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The Dynamics of Constitutional Change in Mexico 1997-2012: New Data from Reformar sin Mayorias

Editor’s Note: Last Friday, I was honored to participate in an event in Mexico City for the publication of a new book, Reformar sin Mayorias (Reforming without Majorities) on the recent pattern of constitutional amendment in Mexico.  The book, edited by the distinguished scholars María Amparo Casar and Ignacio Marván, is in Spanish but has some very interesting findings that ought to be of general interest.  The following is edited from a summary prepared by Jose Angel Quintanilla.                               –TG

No single political party has held an absolute majority by itself in both houses of the Mexican Federal Congress since 1997, which means that any party looking to amend any federal law must build a coalition. This book debunks the commonplace notion that the lack of a unified majority in Congress has led to a gridlock, thus impeding necessary constitutional reforms in Mexico. To do so, the authors analyze each constitutional reform during the 1997-2012 period: their topics, the winning coalitions and the depth that each amendment implied.

The first chapter, by the co-editors, provides a quantitative overview of constitutional reforms in Mexico under divided government and a theoretical framework for analysis, while subsequent chapters by other leading scholars take on a more qualitative approach into particular areas of reforms.

Focusing the quantitative side, the editors argue that there are two generally accepted misconceptions in the debate about constitutional reforms in Mexico:

1)      Mexico stands out for the number and frequency of constitutional amendments.

The comparative analysis and literature review carried out through this book show that constitutions with few reforms (e.g. those of the U.S.A., Spain, or Argentina) are rather the exception than the rule.

2)      It was easier to reform the constitution during the twentieth century because of Mexico’s single party regime, which in turn numbed the checks and balances in the system and allowed some flexibility to an otherwise rigid constitution.

This book proves that the amount and frequency of constitutional reforms has almost doubled between 1997 and 2012, compared to the previous 15 years. During the first 65 years of the constitution (1917-1982) there were 98 reform decrees, whereas from 1982-2012, a period where pluralism started flourishing and ultimately led to democratization, 108 reform decrees (52% of all time total) were approved. Moreover, between 1982 and 1997 there were only 39 constitutional reform decrees. The number of decrees from 1997 to 2012 went up to 69. This seems to confirm that divided government, the lack of a majority in Congress, does not impede reforming the constitution, but quite the contrary.

The Mexican constitution requires a constitutional reform to be approved by two thirds of the present legislators of each of the two chambers of the Federal Congress, and it also must be approved by half plus one of the states’ congresses. This looks formally rigid, but not one constitutional reform to date has been rejected by state congresses. As a 2011 study by Professor Carpzio showed, constitutional reforms have been used to include more and more detail into this law, and he illustrates this by pointing to the fact that the constitution was comprised of 21,381 words in 1921 and in 2011 it contained 52,566.

Prior to 1997 the President used to be the most prolific legislator. Between 1982 and 1997, the Executive Power introduced 477 bills (95 per legislature), whereas between 1997 and 2012 the number dropped to 316 (65 per legislature). Although the President’s role in Congress has diminished, his office still has a 54% approval rate on its constitutional reform initiatives, and 15 of 69 constitutional reform decrees (22%) contained at least one presidential initiative.

Coalitions for constitutional reforms

The Mexican Constitution states that no single party can hold more than 60% of the seats in either chamber of congress. Thus, to approve a constitutional amendment at least two parties must coalesce. During the 1997-2012 period we observe some patterns in constitutional reform coalitions:

  • The PRI took part in every winning coalition
  • 83% of constitutional reforms were approved by a coalition of the three biggest parties, PRI-PAN-PRD
  • 15.8% of the reforms were voted for by only PAN-PRI coalitions, which means that PRD is the party that most often opts out of constitutional reforms
  • Small parties (they usually hold around 10% of the seats) have played no major role in constitutional reforms

If we take into account that constitutional reforms are almost always approved by most parties, along with the fact that the frequency and number of constitutional reforms has increased while congress’s plurality has been growing, it is safe to say that divided governments and opposition parties have in no way driven government to a stalemate.

Of course, the number of constitutional amendments doesn’t tell us anything by itself, but rather raises new questions, like why do political parties like to change the constitution so much. The answer may lie in some kind of “constitutional fetishism”, in which the constitution is rendered a transforming force all by itself, without paying attention to the mechanisms that should be developed along with the constitutional amendment to implement the desired change. This fetishism has led the Mexican Constitution to become more of an aspirational text than an enforceable one. It also makes politicians neglect the—sometimes greater—transforming power of changing ordinary laws (NAFTA, for example, didn’t require any constitutional amendments).

Many constitutional changes don’t bring any change to the real world, especially because there are two recurrent techniques used to deactivate them: 1) failing to produce the amendment’s regulatory laws, which makes changes inoperable; and 2) not appropriating the resources needed for the implementation of the amendment.

Even though constitutional amendments don’t seem to be effective mechanisms for change in the real world, they are abundant, but why? It’s probably because constitutional change in Mexico comes cheap. It comes cheap because it’s easy to approve, and it comes cheap because legislators don’t need to take responsibility for their actions (i.e. not taking into account its implications or viability).

Suggested Citation: Jose Angel Quintanilla, The Dynamics of Constitutional Change in Mexico: New Data from Reformar sin Mayorias, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Feb. 10, 2014, available at:  http://www.iconnectblog.com/2014/02/the-dynamics-of-constitutional-change-in-mexico-1997-2012-new-data-from-reformar-sin-mayorias/


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Published on February 10, 2014
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