This is a very important year for Mexico’s democracy. On 1 July 2012 Mexicans will go to the polls to elect a new president, who will hold office for six years, a new Senate and new Chamber of Deputies as well as numerous state and local officials. How does Mexico’s democracy compare with that of other countries?
“Democracy” is a slippery concept; it is not at all easy to define and is very difficult to measure. In the abstract “democracy” is a form of government in which ultimate power is vested in the people or their freely elected representatives. In common usage, democracy implies active civil participation in free and fair elections, effective and efficient governance, basic human and minority rights as well as freedom of religion, expression and organization. Obviously these concepts are not easily measured.
The most widely used measures for international comparisons are provided by Freedom House which relies on experts to rate countries on “Political Rights” and “Civil Liberties” (Freedom in the World 2012). Assessing “political rights” is based on free and fair elections, effective political pluralism and participation as well as government properly functioning in the interest of the electorate. Measuring “civil liberties” investigates freedom of speech, press, assembly and religion, a fair and just legal system, personal autonomy and individual rights, as well as active participation of nongovernmental and labor organizations. The Freedom House process results in measures from one (the highest) to seven (the lowest).
The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has also developed a “Democracy Index” based on experts’ ratings and public opinion surveys on five components – electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation and political culture. The EIU process gives each county a score from a high of ten to a low of one on overall democracy as well as the five components.
Country Freedom House
1 - 7
1 - 7
10 - 1
Canada 1 1 9.08
USA 1 1 8.11
Chile 1 1 7.54
South Africa 2 2 7.79
Brazil 2 2 7.12
Argentina 2 2 6.84
India 2 3 7.30
Indonesia 2 3 6.53
MEXICO 3 3 6.93
Colombia 3 4 6.63
Guatemala 3 4 5.88
Venezuela 5 5 5.08
Russia 6 5 3.92
China 7 6 3.14
Mexican democracy is somewhere in the middle when compared to other countries. The table compares democracy in Mexico with that in selected other countries based on the measures used by Freedom House and the EIU. Mexico was designated as a “flawed democracy” [see note 1] by the EIU in 2011, along with 52 other countries including France, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia and Ghana. Mexico’s score of 6.93 out of ten ranked it 50th of 167 countries, one ahead of Argentina and a few places behind Brazil. It has made some relative progress since 2008 when it ranked 55th of 167.
In 2012 Freedom House placed Mexico in the highest level of the “partly free” category. In 2010 Mexico was at the bottom of the “free” category; it dropped out of this category because its “political rights” score went 2 to 3, with 1 being the highest. Mexico had maintained a score of 2 from 2000 to 2010, but went to 3 in 2011. Apparently the experts must have noticed deterioration in the electoral process, political pluralism and participation or the functioning of government. The downgrading was probably related in some way to Mexico’s Drug Wars.
In 2010 Freedom House placed Mexico among 35 “Countries at the Crossroads” that are on the way to becoming consolidated democracies, but still have several challenges to overcome. Among these are the legacy of authoritarian rule, a culture which tolerates corruption and impunity, the persistence of private and public monopolies, lack of political accountability and transparency, and perhaps most importantly the growing influence and violence of drug cartels. These all skew the political playing field and undercut democratic progress, the political morale of the electorate, and openness of the media. On the positive side, active participation in recent elections has led to peaceful transitions of power. Civil society is gaining strength. New institutions such as the Federal Electoral Institute and the Federal Institute for Access to Information are making a difference. Significant improvements to the overall political situation will require concentrated efforts over an extended period of time.
It is interesting that according to Freedom House democracy in Mexico has deteriorated since 2008, while the Economist (EIU) perceived an improvement. This difference indicates how difficult and subjective assessments of democracy can be. For example in the table below “partly free” Mexico scores higher on the EIU’s democracy index than either Argentina and Indonesia which are classified as “free” by Freedom House.
Given the very important election being held in Mexico this year, a future post will investigate how Mexico’s electoral processes compare with those in other countries.
 “Flawed democracies”: “These countries … have free and fair elections and even if there are problems (such as infringements on media freedom), basic civil liberties will be respected. However, there are significant weaknesses in other aspects of democracy, including problems in governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation.” Economist Intelligence Unit, “Democracy index 2011: Democracy under stress”, p 31. Democracy Index 2011.
- Mexico’s political system: the basics
- Mexico’s political system at the state and municipal levels
- President Zedillo’s political reforms brought real democracy in Mexico
- Relatively few changes following Mexico’s 2010 election
- Preliminary results of state elections, 4 July 2010
- Mexico’s North–South political divide