San Miguel de Allende
National Election, Local Realities

Where 7 out of 8 mayoral candidates have a public security escort

Photo credit:Valeemb22 via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Democracy here has been struggling, with representation and government decision-making process failing to match the pluralism of Mexican society. Little does it matter whose turn it is to rule. Most of the time the government tends to undermine or diminish local realities, needs and struggles.

After the Mexican Revolution ended in 1920, our country needed to find ways to create institutions that responded to more than revolutionary leaderships who killed each other everyday. We needed institutions to consolidate our entrance to the democratic world. We needed to have democratic, free, and safe elections in order to choose who was supposed to represent us.

In 1929, this necessity led to the creation of a political party unique in the world. It was the recipient of all political forces linked to the revolutionary ideals, mainly including workers and farmers. This party, the PRI, did not provide competition, but it gave our political system some sort of stability.

The problem was that the party’s creation came with another new feature of Mexican life. We would be subordinated to the powerful president, elected by the PRI.

After this attempt to institutionalize and stabilize democracy in Mexico, the ruling party became hegemonic and held the presidency, and the legislative power as well, for the next 70-plus years. People knew who was going to win the election the minute the president chose who was going to run after him. Many voices were left out from the decision-making processes that ruled our country.

After several decades, in the mid-1990s, Mexico finally began to end its one-party state. A new and different party began to play side-by-side with the hegemonic party at the local level.  And a new autonomous electoral body called IFE (Federal Electoral Institute) was consolidated. Elections became competitive, and democracy finally spoke to Mexican people through more than one voice or one perspective.

New political parties started to fight to be in the public arena and several social movements arose with great strength. Of course, those movements, notably the National Liberation’s Zapatista Army (EZLN) chose, or in some cases voted, not to become a political party and to stay out of the electoral sphere of our country.

These new political forces emerged from the citizenry and from political opposition. They represented the transition to a more representative democratic system. As optimistic as transition, these movements and this opposition also turned into new power elites. Eventually the new political parties stopped being as representative as they started out to be. And, unfortunately, indigenous movements answered only some communities’ interests.

This was not all bad. Elections became less violent, more plural. Women started to vote. People in the countryside could vote more easily.

This is the democratic reality that we experience today in Mexico. What is it like to live inside it?

Political discussions may be more open, but they still feel elitist and unrepresentative. Conversations about Mexican elections still refer most of the time to constitutional and political reforms, and the repercussions to institutions and to private and public bodies—essentially, top-down, elite reforms. There is seldom talk about people participating to change their social reality and to attend to their new and old problems. We talk about power alternation and participation numbers, but we don’t often talk about the people who are behind that data.

Yes, the once-hegemonic party gave way to a plural and competitive party system, and to an electoral body (now called INE) that was granted the power to maintain secrecy and integrity of the Mexican vote. But with each change in the government via this democracy, many local realities were minimized by those in power, in an attempt to hide some of the most serious problems of Mexican society. This is a product of our centralized political culture and power structure; we think about the problems of the national government so much that we don’t leave room for citizens' local meaningful participation.

While working on a local campaign in San Miguel de Allende, a small city in Guanajuato, I came to understand how different local governments impact people’s everyday life in contrast with the federal administration. A Municipality like this has to take into consideration that half of its territory are rural areas that don’t have the basic public services such as electricity, access to water and sewer connections, paved roads, etc. At a Federal level it is hard to dimension that one community takes over 2 hours to get to the nearest clinic in their municipality not because it is too far away, but because their road is in such poor condition that it takes three times what it is supposed to.

One would think that in a city where you could run into your mayor at the supermarket any day, people could feel closer to their representatives and feel more compelled to participate in the decision-making process. Even though that is not always the case, working at a more local level gives us the opportunity to help people organize themselves from a grassroots perspective and build community support networks that will last through many administrations.

We are convinced that local organizing efforts will provide the communities with the tools we currently lack. This will allow them to appropriate the public sphere and have a say in the agenda setting. This way we would have democracy serving people and not the other way around.

Because of its scope, impact and - at the same time - vulnerability, during this election at least seven out of eight candidates running for mayor in San Miguel de Allende have a public security escort. Either the National Guard, the State Police or the Local Police. This level of government is the one with the most violent attacks on candidates.

Mexico has faced, along with most Latin American countries, a strong wave of insecurity specially linked to drug cartels and local gangs. This generalized problem affects people in multiple and particular ways; whether you belong to the LGBTQ community, whether you are a woman, whether you are a journalist, whether you belong to an indigenous community or whether you are part of the great economic and social inequality that affects our country.

People in Mexico have been organizing themselves to look for their missing relatives, demanding more security for our cities and towns and defending our women from gender violence (which sees 11 women being killed daily in our country). We have been denouncing and actively fighting the drug cartels that recruit our youth, kill  journalists, activists and so many other innocent people along the way.

The government barely recognizes these efforts. Just as with many other problems from the past, the Mexican government at all levels has chosen to overlook our violent reality. Numbers have been manipulated to disguise the increasing insecurity and violence. Our democratic system has not been able to face these challenges and has not been willing to listen to people's demands.

This is the most lethal electoral period in the recent history of our country. There have been 53 candidates and politicians, mainly from the local level, murdered as of April 29.

We thought we had built a strong democratic system, yet to be perfected, but functional and in some ways stable. Maybe we were wrong. Maybe we are not listening to the people enough.

It is no secret that our elections have become more and more polarized since 2006. Our democratic institutions such as political parties and electoral bodies–the ones we were so proud of a few years back—have been attacked and weakened, and have proven insufficient to guarantee a democratic culture.

We hear populist discourses more often, coming both from the right and the left wings. This polarization is not without benefits—it provides openings for including the voices of some minority groups’ voices in the agenda. This is an achievement of civil society.

But it is not enough. Because Mexico faces more than electoral challenges. We face critical social challenges, not just in security but in health, poverty, and education. Mexico has to include citizen’s participation and local perspectives more actively in order to face these new and unavoidable challenges. We have to move from our focus on institutions and stability, to a more citizen-centered perspective.

Maybe our only way to a true, peaceful, and democratic path is to make visible and acknowledge people’s demands.

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