Protesters mass outside Mexico’s Senate as legislators debate political reform

Throngs of riot police manned nine-foot metal barricades surrounding the Senate on Friday as legislators inside prepared to tackle the most contentious political issue in decades: the opening of the energy sector to foreign investment.

Protesters crowded outside the Senate barricades, the latest in an unfolding drama this week that has included the sudden stage exit of a major leftist politician because of a heart attack and fierce debate over Mexico’s ossified political system.

Legislators in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate are racing against the clock to meet a self-imposed Dec. 15 deadline for passage of several major constitutional changes that would alter both the political system and the energy sector, a pillar of the nation’s economy.

As it stands now, the state oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos, holds a monopoly on most exploration, production, distribution and sales of crude oil, gasoline, diesel and natural gas.

Senators hustled Friday to iron out differences between the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies over a proposal that would allow mayors and legislators to seek re-election – something that has been prohibited for nearly 100 years. Proponents of the change say said the possibility of re-election would encourage longer-range thinking, discourage corruption and allow politicians to be less beholden to their political parties and more responsive to the people who elect them.

The proposal also would make the nation’s attorney general’s office independent and give the National Elections Institute a greater role in state elections, not just nationwide ones.

Outside the barricaded Senate, a stroll among hundreds of protesters underscored the discontent many Mexicans feel in their political leaders and their fear that foreign oil companies would reap the lion’s share of profits if allowed entry to hunt for oil. Shouts of “The country is not for sale!” rang out.

“I’m full of distrust of those people,” said Eduardo Villasenor, a retired chemical engineer, nodding at the Senate building. “They are shameless.”

Villasenor is a member of the political movement of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a two-time leftist presidential candidate and visceral opponent to the opening of the energy sector to foreign investment.

Lopez Obrador, however, has been sidelined by a heart attack he suffered Tuesday. The 60-year-old politician remains hospitalized and is likely to undergo intense medical treatment for most of the month.

The faith of Mexicans in their democracy has fallen rapidly, according to the annual Latinobarometro poll taken in 18 countries and released last month. The poll found that this year only 37 percent of Mexicans believe democracy is preferable to any other type of government, down from 40 percent in 2011 and 53 percent in 2003.

The huge barricades that encircle 12 full city blocks around the Senate along the landmark Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City’s main boulevard, are emblematic of that loss of faith. Some 750 police in full riot gear staff the barricades.

As he waved a protest banner, striking teacher Raul Ramos said politicians answer to their political parties and special interests rather than to the citizenry.

“They do not take into account what Mexicans think,” Ramos said. “They decide things behind our backs.”

The political reforms have emerged now because two opposition parties demanded that any discussion of deep changes in the energy sector would be dependent on changes to Mexico’s electoral system that would effectively weaken the grip on power of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Some analysts say allowing senators, deputies, mayors and city council members to seek re-election would permit better governance at lower levels.

As it is now, mayors in Mexico’s 2,445 or so municipalities can serve only one three-year term. The nation’s 128 senators serve only one six-year-term and the 500 deputies are replaced entirely every three years.

Analysts say the current system makes potential politicians beholden to powerful parties so that they can rotate through jobs, encourages corruption among those who view their chance at the trough to be limited, and discourages implementation of long-term development projects that require follow through.

“Without re-election, many of the mayors of whatever party are trying to figure out after about a year and eight months how they can get elected as a state or federal legislator,” said Leticia Santin del Rio, a political scientist for the Network of Researchers of Mexican Local Governments, a civil society group.

Moreover, because there isn’t an entrenched civil service, many mayors replace most of the senior levels of their city governments upon election.

“There are 50,000 (employees) who are replaced at the local level every year,” Santin said, opening the door to an army of newly hired civil servants lacking training.

Plenty of politicians and newspaper columnists do not believe re-election or changes to the voting system will significantly alter the nation’s political system.

“The political reform . . . is a fake, a sham, a mockery,” said Tatiana Clouthier, a citizen activist from Monterrey, reading a statement from a coalition calling itself #ReformaPoliticaYa, or political reform now.

“This will not change the basics of the Mexican system even one millimeter,” politician Jose Elias Romero Apis wrote in the Excelsior newspaper Friday. “It is a reform that has no taste or smell or weight. It’s close to absolute nothingness.”

If Mexicans do not gain greater faith in their system of elections and politicians, some believe that augurs poorly for future stability and could lead fringe groups to opt for violence.

Outside the Senate chambers, protesters hailed Lopez Obrador, the ailing leftist politician who is widely known by his initials as AMLO, noting that although they believe he was cheated out of victory in his presidential bids in 2006 and 2012, they heed his demands that protests occur peacefully in Mexico.

“AMLO has always said this movement is peaceful,” Villasenor said.

“There are people here who think this doesn’t do any good,” he added. “They believe the movement should use violence.”