Mexico: Is Centralization the Way to Battle Corruption?

By Daniela Stevens*

A large group of people stand on a stage.

Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (center left) meets with current President Enrique Peña Nieto and members of his cabinet during the transitional government period. / Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Half way through Mexico’s five-month transition period, an effort by President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) to increase central government oversight over states’ affairs suggests an agenda that may go beyond the “republican austerity” he frequently calls for.  His plans to lower the numbers and salaries of high-ranking bureaucrats have been well received, but he raised hackles when he announced plans to appoint a single federal representative – a delegado – to liaise with each of the 32 states, eliminating the 20 to 30 central government representatives that until now have been dispersed throughout each jurisdiction.  He claims the measure is to save on the bureaucracy payroll, but many observers are concerned it will concentrate more power in his own hands.

  • Criticism has already forced AMLO to repackage his plan somewhat. He uses mixed language to refer to the responsibilities of the delegados.  While he has strongly defended his legal ability to appoint a single delegado, he more recently reassured aggravated governors that his representatives would maintain “institutional relations” and respect local elected officials’ autonomy and authority.  Olga Sánchez Cordero, AMLO’s appointee as Secretary of the Interior, further clarified that the delegates would only be in charge of social development programs, constituting a “layer of proximity to citizens” currently or potentially enrolled in social programs.  Under AMLO’s proposal, delegados would take over all kinds of programs, including youth scholarships, conservation efforts, health care, and social security programs for special populations – a herculean portfolio for a single representative.
  • Critics argue that the appointment of single delegados reporting directly to AMLO will undermine federalism. Electoral and administrative decentralization were integral to Mexico’s long democratization process.  For decades, the president was not only the predominant force over the legislative and judicial powers; he also appointed governors from the hegemonic party to the states.  The delegados would potentially create a power structure that parallels and rivals that of the state governors.  Some governors argue that the constitution does not recognize intermediate authorities, and wonder whether persons with partisan agendas will get too deeply involved in local budgets and policies.  In addition, the position would be coveted for its discretionary power and direct link to the president – giving politicians from AMLO’s party, Morena, a leg up as potential candidates for governor.

If done right, however, the measure could alleviate the plague of corruption that permeates the states, and the governorships in particular, and which AMLO has repeatedly condemned.  Governors routinely abuse their powers and engage in serious acts of corruption and financial crime.  As Agustina Giraudy has documented, undemocratic governors have used their offices to perpetuate “subnational undemocratic regimes” in the wake of Mexico’s 2000 transition to electoral democracy at the national level.  Former Governor Javier Duarte, of Veracruz, stole hundreds of millions of dollars from the public budget, and others, like Humberto Moreira in Coahuila, left their state with large debts.  Oversight from an anti-corruption executive in Mexico City might not necessarily be a bad thing.

Ideally, state legislatures – rather than the president or his delegado – would constitute the brake on governors’ decisions, providing a real counterweight anchored in local political dynamics.  AMLO’s efforts to turn Mexico into an “authentic democracy” will miss the mark – and amount to a crass political move – if the transformation does not include an institutionalization of leadership.  His party, Morena, is extraordinarily dependent on his personal leadership; it is an amalgam of politicians who abandoned other parties or joined it because of personal ties to him.  AMLO, who plans to preach integrity by example, cannot alone be the foundation of the “fourth transformation” he purports to lead (the first being independence, the second the “Reforma,” wars, and the third the 1910 Revolution).  With institutionalization, AMLO and Morena could put appointees and delegados through a transparent, legal vetting process – based on merit – and give them clear, legal operational responsibilities.  Failing that, their reforms may prove to be a primarily partisan project.

September 14, 2018

* Daniela Stevens is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science in the School of Public Affairs at American University.