31 May 2009

Independents frozen out of elections

The News

Elisa de Anda wanted to run for a Chamber of Deputies seat in the July 5 midterm elections as an independent candidate. The recent law school graduate and Coyoacán native met many of the prerequisites: she was of legal age, a Mexican citizen and no criminal record. She says that no skeletons could have come tumbling out of her closet ahead of election day. She even drafted an electoral platform that touched on issues such as the re-election of lawmakers.

But on May 2, her candidate application was rejected by the local office of the Federal Electoral Institute, or IFE, in District 23. Apparently, she lacked one thing: the backing of one of the country's eight registered political parties. The IFE also rejected at least 15 other independent candidacies from other parts of the country, according to de Anda, who has now taken her fight for inclusion on the ballot to the electoral tribunal. A ruling is expected within days.De Anda's fight to be an independent candidate highlights the enormous influence that political parties wield over the electoral system and the unwillingness of the political elite to permit the participation of potential wildcard candidates who could bring their own resources and personal popularity to election campaigns.

Her struggle also highlights another potential shortcoming of the 2007 electoral reforms, which technically allow for the participation of independent candidates, but makes such candidacies all but impossible.

"It's a party cartel system," said ITAM political science professor Federico Estévez."

It has been the case from the outset of the political reform in electoral matters . [that] independent candidates in federal elections are not allowed. They must be nominated by a party."

Only the southeastern state of Yucatán allows independent candidates in gubernatorial, legislative and municipal elections. And one independent candidate, Adonay Avila Sierra, captured the May 2007 mayoral race in Yobaín. Some indigenous villages, particularly in Oaxaca, employ traditional governance system based on "usos y costumbres," or uses and customs, that often doesn't involve mainstream political parties - or any party at all.

Writing in a non-registered candidate's name is also possible, but the IFE never divulges who receives the most informal support. Estévez suspects that electoral officials might be embarrassed to acknowledge how many votes telenovela stars and figures such as the pontificating television clown Brozo receive.

The eight political parties enjoy enormous economic and legal power in Mexico's political system, which has only become competitive over the past 20 years with the loosening of the Institutional Revolutionary Party's grip.

Competition came, in part, through electoral reforms that included the introduction of lawmakers being elected through a proportional representation system known as the "plurinominal" in the late 1970s. The mixed political system - having 300 members elected from districts to the Chamber, while having another 200 members elected through the plurinominal - makes independent candidacies difficult, according to ITAM political science professor Jeffrey Weldon. "Proportional representation is designed to be distributed among parties," he said.

The electoral reforms approved in late 2007 only strengthened the parties even more. The new rules gave exclusive access to the radio and TV airwaves for promotional purposes. Advocacy groups and individuals cannot buy airtime to promote public policy issues because that could be interpreted as an attack on a registered party.

Even if independents like de Anda could register, her ability to promote her candidacy would be limited. And the parties, which receive all radio and TV airtime free of charge, have another advantage: money. The eight parties will split more than 3.5 billion pesos in public funding this year.Still, de Anda finds no issue with having strong, well-funded political parties; she only objects to the current electoral rules, which she says violate Article 35 of the Constitution."

Parties are fundamental pillars of our democracy, but they should be the vehicle for citizen participation," de Anda said.

Article 35 states that all citizens have the right to vote and to "be elected." But aspiring independent candidates have been frozen out of the political process in recent years - even though such candidates were common in the first half of the last century.

Discount pharmaceutical baron Víctor González Torres, better known as Dr. Simi, launched an unregistered independent candidacy in early 2006 after the Federal Electoral Tribunal, or Trife, denied him the presidential nomination of the party then known as Alternativa. (It is now called the Social Democratic Party, or PSD.) Even with his vast personal resources, Dr. Simi failed to make much of an impact; it's unknown how many people wrote his name on the ballot.

More prominently, former Foreign Relations Secretary Jorge Castañeda attempted to run as an independent candidate in the 2006 presidential election. The IFE denied his request in 2004, so he petitioned the Supreme Court for an injunction known as an "amparo" against parts of the electoral code. The Supreme Court ruled against him, saying, in part, that it lacked jurisdiction to rule on the matter.

Castañeda ended up without his desired candidacy in 2006, but he took his case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is based in Costa Rica. The court ruled last summer that his rights had been violated, but, according to a Foreign Relations Secretariat press release, the court also said that the 2007 electoral reforms had rectified some of his initial grievances.

Still, the court asked that some laws be modified to clarify jurisdictional issues on the subject of independent candidacies and that Castañeda receive compensation for his legal expenses. No laws have been modified since the ruling, and Castañeda told reporters in January that he was still awaiting compensation.

De Anda says that she has not been in contact with Castañeda and has found some faults with his legal strategy of pursuing an amparo. Instead, she has taken her case to the Trife, which acts as a final referee in political and electoral matters."

For the first time, the electoral tribunal is going to have to rule if the [electoral code] is violating a constitutional or human right, than any of us can be voted for," she said.

Analysts differ on de Anda's prospects for success. ITAM's Weldon has his doubts because the Constitution also gives rights to political parties and the nature of the tribunal, which only adjudicates electoral and political matters and interprets the electoral code. "They're really not supposed to make major constitutional decisions," Weldon said.

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