Party Relations in the United Kingdom and Mexico

The governments of Mexico and the United Kingdom have quite similar structures when compared in print.  Though the UK and Mexico are now both multi-party systems, its previous hegemony of the PRI actually resembles the British majority party rule in more ways than one.  Both countries have strong executive power, though Mexico’s is slowly being blunted. The electoral system is first-past-the-post in each country, so it’s possible to compare the political ramifications of this voting institution in both a congressional and parliamentary structure.  Lastly, the decentralization of both governments will be addressed.  Mexico and the United Kingdom, as will be shown, are both diverting from the path of their old governmental structure. The fulcrum of these states’ adaptation into the 21st century is their use of the political institutions provided them.

The legislative branch of Mexico is comprised of the bicameral Congress of the Union, which includes the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies.  The branch is constitutionally very strong, reserving the ability to impose taxes, approve the federal budget, declare war, and of course, pass legislation.  The lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, is responsible for most budgetary issues in congress. The Senate is charged with the application of foreign policy and the confirmation of presidential appointments.  The powers of the Congress of the Union, however, have proven to be significantly duller than they appear to be on paper due to the stranglehold of the PRI up until the late 1990s.

The PRI, or the Institutional Revolutionary Party, held both the executive branch and the majority of Congress for over 70 years in Mexico.  During the PRI’s hegemony, the president had a much larger amount of control than one might assume after reviewing the powers of Congress.  Party discipline was an extraordinarily large factor in the accumulation of presidential power during this era.  The executives often incentivized party discipline through many different means, oftentimes illegal.  The party’s obedience alone may not alone suffice in attaining complete control, but it was coupled with PRI congressmen holding an extreme majority.  Between 1946 and 1963, opposition seats in the House averaged out at 4.7%.  Even between 1979 and 1987, just a decade before the PRI’s fall, opposition averaged at only 26.3%.  This gave the party room to push electoral reform and the ability to alter the Constitution without resistance (Morgenstern).

“There is no question that the president of Mexico exercises an extraordinary range of powers.  He can reform the constitution by proposing amendments, which are frequently accepted by Congress with only cosmetic changes,” writes Jeffrey Weldon in Presidentialism and Democracy in Latin America. “The president designates his own successor to the presidency and also nominates most of the congressional candidates of his party” (225).

The effects of the PRI’s domination still resound in the Mexican legislative branch.  The true multi-party system is still fairly new in the country, which creates an amount of instability.  The transition from no opposition to a system with incessant opposition obviously comes with its problems.  There have been, however, major steps towards creating a fully functioning multi-party system.  From 1978 to 1996, even before the Fox presidency, 6 successful electoral reforms were passed.  Additionally, we see that with the rise of actual opposition parties, more bills are able to be passed by the opposition with fewer bills being passed by the executive.  According to Morgenstern in Legislative Politics in Latin America, “The rate of approval of initiatives coming from the Chamber of Deputies has passed from just 7% in 1982-1985 to 25% in 1991-1994.  This change clearly represents the growing opposition, since the opposition is by far the more active as the initiator of bills” (127).  He goes on to mention that opposition parties introduced 209 from 1988-1991 and then 493 from 1997-2000.  Even in the beginning of this new and competitive system, radical changes began to occur and the executive surrendered a portion of its power to the legislative branch.

Currently, the PRI holds the majority of the Chamber of Deputies seats with 31%, followed closely by the PAN with 25%, and the PRD currently sits at 18%.  The PRI is once again in power, led by President Nieto, but the intra-governmental dynamic has drastically changed.  Congress now has the ability to check both the president and the majority party, which has the potential to create a better functioning government.  If the inter-workings of Congress can stray from the allure of sabotaging their opponents for political gains, the Mexican multi-party system could prove fruitful.

Not unlike in Mexico, the United Kingdom’s legislative branch is very close-knit with the executive.  In the UK, however, the prime minister is literally fused within the legislative.  This is typical to most parliamentary systems.  Not unlike the pre-Fox PRI, the British Prime Minister is efficient in passing legislation, leads the dominant party, and often maintains high party discipline.  The United Kingdom’s majoritarian model of parliament leaves an incredible amount of power in the hands of the leading party.  The cabinet, appointed by the prime minister through the monarch, is based on the Westminster System.  In the United Kingdom’s parliamentary system, the majority party is, in essence, the government.  Which, of course, begs the question of how is it any different from the PRI’s monopoly on Mexican politics.  The main answer is elections.

