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World: Analysis From Washington -- The Power Of Procedures

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 8 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A proposal to change the way in which Mexican political parties choose their nominees for president of that country highlights the power of procedures in all democratic political systems, a power that sometimes may be as great or greater than constitutional arrangements.

Last Thursday, Mexican President Ernesto Zedilo called on his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to select its future presidential candidates through an American-style system of state-level primary votes rather than continue to allow him and his successors to make that choice on their own.

A response to charges that the PRI has lost touch with the population and especially with the regions during its more than 60 years in office, this innovation, which is likely to be accepted by a party used to taking orders from the top, may quickly transform Mexican politics.

Among the immediate consequences of this move are likely to be a weakening of the presidency itself, given that an incumbent will not be able to handpick his successor, the lengthening of campaigns for that office as various politicians seek to position themselves to win votes, and a dramatic strengthening of the power of the regions relative to central political elites.

Zedillo obviously hopes that this change will reinvigorate his party and allow it to stave off challenges from other political movements, but his proposal may have a longer-term impact very different than what he has said he seeks.

By providing an opportunity for more open competition among its powerful leaders, the new system could exacerbate existing divisions within the PRI or even lead to its collapse. And thus there are likely to be efforts both public and behind the scenes to limit just how open the new system will be. But as Zedillo himself recognizes, any retreat from his proposal might have the same or even dramatic consequences.

If changes in procedure can have such a major impact on established political systems, choices about procedures may prove to be even more important in countries seeking to make the transition from authoritarian or totalitarian regimes to democratic ones -- even if the impact of such rules of the game is not immediately obvious.

In the post-communist countries, this power of procedures over political outcomes is very much in evidence. But so too and again as in Mexico are the difficulties of deciding which procedures are the most useful because virtually all of them have both positive and negative consequences.

Among the procedural questions about elections that these transition countries are having to cope with, three currently stand out. First, should elections be by party list or by single-member district? The first helps to build political parties and ensures greater political discipline within parliaments; the second ensures that representatives remain responsive to their constituencies.

Because elites in these countries want to achieve both sets of goals, it is not surprising that many of these countries have chosen to straddle the issue, with half of their deputies elected by party list and half by single-member constituencies. But it remains to be seen if this particular compromise will work well over the longer term.

Second, should there be a percentage barrier that parties have to meet in order to be represented in parliament? Because these transition states often feature so many political parties and because none of them wants extremist groups to be represented, many have required that a political party get five percent of the vote in order to be represented in parliament. That may as intended exclude many minor parties and over time may contribute to the formation of larger coalitions and hence more stability. But in the short term, it has other effects, some of which the authors of these plans certainly did not intend.

On the one hand, such an arrangement means that those who vote for smaller parties may feel excluded when their votes are effectively ignored. And on the other, it may cause instability when in some cases these votes are reallocated to those parties that have exceeded the five-percent barrier, a procedure that occasionally can tilt parliamentary power in unrepresentative ways.

And third, should parties have to register -- and with whom? In many of the post-communist states, those in office control which parties can register and which cannot and thus effectively decides which candidates will be allowed to run and which will not.

All democratic political systems have some registration or certification requirements -- even if it is only a set of rules about when a candidate must file and how many signatures he must collect on a nominating petition. But registration rules beyond that can be used to keep those in office just where they are. And consequently, controlling such rules is inevitably a major locus of political struggle.

Developing, maintaining and deepening democracy requires constant attention not only to constitutions and to periodic elections but also, as the Mexican case so clearly shows, to the procedures parties and political movements follow in their struggles for power.