Government Structure

Government Structure

The presidency is the paramount institution, not only of the Mexican state, but of the entire Mexican political system. Critics have pejoratively labeled the presidency the "six-year monarchy" because of the seemingly unchecked power that historically has resided in the office. Much of the aura of presidential power derives from the president's direct and unchallenged control over both the state apparatus and the ruling political party, the PRI.

Presidents are directly elected by a simple majority of registered voters in the thirty-one states and the Federal District. The president holds the formal titles of chief of state, head of government, and commander in chief of the armed forces (see fig. 11). Presidential candidates must be at least thirty-five years old on election day and must be not only Mexican citizens by birth but also the offspring of Mexican citizens by birth (this clause was amended in 1994 to make the children of naturalized citizens eligible for the presidency, effective in 1999). To be eligible for the presidency, a candidate must reside legally in Mexico during the year preceding the election. The candidate cannot have held a cabinet post or a governorship, nor have been on active military duty during the six months prior to the election. Priests and ministers of religious denominations are barred from holding public office.

The presidential term of six years, commonly known as the sexenio , has determined the cyclical character of Mexican politics since the late 1930s. A president can never be reelected, and there is no vice president. If the presidential office falls vacant during the first two years of a sexenio , the congress designates an interim president, who, in turn, must call a special presidential election to complete the term. If the vacancy occurs during the latter four years of a sexenio , the congress designates a provisional president for the remainder of the term.

In addition to the president's prerogatives in legislative matters, he or she may freely appoint and dismiss cabinet officials and almost all employees of the executive branch. Subject to traditionally routine ratification by the Senate, the president appoints ambassadors, consuls general, magistrates of the Supreme Court, and the mayor of the Federal District. The president also appoints the magistrates of the Supreme Court of the Federal District, subject to ratification by the Chamber of Deputies. Presidential appointment authority also extends downward through the federal bureaucracy to a wide assortment of midlevel offices in the secretariats, other cabinet-level agencies, semiautonomous agencies, and parastatal (see Glossary) enterprises. This extensive appointment authority provides a formidable source of patronage for incoming administrations and has been an important factor in ensuring the regular, orderly turnover in office of competing elite factions within the official party.

Despite the nominally federal character of the Mexican state, presidents have historically played a decisive role in the selection and removal of state governors, all of whom, until 1991, were members of the PRI. President Salinas was particularly assertive in bringing about the resignations of PRI governors widely believed to have been elected through blatant fraud. In some cases, Salinas annuled the election and appointed the opposition candidate governor.

The president confers broad powers on cabinet secretaries, although the cabinet rarely meets as a single body. There is a hierarchy of influence among the different cabinet posts, and the power of a minister or secretary varies, depending on the priorities set by a particular president as well as the resources available at the time. Traditionally, the secretary of interior has been an influential figure and often has been chosen to succeed the president. During the José López Portillo y Pachecho sexenio (1976-82), the Secretariat of Programming and Budget (Secretaría de Programación y Presupuesto--SPP) was reorganized to coordinate all government agencies, supervise the budget, and design the national development program. Until its merger with the Secretariat of Finance and Public Credit (Secretaría de Hacienda y Crédito Público) in 1992, the SPP was extremely influential, becoming the launching point for the presidencies of de la Madrid and Salinas.

In 1994, President Salinas broke with the pattern of selecting SPP economists by designating the Secretary of Social Development, Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta, as the PRI presidential nominee. This departure from the established practice of nominating ministers with economic portfolios appeared to reflect a reemergence of a social welfare agenda within the PRI after years of orthodox economic policies. When Colosio was assassinated during the presidential campaign, Salinas returned to the fold by selecting Zedillo, a former education and SPP secretary who was then serving as Colosio's campaign manager, to replace the fallen candidate.

One of the unique features of the Mexican presidency has been the highly secretive and mysterious process of presidential succession. Since the 1930s, Mexico's PRI presidents have enjoyed the right to personally name their successor, a privilege known as the dedazo (tap). The prerogative of choosing one's successor has allowed outgoing presidents to select individuals who embody either change or continuity with past policies, as demanded by circumstances and public opinion. Over the years, the skillful selection of a successor to the president has become an important element of the adaptability that has characterized the PRI-dominated system.

