Mexico’s Congress presents the ‘unpresentable ones’
By William Booth,
MEXICO CITY — While all eyeballs in Mexico were glued to the presidential election this month, the seats of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies were quietly being filled.
By the “unpresentable ones.”
As they are known in the Mexican news media, los impresentables are legislators whose names do not appear on ballots, who often do not campaign, who, in fact, may be kept out of sight. But based on how many overall votes their respective parties receive at the polls, they are named to the legislature.
They are some of the most powerful people in Mexico.
They include the heads of major unions — or their grandchildren. Party stalwarts or party hacks, depending on one’s point of view (and party). And the president’s younger sister.
They are former governors, government ministers, plus a presidential spokesman or two, and the infamous ex-mayor of Monterrey. These pols are called legisladores chapulines, or grasshoppers, who jump from post to post.
And a lot of them, coincidentally, are current or former executives and associates for Mexico’s duopolistic television broadcasters, who are facing the specter of having their airwaves opened to competition.
The composition of the Mexican Congress is the product of the country’s proportional system of parliamentary representation. It is constitutional, time-honored and sometimes a little embarrassing.
In the Chamber of Deputies, 300 seats are won by direct vote, while 200 are distributed among the parties, in proportion to how many votes overall each party won. In the Senate, which has 128 seats, 96 go to top vote-getters and 32 are the “proportional members.”
These proportional seats often go to political heavy hitters who work the back rooms in their respective parties, the seats awarded to repay favors or to share power among interest groups or, to put it in the most favorable light, to keep the best and brightest — be they popular or not — in the nation’s deliberative body.
Another advantage in Mexico: Being in Congress grants a politico immunity from prosecution.
“While the political parties will deny this, there have been lawmakers over the years that are relieved to find that once they are in Congress, it is more difficult for investigators to question them, to bring them to trial,” said Jeffrey Weldon, a political analyst at the Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology, a private research university in Mexico City.
Places for family members
Among the freshman class in the new Congress will be both the grandson and daughter of the second most powerful person in Mexico, Elba Esther Gordillo, the “president for life” of Mexico’s teachers union, who presides over a public education system where teachers buy and sell their jobs and student tests put Mexico’s kids at the bottom of developed nations.
No one here is really surprised that Gordillo’s party gave its lone Senate seat to her daughter.
President Felipe Calderon’s sister, Luisa Maria Calderon, will go to the Senate, after she was rejected earlier this year in her bid to be elected governor of the western state of Michoacan. The niece of Calderon’s wife is also going to Congress.
Fernando Bribiesca, the stepson of former President Vicente Fox, is getting a spot in the Chamber of Deputies. Also in: Calderon’s outgoing press secretary Max Cortazar, his former education minister Alonso Lujambio and former treasury secretary Ernesto Cordero.
“During the campaign season, all the focus is on the presidential race, and the candidates to Congress appear as sort of a blur. Of course, after the election, when the newspapers start publishing their names, everyone sees who they are, and for some, it comes as a surprise,” said Jose Carreño, a scholar at Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education who is based in Mexico City.
One of the big surprises this year is Manuel Bartlett, who served as interior minister for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in 1988 and who allegedly shut down the computers counting the vote during the presidential election when it appeared Carlos Salinas was not winning. Bartlett will be coming into the new Congress under the banner of the Worker’s Party.
Included in the new Congress, which will convene in September, are several top union leaders. The high life will continue for Carlos Romero Deschamps, the very rich head of the syndicate for workers in the gigantic state oil company Pemex, who goes to the Senate, courtesy of the PRI.
The apparent president-elect of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI, has pledged to open Pemex to foreign investment, giving Exxon or Shell a piece of the action (and risk) for drilling projects. This would represent a remarkable break with the past, so there will be a lot of attention paid to Deschamps, who may seek to broker the deal — or crush it.
TV industry well represented
Peña Nieto won 38 percent of the presidential vote. Second-place challenger Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who won 32 percent, on Thursday presented the electoral tribunal with 20 boxes of evidence of alleged vote buying and excessive spending by the PRI. Lopez Obrador is seeking an annulment of the election and a do-over. The tribunal has until September to make a ruling.
In Mexico, two dominant players — Televisa and TV Azteca — dominate the television broadcast industry. According to the Mexican press, 18 legislators entering the new Congress have close ties to the companies, including the daughter of the billionaire owner of TV Azteca, Ricardo Salinas. The others include lobbyists, employees, contractors and two former top lawyers for Televisa, which controls 70 percent of the market.
Selected by both the PRI and Mexico’s Green Party (which isn’t associated with the international greens) and labeled el telebancada, or the TV bench, Mexican observers are wondering if the group of 18 will aid legislation to open up the airwaves.
“This telebancada is much more than the political parties. It’s about TV, it’s about bandwidth, the entry of the cellular companies to television, its about money,” said Titiana Clouthier, a civil activist and former deputy to Congress.
Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.
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