Mexico: How Democracy Can Be the Power of One

Marc Beckmann
Governance

This December, members of the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Network will gather in Mérida, Mexico, for the 6th World Responsible Leaders Forum. In this series leading towards the Forum, Responsible Leaders from Mexico present their diverse perspectives on their home country – their inspirations, challenges, and opportunities to work towards a more sustainable, peaceful, and just future. Greta Rios is one of them.

One of the strongest premises about democracy is that it brings about the will of the collectivity. This is also one of its weakest points when it comes to encouraging people to become actively engaged in public decisions. Almost everyone believes that their individual actions have close to zero impact in the system, since democracy is designed to represent the mass and not the individuals. Nevertheless, the power of individual participation has unlimited potential, particularly in the context of true democracies that have counterbalancing mechanisms in place.

Just a few weeks ago, I had the chance to play a very important role in relation to a legislative process that was about to have adverse effects on citizens and their right to participate in Mexico City. Thanks to the existence of the aforementioned counterbalances, I was actually able to put a stop to a constitutional violation brought about by the Mexico City Congress.

Before I continue with the whole story, let me tell you some things about myself. I am what you could call a die-hard Mexico fan. I strongly believe that citizens have the power to create a better version of Mexico (and of themselves in the process). This is why I started Ollin, a civic engagement NGO, eight years ago. I have worked ever since to create the necessary system changes to turn Mexico into a country where the rule of law is the only rule.

"The power of individual participation has unlimited potential."
Greta Rios

For this to become true, one of the first things we need is better legislation. Coincidentally, because of the shift of power in 2018, the new Congress proposed to replace the 2004 Civic Participation Law in Mexico City. As Ollin has worked with this topic for a while now, I and my team decided to become very engaged with the legislative process for this new law.

Mexico City’s Congress is composed of 66 representatives who work in committees to prepare bills. Once a committee has reached agreement on a bill, the proposal goes to the full Congress to be voted on in a plenary session. If the bill is approved by a simple majority of votes, it becomes a law.

-MG-8190Ollin A.C.

Civic Participation in Mexico

Greta Ríos is the founder of Ollin, a civic engagement NGO that seeks to promote a new "version" of Mexico where the rule of law is the only rule. Ollin was in charge of running the biggest national campaign to get young people to vote in Mexico in 2018. In 2019, Ollin managed to move the local Congress to pass a new Civic Participation Law.

The Civic Participation Law regulates, among other things, the participatory budgeting (pb) and the citizen councils (cc) mechanisms. The first one gives citizens the opportunity to propose and vote for projects on how to spend 3% of the city’s public budget. The latter allows neighborhood representatives to work as a liaison between the municipal authorities and the citizens.

The initial idea was to have a new law passed by the Congress by the last week of March 2019. Since the Congress was installed on September 2018, this was a hard-but-not-impossible task to accomplish. The lawmakers wanted to have the new law by that date, because the applicable 2004 law mandated that the two civic engagement mechanisms contained in that law (i.e., the pb and cc mechanisms) had to be set in motion every year in the first week of April. Were this to happen, the new law would not apply to the decisions taken by citizens in 2019 with regards to these two mechanisms. This is something the legislators wanted to avoid at all costs.

We followed and contributed to the drafting process of the new law. In late February, it became evident to us that the Congress was having a very hard time creating this new law. There was no consensus whatsoever and Congress representatives were constantly fighting for their provisions and views to be included, only to be excluded again when they clashed with someone else’s ideas. Very late in March, the legislators acknowledged that they were not going to be able to have the new law before April. And then it all went to chaos.

Greta Rios
Greta Rios at the Regional Network Meeting of the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Network in Mexico in October 2019. Rasiel Rodriguez

Instead of letting things run its natural course and applying the 2004 law to the 2019 process, Congress made a very unlikely move: they decided to modify the 2004 law in order to suspend its application until they had a new law to replace it. This suggestion was not only dangerous to democracy in itself; it was clearly against the Constitution and thus should have been declared null and void from the start.

Under such circumstances, I decided to start a jurisdictional process against this law modification. As it turns out, several months later, in late June, I won my case in a federal court. The court ruled that this provision was unconstitutional and that it should be declared null and void. This, in turn, forced the Congress to come up with a new law within a ten-day period or apply the 2004 law.

The Congress, of course, decided to go for the fast-track ten-day period. Luckily, by this point they had drafted about 70% of the new law and just rushed the last part of the process. Thanks to the jurisdictional process I had started, I got a very strong voice among the drafting legislators and could make sure that some adverse provisions were removed from the final draft.[1] The law was passed and enacted on day 10 of the ten-day deadline, and citizens in Mexico City regained their rights.

This law is far from perfect, but it is undoubtedly better than having no law at all. For me, it has been a very tiring and long road, but in the end I have the satisfaction of having proved several points. For one, the democratic system does protect your rights if you are willing to actively fight for them. It also became very clear that individual citizens have much more power than authorities want us to know. When you are not affiliated with any political party or movement, having a strong voice in places like the Congress sometimes takes a long time. Once you have it, you should really use it for letting others know that one person alone can change the course of things if she has enough willpower.


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