How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Mexicans, like many other people around the world, have little love for their politicians these days. In a September 2015 poll, the public ranked Mexico’s political parties and its two houses of Congress among the country’s least-trusted civic institutions. President Enrique Peña Nieto also scored badly—no surprise, given that he, his wife, and at least five senior government officials, including cabinet members, have been accused of corruption and conflict of interest in recent years.
Public frustration with government is nothing new in Mexico, where corruption has long undermined the country’s development. According to the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a think tank, each year corruption costs the country between two and ten percent of its GDP, reduces investment by five percent, and eliminates 480,000 jobs from small- and medium-sized businesses. But recently, the Mexican government has begun to act on these issues. Finance Minister Luis Videgaray tackled financial reforms during the first two years of his administration, which began in 2012, and Peña Nieto’s administration established the country’s new National Anti-Corruption System, which implements stronger punishments for corrupt practices. In the last few years, the government has finally begun to acknowledge the scope of the problem and its costs, in both economic and political terms. The government proposed these changes after it came under attack owing to accusations of conflict of interest concerning Grupo Higa, a construction firm that has won major contracts from Peña Nieto’s administrations when he was governor of the State of México and during his presidency. Videgaray has pointed out that the impressive reforms undertaken by the administration during its first 24 months won’t amount to much if the government doesn’t also find a way to improve public confidence in federal institutions. “We can do ten energy reforms, but if we do not add trust, we will not seize the full potential of the Mexican economy,” Videgaray said on February 16, 2015.
Of course, Mexico’s finance minister may not be the most convincing messenger, since he himself has recently faced corruption allegations over a shady land deal. And the government has yet to pass many serious reforms in this area.
In 2015, a coalition of civic groups decided to push the nation’s political elite to finally do something about the problem. Operating under the name 3de3 (3for3), the group called on politicians running in that summer’s midterm elections to voluntarily provide three pieces of financial information about themselves before being eligible for elected office: their personal wealth, their financial and business interests, and proof that they paid their taxes in the previous year. Although the movement received much attention in the Mexican media, it failed to gain any real traction among politicians. However, the 3for3 movement refused to disappear gently into the night. This year, the group introduced a bill to the Mexican Congress that required every public servant to make the same three items of information available to authorities. It also proposed barring any individual who fails to provide all three pieces of data from holding office and sought to impose stiff penalties on politicians who engage in corrupt practices.
The 3for3 movement was able to present legislation to Congress by taking advantage of a 2012 constitutional reform that requires the legislature to consider any citizen petition that collects signatures from 0.13 percent of the electorate. In 2015, that set the bar at 108,000 signatures. By the time the bill was presented to Congress, the 3for3 petition had amassed more than 634,000 signatories, emphasizing the strength of public support for the bill. What’s more, major business groups expressed their support for the movement, piling pressure on Mexico’s main political parties. Sensing this shift, Congress and the federal government opted to work with the 3for3 movement. And in an unprecedented move, Congress members invited the leaders of the movement to consult directly with them in legislative sessions.
The negotiations in Congress were long and tortuous. In fact, they required an extraordinary session in June to reach an agreement. The original legislation was ultimately rejected, but a modified version was later approved in both chambers, becoming the Law of Administrative Responsibilities.
Not only is progress finally being made in the fight against corruption in Mexico, but the process behind the legislation also represents a more profound development in Mexican democracy. For the first time ever in Mexico, civil society has played an active role in crafting a major piece of legislation. The collaboration between civil society and Congress improved the quality of the final legislation, but more important, it shows a path forward for Mexico’s political establishment and gave it a way to rebuild public trust. The 3for3 anticorruption legislation could set a precedent to deal with some of Mexico’s other big problems. Congress might hold similar public consultations on a range of issues, from police and prison reform to consumer protection to antidiscrimination policy to education, as a way of increasing inclusion in the functioning of Mexican democracy. The payoff for the Mexican public will be a greater role in the legislative process. For the country’s political elites, it provides an opportunity to strengthen public trust and to legitimize their role, particularly when reelection becomes a reality for Mexican legislators after 2018.
Although the 3for3 experiment will not solve Mexico’s corruption problem on its own, meanwhile, it represents an important step in the right direction. As Eduardo Bohórquez and Juan Pardinas, two leaders of the movement, recently put it, improving transparency may be only one part of the fight against corruption, but it will make graft harder to get away with. And though many Mexican politicians are still uncomfortable with the proposed legislation, public pressure for change continues to build, especially from the private sector. Such pressure won’t change Mexico overnight or anytime soon. But in the long term, it represents the country’s best chance of addressing its many ongoing problems.