The PRI’s incredible security as the governing party in Mexico detracted from any accountability they might have for their shortcomings.  In the British model of government, though, the majority party is constantly fending off attacks from the opposition, catering to public opinion, and attempting to keep a clean image.  The PM and their cabinet aren’t in a conducive environment for vote-rigging, bribery, and self-serving endeavors that the PRI partook in.  Not unlike in the U.S., it’s very rare for more than two executives of the same party elected consecutively.  There hasn’t been a succession of more than two same-party executives in the United Kingdom since the 50s and 60s.  This constant threat of the loss of power theoretically acts as a motivator for the majority to perform well.

The prime minister is also subject to a possible vote-of-no-confidence or challenge from within their own party.  Even Margaret Thatcher, one of the most influential British executives in history, was shouldered out.  “In November 1990, a leadership challenge within Thatcher’s own Conservative Party, largely over her anti-EU stance and high handed leadership style, caused her sudden resignation and replacement by John Major” (Kesselman, Krieger).  In 2010, Prime Minister Gordon Brown resigned under similar circumstances.

Additionally, the opposition can undermine the standing government in multiple ways. Their activity in the House of Commons frequently consists of poking holes in the majority’s proposals in order to detract public opinion from the current government.  These debates on “Opposition Days” are often recorded and televised, giving the opposition the power to attempt at accomplishing a few things.  First off, they obviously use it as a weapon against the majority.  If public opinion is low, they can be seen as voices of the people.  In addition, these debates could potentially be useful in gauging the voters’ openness to new ideas that they may use in their next election platform.  They’re able to antagonize the majority party and at the same time concoct a plan for the upcoming elections.  The current opposition, the Ed Miliband led Labour Party, is a good example of how the opposition can cause difficulties for the majority.  Not only has the party won large numbers of council seats in local elections, but they also recently defeated the Conservative/Liberal-Democrat coalition in the European Parliament Elections with 20 seats to the majority’s 19.  These victories are essential in deflating the credibility of the majority prior to the 2015 elections.

Presidential elections in Mexico are carried out with the first-past-the-post plurality system.  It’s true that they’re still fairly new to the voting system, but they’ve gained a decent amount of scrutiny in regard to this structure.  First-past-the-post is generally associated with a two-party system, rather than a multi-party system like Mexico’s.  When the vote is split three ways, like it is on the Mexican ballot, there’s oftentimes no clear majority vote-holder.  In 2000, Vicente Fox led the PAN to a groundbreaking victory over the PRI.  Because of the first-past-the-post system, though, he only gained 43% of the vote.  Some find it bizarre that even though it appears that only 43% of voters wanted the candidate, he’ll still run the country.  It certainly doesn’t mean that 57% of the country doesn’t want Fox as a president, it’s probable that people were torn between him and Cardenas when voting (Richie).  It’s similar to how in U.S. elections, a Republicans might not like a Libertarian candidate due to similar vote detraction.  This system can also deter voters from choosing a third-party candidate because they don’t want to vote on someone with “no chance”.   If the vote is similarly split in Mexico’s next president election, it could result in another PRI victory.

Due to the varying voting systems used, the problem could be further compounded in the future.  “Multi-party systems in Mexico and Canada show no signs of going away, and indeed, with proportional representation partly used to elect Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies, other parties may offer presidential candidates in the future who are able to gain a significant vote share” (Richie).  The probability of further spreading the votes in the Mexican presidential elections is a bizarre concept.  If they continued to implement these institutions long enough, theoretically there could be a president who won with 20% of the vote.  Richie goes on to suggest that Mexico should get rid of the first-past-the-post system, fully adopts proportional representation for legislative elections, and use runoff elections of the presidential race.  “These electoral systems accommodate a broader range of choices for voters,” says Richie, “providing them with more nuanced means to define their representation and better assuring governance grounded in majority support, or at least majority acceptance.”  He continues, saying the United Kingdom should also move on from the first-past-the post system, arguing that they haven’t had a government elected with majority support since the 1950’s (501).

