority, wielding influence over the Supreme Court, appointing and removing governors and mayors, freely manipulating the national budget and natural resources, and limiting freedom of expression.
In its decade of existence in Mexico, democracy has created a true division of power among Congress, the president and the judiciary; honest presidential and legislative elections; limits on the traditionally absolute power of the Mexican president; an independent Supreme Court; a disclosure law that has notably reduced federal corruption; unrestricted freedom of expression in the news media; and active participation by Mexican citizens in public life.
But democracy itself brought unexpected problems. The powers formerly monopolized by the president devolved to the state governors, most of whom still belonged to the PRI and often, suddenly free of presidential control, behaved like the old strongmen of the Mexican Revolution. They bought votes, controlled local electoral institutions, made free use of public funds, nourished corruption and repressed or silenced the press.
And yet, on Sunday, contrary to many people’s expectations, committed citizens voted out the feudal lords in two key states, Oaxaca and Puebla, as well as in the violence-ridden state of Sinaloa.
Public consciousness of the power of the vote is relatively new here. And it is of course vital to the success of democracy. In 6 of the 12 states that elected governors on Sunday, incumbents — not only from the PRI but also from the PAN (the right-of-center National Action Party of President Felipe Calderón) and the P.R.D. (the left-of-center Democratic Revolutionary Party) — were rejected.
In Oaxaca, Puebla and Sinaloa, the voters chose candidates jointly supported by the PAN and the P.R.D., a practical alliance that would have been unimaginable a few years ago and seems to confirm the centrist tendency of the Mexican electorate. Even in a few states where the alliance lost to the PRI, it demonstrated growing strength.
Despite the menace of violence from organized crime, in seven states, including Sinaloa, more than 50 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. Natural disasters, disease outbreaks, economic crisis, migration and the violence of the drug war have clouded life in Mexico through recent years. But the people continue to believe in democracy.
Now democracy can continue to develop where it is most needed, at the state and municipal level. Consider what might happen next year in the rich and populous state of Mexico, which surrounds the capital city. The current governor there is the popular Enrique Peña Nieto, who polls suggest is the leading candidate in the 2012 presidential race. But a PAN-P.R.D. alliance could prove competitive against his PRI successor in the 2011 gubernatorial race. Should the alliance win there, Mr. Peña Nieto’s presidential prospects would not be so clear.
At the same time, the PAN will have difficulty holding onto the presidency. Mexico remains economically stagnant, and ordinary citizens disapprove of President Calderón’s war against the drug bosses. The PAN would not have gotten very far on Sunday without its alliance with the P.R.D., and vice versa. These parties could become competitive in the 2012 presidential race, but first the new state governments, formed by alliances opposed to the PRI, must show themselves to be honest, economically innovative and effective in confronting organized crime.
The good news is that even if Mr. Peña Nieto wins the presidency in 2012, the PRI will still not regain its former strength. The governors, even the many in the PRI party, will not gracefully cede their new powers to the president. And voters know the PRI cannot easily persuade the drug lords to stop competing for market and territories — and stop killing each other, government representatives and ordinary citizens.
In practical terms, a pluralistic Mexico is far preferable to the restoration of a camouflaged monarchy. A country that becomes continually more comfortable with democracy and the rule of law in its states and cities can confront the challenge of organized crime in a more effective and responsible manner. Colombia has done it, and maintained democracy. Mexico — with some help and understanding from the United States — can do it as well. No matter the dangers, the future for Mexico must rest on maintaining and expanding its still young democracy
Enrique Krauze, the editor of the magazine Letras Libres and the author of Mexico: Biography of Power. This article was translated by Hank Heifetz from the Spanish.