During the last two years of a sexenio , a president selects a short list of candidates for the PRI nomination from among an inner circle within the cabinet. Before announcing the nominee, an event known as the destape (unveiling), a president gauges public opinion of the candidates. The destape has been criticized for being undemocratic and anachronistic in the age of mass communications. Beginning with the elections of 2000, the PRI's presidential candidate will be selected by a nominating convention, similar to that followed by the other major parties.

Legislative

The legislative branch of the Mexican government consists of a bicameral congress (Congreso de la Unión) divided into an upper chamber, or Senate (Cámara de Senadores), and a lower chamber, or Chamber of Deputies (Cámara de Diputados). As in the United States, both chambers are responsible for the discussion and approval of legislation and the ratification of high-level presidential appointments. In theory, the power of introducing bills is shared with the executive, although in practice the executive initiates about 90 percent of all legislation.

The congress holds two ordinary sessions per year. The first session begins on November 1 and continues until no later than December 31; the second session begins on April 15 and may continue until July 15. A Permanent Committee (Comisión Permanente), consisting of thirty-seven members (eighteen senators and nineteen deputies), assumes legislative responsibilities during congressional recesses. The president may call for extraordinary sessions of congress to deal with important legislation.

Historically, the Senate consisted of sixty-four members, two members for each state and two representing the Federal District elected by direct vote for six-year terms. However, as part of the electoral reforms enacted by the Salinas government in 1993, the Senate was doubled in size to 128 members, with one of each state's four seats going to whichever party comes in second in that state. Since 1986 the Chamber of Deputies has consisted of 500 members, 200 of whom are elected by proportional representation from among large plurinominal districts, and the remainder from single-member districts. Members of the Chamber of Deputies serve three-year terms. All members of the congress are barred from immediate reelection but may serve nonconsecutive terms.

The powers of the congress include the right to pass laws, impose taxes, declare war, approve the national budget, approve or reject treaties and conventions made with foreign countries, and ratify diplomatic appointments. The Senate addresses all matters concerning foreign policy, approves international agreements, and confirms presidential appointments. The Chamber of Deputies, much like the United States House of Representatives, addresses all matters pertaining to the government's budget and public expenditures. As in the United States, in cases of impeachment, the Chamber of Deputies has the power to prosecute, and the Senate acts as the jury. In some instances, both chambers share certain powers, such as establishing committees to discuss particular government issues and question government officials. The deputies have the power to appoint a provisional president. In the event of impeachment, the two chambers are convened jointly as a General Congress. Each legislative chamber has a number of committees that study and recommend bills. If there is disagreement between the chambers, a joint committee is appointed to draft a compromise version.

Judicial

The judicial branch of the Mexican government is divided into federal and state systems. Mexico's highest court is the Supreme Court of Justice, located in Mexico City. It consists of twenty-one magistrates and five auxiliary judges, all appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate or the Permanent Committee.

Mexican supreme court justices must be Mexican citizens by birth, thirty-five to sixty-five years old, and must have resided in Mexico and held a law degree during the five years preceding their nomination. According to the constitution, supreme court justices are appointed for life but are subject to impeachment by the Chamber of Deputies. In practice, the justices, along with the entire federal judiciary, traditionally submit their resignations at the beginning of each sexenio .

The Supreme Court of Justice may meet in joint session or in separate chambers, depending on the type of case before it. The high court is divided into four chambers, each with five justices. These are the Penal Affairs Chamber, Administrative Affairs Chamber, Civil Affairs Chamber, and Labor Affairs Chamber. A fifth chamber, the Auxiliary Chamber, is responsible for the overload of the four regular chambers. Court rulings of both the whole, or plenary, court and the separate chambers are decided on the basis of majority opinion. Rulings by the separate chambers may be overturned by the full court.

There are three levels of federal courts under the Supreme Court of Justice: twelve Collegiate Circuit Courts, each with three magistrates; nine Unitary Circuit Courts, each with six magistrates; and sixty-eight District Courts, each with one judge. Federal judges for the lower courts are appointed by the Supreme Court of Justice. The Collegiate Circuit Courts are comparable to the United States Courts of Appeals. The Collegiate Circuit Courts deal with the protection of individual rights, most commonly hearing cases where an individual seeks a writ of amparo , a category of legal protection comparable to a broad form of habeas corpus that safeguards individual civil liberties and property rights. The Unitary Circuit Courts also handle appeals cases. The Collegiate Circuit Courts are located in Mexico City, Toluca, Guadalajara, Monterrey, Hermosillo, Puebla, Veracruz, Torreón, San Luis Potosí, Villahermosa, Morelia, and Mazatlán. The Unitary Circuit Courts are located in Mexico City, Toluca, Guadalajara, Monterrey, Hermosillo, Puebla, Mérida, Torreón, and Mazatlán.

