From 27 February until 7 March the 2023 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy took place in Mexico and was co-hosted by the National Electoral Institute (INE). It was a record edition in every sense: It was the longest Global Forum ever, taking place not only in Mexico City, but also in Guadalajara, Hidalgo and Mérida. 15 years after the first Global Forum in Aarau, the Mexico edition saw over 40 different sessions, hosted in cooperation with over 30 programme partners. It was attended by over 600 people from 60 countries.
Mexican Electoral reform and historical context
Eleven years after the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy touched down in Montevideo, the Forum returned to Latin America to find a vastly different context. With democracy in decline worldwide and authoritarians gaining ground everywhere, this Forum had a particular sense of urgency.
Just the week before kicking off the Global Forum, the Mexican Senate passed the so-called “Plan B” bill, which proposes to slash the budget of the INE, the independent electoral authority credited with guiding Mexico through the transition from an authoritarian regime to a functioning democracy in the nineties. The bill would see many of the regional electoral institutes disappear and would introduce changes to the selection process of personnel. With presidential elections slated for next year, critics worry that the reform will endanger the Institute’s capacity to guarantee free and fair elections.
The Plan-B-bill is the second, watered-down, attempt by President Lopez Obrador to reform the electoral authority and has prompted protests of a historical scale in Mexico. On 26 February, the day before Forum start, the streets of Mexico City coloured magenta after the INE’s logo, when a reported 500.000 demonstrators took to the street to protest the reform. The Supreme Court has since suspended the reform for infringing upon the “political-electoral” rights of Mexican citizens.
Set against this backdrop, the 2023 Forum focused on the question of strong democracy institutions, the use of direct democracy in Latin America and how to strengthen citizenship. On 27 and 28 February, 100 participants joined us for a pre-Forum briefing tour organised in partnership with the Mexico City Electoral Institute (IECM), Ollin, and Cohabitantes MX. The pre-tour focused on cases of direct and participatory democracy in and around Mexico City and was concluded with an event at the residence of the Swiss Ambassador, highlighting the links between Mexico and Switzerland.
Democracy is also about failure
On 1 March, the Global Forum main conference was officially opened at the National Museum of Anthropology with an opening panel devoted to the question “Will Direct Democracy Really Save Democracy?“ and a keynote intervention by former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who spoke about his experience using direct democracy to enforce a redistricting reform in California.
“Everyone said to me you can’t change it. It’s an old system that is in place,” Schwarzenegger said about his campaigns, “I had no choice but to go directly to the people. But then it is just like it is in weightlifting. I didn’t lift 500 pounds in a bench press the first time. I failed and I failed the second time and the third time. But on the eleventh attempt, I did it. We learn from mistakes.” On the legacy the Californian reform has, he said, “I have faith in the people and what happened was that it eventually won. Even though we don’t have direct democracy nation-wide, which I am sorry to say, the bottom line is that more than 20% of the states now have already passed a redistricting reform.”
Finding the courage to tackle the missing elements
On Thursday and Friday, the conference continued first with meetings Mexican democratic leaders at the Senate, the Chamber of Deputies and of the Electoral Institute and Tribunal. The meetings were followed by two full days of workshops, panels and an open space at the historic Palacio de la Escuela de Medicina and the brand-new campus of the TEC de Monterrey university. On Thursday evening, our partner organisation Zócalo Public Square dedicated an evening discussion to the question “Are elected presidents bad for democracy?”
Finally on Saturday, we gathered at the main offices of the National Electoral Institute for the closing of the main conference and the adoption of the 2023 Global Forum Declaration stressing the need of “modern institutions that contribute to empowering people and including groups that have historically been vulnerable.”
After the main conference closed, we moved to Mérida for two days of Democracy City Summit, focusing on local efforts to empower citizens.
“When I came to this conference, I felt very proud to come from a democratic country like Canada, but after the conversations I realised that we have a very thinly veiled democracy.” Maureen Mason, one of the participants said of her first participation at a Global Forum, “We have the illusion of inclusion and we have been very lazy in our work to hold our democracy accountable to the people. I am newly elected and this conference has given me the courage to shine a light in those dark corners.”
Veteran German democracy activist Angelika Gardiner, who has attended nearly every Forum in the past 15 years, said, “One might think it is always the same, but not two of them have been alike. Every time I come home with new insights and new courage to touch upon the things that are still missing in our democracies. In our part of the world, the classic democracies have been under siege now for quite a few years and all of us need a lot of knowledge and courage to fight all the hidden dangers.”
The hour of the citizen
In their closing words, the main organisers stressed the perilous situation democracy finds itself in. “This has been a very sobering week.” Global Forum Co-President, Joe Mathews, said, “Democracy amounts to four words: ‘Everyday people governing themselves’. The reality of the world we live in, as we’ve seen in contributions from people who live as far as Tunis and Tegucigalpa, is that to practice democracy is to make yourself a target.”
Claudia Zavala, Electoral Councillor of the INE, pointed out that only cooperation and strong citizenship can strengthen democracy “I am very touched to be here in front of you, because this is where hope starts,” she said, “We are going through difficult times for democracy, not only in Mexico. We are experiencing many frontal attacks on democracy by various groups in power around the world. This makes thinking about our citizens even more relevant and we have to work at this all together. I am convinced that working to strengthen citizenship is what is going to save us.”
Asking why the foundations of democracy have come under attack around the world, Global Forum Co-president Bruno Kaufmann offered two explanations: “One answer is that we are still too weak: our democracies are still too exclusive, too elitist, too paternalistic. At the same time, democracy has become so powerful that those who hold much more power than others are starting to get nervous: autocratic old men from Tunisia to China, from Mar-a-Lago to the Kremlin. I just want to say their time is about to end and our hour is about to come.”