Mexico may reform term limit rules this year

One of the goals of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) was to institute term limits for all elected offices in Mexico. The term limits movement was in response to President Porfirio Diaz's rule over Mexico from 1877 to 1911, when he served seven terms. He became unpopular towards the end of his sixth term and it became apparent that it was impossible to remove him from office when he was re-elected to his seventh term.

Mexico instituted a complete ban on re-election in 1933. Ever since, all elected offices in Mexico have had a one term limit. Presidents can only serve one six year term. Members of the lower chamber of the legislature serve for three year terms and members of the upper chamber serve six year terms. Legislators can run for re-election, but only after sitting out at least one term. And last, mayors can only serve one three year term.

Proponents of term limits argue that term limits prevent ineffective politicians from holding elected office for too long. This argument assumes that voters are incapable of properly determining whether their representatives deserve to be re-elected, and so instead politicians should just be forced out of office. The assumption is not unfounded. Diaz continued to be re-elected President of Mexico despite his waning popularity. So term limits can effectively remove ineffective individuals from office when voters are incapable of removing the politicians themselves.

The Mexican experience with term limits has provided evidence that there is a darker side to term limits. Term limit reformers argue that the opportunity for re-election could have a positive influence on politicians' behavior. If a politician wants to get re-elected to the same office, he needs to cater to his constituents in order to get their votes. He also needs to care about the long term needs of his district if he wants to hold office for an extended period of time. So the desire for re-election can have positive effects on representatives' behaviors, encouraging them to take actions that have positive impacts on their districts.

Under term limits, the incentive for a politician to care about constituents' needs does not necessarily exist. A politician who can only serve one term does not rely on his constituents to continue his political career. Instead, he relies on the individuals who will help him get elected to his next office. In Mexico, political parties have traditionally helped politicians jump from one position to another. So politicians have to care a great deal about catering to their party's needs so they can continue their political careers.

Individuals who support term limit reform in Mexico have provided several examples of bad governance as a direct result of term limits:

  • In the fall of 2011, a severe flood affected several residents along the Grijalva River in the state of Tabasco, displacing about 300,000 people. The state is flood prone, and government officials had promised for years to implement flood control projects in the state. However, they never delivered on their promises. "The closest any government has come to delivering, says Tabasco native Raúl Abreu, "is bringing in some sandbags." Federal and local officials attribute the frequent flooding to unfavorable geography and unusually heavy rains. Abreu, however, blames politics. More specifically, he blames the idiosyncratic political system that has been in place in Mexico for decades in which candidates are banned from running for re-election. Voters never have the opportunity to pass judgment on the record of their elected officials, so those officials see no incentive to having a record at all, good or bad."
  • Carrie Kahn, an NPR correspondent in Mexico City, shared an example of what happens in some Mexican towns when the mayors leave: "I've seen towns in Mexico where not only does the mayor take all of his people with him and all that expertise that has built up over three years, but he also takes all the furniture. He takes all the computers, all the pens, everything. And you also get entrenched political parties where these mayors and these local legislators are more beholden to the political parties than they are to the voters. And so that's something that they really want to put an end to."
  • Mexican legislators are not given positions of power within the legislature because of their expertise, but rather because of who they know. These legislators generally have limited experience with the legislative process. Fortunately, there are professional legislative staff members do stick around from election to election, and they help legislators do their jobs, so they provide some level of expertise to the process. Nevertheless, the staff members are not accountable to voters, so they may not necessarily take the needs of voters into account.

Given the negative experience Mexico has had with unresponsive politicians, there has been a push to reform term limits in Mexico for at least 20 years. And it actually seems likely that reforms will be made soon. The Mexican legislature approved a bill in mid-December to reform term limits. The bill allows mayors to serve two three year terms, and legislators to serve up to 12 years. In addition, the bill would also enforce campaign spending limits. If a candidate wins an election but went over the spending limit, electoral authorities could annul the election. In order for the bill to become law, lawmakers in 16 out of 31 Mexican states have to approve it. If so, it will be the largest electoral reform law in Mexico since the 1990s.

Julie VanDusky-Allen

About Julie VanDusky-Allen

Julie VanDusky-Allen is at Boise State University and received her PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2011. Her research focuses on institutional choice and development, political parties, the legislative process, and Latin American politics.

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