How beneficial is direct democracy? Does it strengthen the influence of citizen’s preferences in politics or merely increase the power of politicians and political parties? The answer, according to Professor David Altman, may be both, depending on the context. In his book, Direct Democracy Worldwide, he argues that direct democracy (referendums, citizen initiatives, plebiscites, etc.) is Janus-faced: some mechanisms of direct democracy look forward in an attempt to democratize politics whereas others look backward, enhancing the power of those who deliberately use them by bypassing representative institutions.

This analysis certainly applies to many American states. On the one hand, as the work of John Matsusaka shows, American direct democracy is not all bad because adopted laws (on tax and state expenditures) coincide with national preferences. For this reason, his book, For the Many or the Few, concludes that in general, direct democracy benefits the many and not the few. On the other hand, special interest groups can use the direct democracy process to impose their will. While money doesn’t always help pass legislation, it often help keep the status quo (see Elisabeth Gerber’s The Populist Paradox) and some very controversial laws have been adopted via direct democracy including Proposition 187 in California. Examples like these are ample, as the Initiative and Referendum Institute, at the University of Southern California reports.

The Slow Start to Mexican Direct Democracy

While the direct democracy experience in the US is well documented, much less is known about the experience of its southern neighbor, Mexico, who, on March 2014, approved legislation outlining rules for popular consultations. The goals were uplifting: allow citizens to directly decide issues considered fundamental to the national livelihood and increase accountability of representatives. Politicians and citizens alike praised the new legislation, signaling a desperately needed new beginning for Mexico. Within months of adoption, four proposals, each backed by the necessary 2% of citizen signatures, were presented to the Supreme Court (SCJN) who would decide their constitutionality.

The two Left parties—Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) and Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (MORENA)—each submitted a referendum to annul the recent constitutional changes that allow private investment in Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), Mexico’s nationalized oil industry since 1938. While a unified approach might have been beneficial, each party submitted its own referendum, a sign of the recent fragmentation among the increasingly frustrated Mexican Left. Shadowing these efforts, the federally ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) announced its intent to reduce the size of congress, a promise made by President Peña Nieto during his presidential campaign. The referendum aimed to reduce the seats in the Chamber of Deputies from 500 to 400 and the Senate from 128 to 96 by doing away with slots filled by proportional representation. For its part, the Center-Right Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) announced a referendum to increase the national minimum wage to a level equivalent to the cost of basic family necessities, something not proposed since 1981.

Unfortunately, hope for the four parties was short-lived.

On 30 October, the Supreme Court rejected the two referendums dealing with energy reform. In a 1-9 vote, the SCJN maintained that they interfered with the country’s income and spending. Citing similar reasons, the SCJN ruled 6 to 4 against the PAN’s petition to increase the national minimum wage. The PRI’s proposal met the same fate in a unanimous vote: reducing the number of representatives would interfere with the functioning of the electoral system, restrict human rights, undermine national security, and interfere with government spending. The June 7, 2015 midterm elections would have no referendums.

In reply, the four parties expressed disapproval towards the SCJN, which they viewed as having too much power in the popular consultation process: Andrés Manuel López Obrador, founder of MORENA and former Presidential candidate, asserted that the Court’s decision was illegal; the PRD asserted that the Supreme Court undermined the rights of Mexican voters to participate in issues for the nation’s progress; the PAN vowed to reform the rules of direct democracy to reduce the power of the SCJN; finally, the PRI also expressed their desire to modify the law.

However, the criticism toward the SCJN might have been unwarranted in two ways. First, the parties that criticized the direct democracy legislation are the ones that approved its rules, and, second, the Constitution is very clear on the issues prohibited for popular consultation: the restriction of human rights, the representative republican form of government, electoral legislation, national security, functions of the armed forces, and tax and expenditures by the state.

How Direct Democracy Can be Manipulated

More than passive criticisms towards the SCJN, the parties’ reactions revealed something very distressing, almost pathological about their existence: their belief that direct democracy belongs to them. It’s no surprise that the first four referendums were organized by parties in the name of citizens. The parties could have proposed the referendums within Congress as specified in the Constitution, but they decided to collect signatures instead. (Congress can propose referendums when 33% of legislators support it. The President can also use the process but only once every three years).

And the process might belong to parties. To place a referendum on the ballot requires significant amounts of resources for signature gatherers. This is something citizens lack but political parties have. As examined by David Magleby in his book Direct Legislation, in the US, this problem has been labeled the signature-gathering industry. Equally important, the first four referendums demonstrate the potential for parties to manipulate the process in their favor in pursuit of party goals.

A few plausible scenarios from the parties’ actions are interesting to consider. First, the PAN, which was in alliance with the PRI may have wanted to increase the difficulty of collecting signatures by the two Left parties. This is because referendums can only share 20% of signatures in any given round of elections. In other words, signing one petition effectively forfeits your right to sign others. It’s not surprising that the minimum wage referendum by the PAN (which, by the way, in in complete opposition to their free market ideology) targeted the poor and working class, the same demographic first sought out by the Left parties.

Second, the PAN and the PRI may have also recognized the consequences of only having the PEMEX referendums in this June’s ballot. In the traditionally low turnout mid-term elections, an increase in PRD and MORENA voters would have increased their chances of gaining representatives. To challenge these electoral benefits, the PAN proposed its own referendums hoping to capture votes from the lowest strata of society—Mexico is the only Latin American country where the minimum wage is under the poverty line.

The actions by the parties were not irrational: a national poll conducted by Parametría in August 2014, asked citizens the factor that would most determine their participation in popular consultations. While 65% listed issues as the most important factor, 10% said that their participation rested on the party that would propose the referendum and 16% said they would consider both. In other words, voting will partly depend on the party that proposes the consultation, not only the issue proposed.

While it is expected that parties compete for votes to increase their influence in Congress, the actions by the PRI and the PAN as well as the PRD and MORENA demonstrate their attempt to use voters for their own desires, instead of the other way around. The PRD and MORENA had no choice but to gather signatures because the PRI-PAN alliance would have made it impossible to garner the 33% approval within a chamber of congress. On the other hand, the proposed referendums by the PRI and the PAN may have a strategic move rather than true care for citizens since their alliance provided them more than the 33% support in congress.

These possibilities demonstrate that parties may not necessarily be responding to the demands of citizens but are instead using direct democracy for their personal goals. In effect, the first four referendums begin to show how parties—using the resources and structural organization available to them—will impose themselves over the popular consultation process. The story of dominant parties is one that has haunted Mexico for decades. Mexicans do not need nor deserve a return to party domination. What they need is a new beginning, one marked by the increase participation and input, free of party manipulation. The institutions of direct democracy partly promised this. Unfortunately, at least for now, they have fallen short.

Further Reading

Image Credit:   Hector Lazo via flickr