The Mexican legal system is based on Spanish civil law with some influence of the common law tradition. Unlike the United States version of the common law system, under which the judiciary enjoys broad powers of jurisprudence, Spanish civil law is based upon strict adherence to legal codes and minimal jurisprudence. The most powerful juridical instrument is the writ of amparo , which can be invoked against acts by any government official, including the president. Unlike the United States system, where courts may rule on basic constitutional matters, the Mexican Supreme Court of Justice is prohibited by the constitution from applying its rulings beyond any individual case. Within this restricted sphere, the Supreme Court of Justice generally displays greater independence in relation to the president than does the legislature, often deciding against the executive in amparo cases. Nevertheless, the judiciary seldom attempts to thwart the will of the president on major issues.

State Government

Mexico is divided into thirty-one states and a Federal District that encompasses Mexico City and its immediate environs. Each state has its own constitution, modeled on the national charter, with the right to legislate and levy taxes other than interstate customs duties. Following the federal organization at the national level, state (and local) governments also have executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Despite its federal structure, Mexico's political system is highly centralized. State governments depend on Mexico City for much of their revenue, which they, in turn, funnel to municipal governments in a clientelist fashion. Mexican presidents have historically played a prominent role in selecting PRI gubernatorial candidates and in settling state-level electoral disputes. President Salinas was especially assertive in this regard, having removed or prevented the seating of eight PRI governors widely believed to have been fraudulently elected.

The state executive branch is headed by a governor, who is directly elected by simple majority vote for a six-year term, and, like the president, may not be reelected. State legislatures are unicameral, consisting of a single Chamber of Deputies that meets in two ordinary sessions per year, with extended periods and extraordinary sessions when needed. Deputies serve three-year terms and may not be immediately reelected. Legislative bills may be introduced by the deputies, the state governor, the state Superior Court of Justice, or by a municipality within a given state. Replicating the pattern of executive dominance at the national level, most policy-making authority at the state level has historically resided in the governor. The state judiciary is headed by a Superior Court of Justice. Justices of the Superior Courts of Justice are appointed by governors with approval of the state legislatures. The superior court magistrates, in turn, appoint all lower state court judges.

The Federal District, which encompasses Mexico City and its southern suburbs, has traditionally fallen under the supervision of the president, who appoints a mayor (regente ). In addition to performing his municipal duties, the mayor also holds cabinet rank as head of the Department of the Federal District. In September 1993, the congress approved an electoral reform package that introduced the indirect election of the mayor of the Federal District.

The Federal District has local courts and a Representative Assembly, whose members are elected by proportional representation. The assembly, historically a local advisory body with no real legislative power, is scheduled to elect Federal District mayors beginning in late 1996.

Local Government

The basic unit of Mexican government is the municipality (municipio ), more than 2,000 of which were legally in existence in 1996. Municipal governments are responsible for a variety of public services, including water and sewerage; street lighting; cleaning and maintenance; public safety and traffic; supervision of slaughterhouses; and the maintenance of parks, gardens, and cemeteries. Municipalities are also free to assist state and federal governments in the provision of elementary education, emergency fire and medical services, environmental protection, and the maintenance of historical landmarks.

Municipal governments, headed by a mayor or municipal president (regente ) and a municipal council (ayuntamiento ), are popularly elected for three-year terms. Article 115 of the 1917 constitution proclaims the autonomy of local governments according to the principle of the free municipality (municipio libre ). Although they are authorized to collect property taxes and user fees, municipalities have historically lacked the means to do so, relying mainly on transfers from higher levels of government for approximately 80 percent of their revenues. Responding to concerns that excessive centralization of political power and financial resources would jeopardize long-term popular support for the PRI, President de la Madrid advocated reforming intergovernmental relations to allow greater municipal autonomy. De la Madrid's municipal reform culminated in the 1984 amendments to Article 115, which expanded municipalities' authority to raise revenue and formulate budgets. The Salinas administration's National Solidarity Program (Programa Nacional de Solidaridad--Pronasol) provided another source of revenue for municipal governments (see Social Spending, ch. 2). By bypassing state bureaucracies and channeling federal funds directly to municipalities and community organizations, Pronasol undermined state governments' control over municipal finances, albeit by promoting municipalities' dependence on the federal government.


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