Despite Richie’s argument, the combination of the United Kingdom’s electoral system and parliamentary structure granted two parties a very unique opportunity in 2010.  After the resignation of Gordon Brown, elections took place, but no party acquired a clear majority in the House.  This stalemate resulted in talks between the Conservatives, who won the largest number of seats, and the Liberal Democrats.  These talks culminated in the formation of the first coalition government in the United Kingdom since the 1930s.  They negotiated policy on multiple divisive issues and also on the supposed structure of the coalition.  It resulted in Cameron as the PM, sixteen Conservative cabinet members, and five Liberal Democrat cabinet members (Bara/Bartle).  This coalition government is a product of the first-past-the-post system’s combination with the British parliamentary system.  It’s an interesting juxtaposition to the PRD’s smaller congressional coalitions.

Mexico’s government was highly centralized during the reign of the PRI.  One of Mexico’s early economic wonders was the Mexican Miracle, in which the government funded inter-state corporations, infrastructure, and public services. Their entire economy was dependent on the funding of the government.  Although Mexico utilized money from PEMEX, selling oil after the war, the state couldn’t afford to continue with the aid.  Eventually, the government privatized many of the corporations they’d created. The government was still highly centralized in other areas, however.  “In no country in Latin America does the president appear to wield such wide-ranging powers. The president in Mexico dominates the legislative and judicial branches of the national government and directs a highly centralized federal system in which states and municipalities ultimately appear to be subject to rule from the center” (Weldon, 225).  This article actually dates to 1997, just before Zedillo began to decentralize the federal government and made his push for globalization.  Since around this time, Mexico has incrementally devolved responsibilities previously held by the state.

There are three important factors in regard to the emergence of the multi-party system to keep in mind.  One being, as congressional diversity grows, the executive grows weaker while the likelihood of producing legislation increases.  As seen earlier, even a small opposition can be a productive force.  This, coupled with the PRI’s hegemony in the recent memories of the parties could be a contributing factor in the move towards decentralization (Ward/Rodriguez).

Good things could come with the decentralization of the Mexican government if their political institutions can hold. A good government should have checks, balances, and concessions. “It’s apparent that “Fox won a majority of votes, but not enough of them to avoid the emergence of a divided government, wherein his party does not control congress,” says Dresser, “The future of democratic governance will be limited and shaped by a constrained executive, a divided congress, a party system built on parties in disarray, and a decentralized political geography in which the PRI still exerts a large amount of influence” (2).

The British government began a wave of devolution in the 1980s with “Thatcherism”, which was a response to the perceived failure of post-war collectivism. She began to promote deregulation and a free market.  “Thatcher sought to jump-start the economy by cutting taxes, reducing social services where possible, and using government policy to stimulate competitiveness and efficiency in the private sector”  (Kesselman, Krieger,143).  Tony Blair expanded on many of Thatcher’s ideas with “New Labour” after she left office.  A great deal of privatization has gone on since then, including the privatization of the central bank.  About half of the UK’s budget does, however, go to welfare and healthcare.

The United Kingdom is a unitary government, meaning that the state has the final say.  Many states like the UK choose to decentralize and delegate power to local politicians, although they reserve the right not to.  In a unitary system, local governments and officials have very little recourse if the state chose to cut them off, which they’re technically allowed to do.  If a unitary government were inclined to use their authority in a scheming way, it could prove to be a very useful tool.  The prime minister has a great deal of power over the cabinet, and the cabinet has a great deal of power over all those living in the unitary state.

Despite the checks to British majority power, it’s apparent that the system allows for more majority and executive power than that of the Mexican multi-party system.  Now that Mexico has multiple parties in the mix, the power is much more balanced.  In their system, they also face the threat of elections.  Unlike the British, though, the executive and majority party are no longer synonymous.  Throughout the National Action Party’s (PAN) control of the presidency from 2000 to their eventual 2012 defeat, they held the majority in neither the Chamber of Deputies nor the Senate.  This is a drastic juxtaposition to the strength invested in the British prime minister and his party.  Both executives are charged with the appointment of their respective cabinets, but the functions and restrictions differ.

The legislative and executive institutions of these two countries have shifted in similar ways in the recent past.  Mexico is learning to compromise and share the legislature for the first time, and the majority party in the UK is basically doing the same thing.  Due to the unique combination of electoral system and the multi-party system in both countries, there are incidents like somewhat close three way elections and coalition governments.  Even though it might seem logical to change the first-past-the-post structure, it’s unlikely those who are benefiting off the system would have any motivation to change it.