Mexico City is 'crowdsourcing' a new constitution. But will it change anything?
The impossibility of defining City, a place where more than 20 million people converge every day, is one of its essential characteristics. From above, you can see pockets of wealth and luxury right next to settlements of extreme poverty; densely populated tenement buildings and large monochromatic swathes of shantytown punctuated by green foliage and, during spring, thick purple flower clusters.
Such contrasts reflect the overwhelming diversity of inhabitants of a city in the process of creating its first political constitution – a reform which, initially at least, was received with deep scepticism. The most important challenge will be to include this kaleidoscopic population in an initiative that aims to reshape the political, economic and social structures of one of the biggest and most chaotic cities in the world – where the average commute is .
In part, the new constitution is the result of a decades-long struggle that gained momentum when the population spontaneously organised to make up for the incompetence of both federal and local government following the that killed many thousands of people.
The new constitution is also one of the last cards the city’s mayor, Miguel Ángel Mancera, can play to revitalise his beleaguered image. The recent proliferation of violent practices associated to drug cartels, dangerously high pollution levels reminiscent of the 1990s, rampant impunity and corruption, and Mancera’s close relationship with Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto – who is especially unpopular in the capital – are all factors in his administration’s deep unpopularity.
Mancera has gone from winning the mayoralty in 2012 with the largest margin in the city’s democratic history (63.6% of votes, more than 40 points ahead of his closest rival) to current approval ratings that range from 25% to 30%. The city’s status as one of the few progressive strongholds in the country has been severely questioned of late – something Mancera addressed in one of his first public statements on the new constitution.
“This has to be a progressive document, with a perspective of freedom and liberties,” said the mayor. “It has to take into account the rights already conquered in Mexico City, with a vision for this city’s future and development.”
The first draft will be generated by a group of 28 “notable figures” appointed by Mancera – a line-up which has caused some surprise due to the high quality and diversity of its members. Not only does it show a rare gender balance (half of the members are women), the group also includes artists, activists and scholars as well as politicians and experts on economic, legal and social issues.
Carlos Cruz, who is one of the 28, founded Cauce Ciudadano, an organisation devoted to the reintegration and rehabilitation of young gang members who are often living on the streets. Cruz believes the new constitution can act as a catalyst to promote urgent change for both the city and Mexico as a whole, bringing renewed hope to a jaded and cynical population.
“The constitutional process can set a milestone in this historic moment for our country, in the face of violence and the possibility of a return to authoritarianism,” Cruz says. “We want the city to become a crucible for the whole of Mexico” – with ideas floated such as creating an ethical banking system, and a minimum wage that can truly sustain a decent living.
Political analysts such as Jesús Silva-Herzog, however, regard the process of creating a city constitution as nothing more than a public relations strategy undertaken by an administration that is hollow and lost. In a recent column, he described this legislative process as the “most popular form of political evasion ... in order to avoid having to actually do anything”.
Once the 28 notables finish their draft, this first version will go to a special congress made up of 100 seats that will modify, correct and amend it to produce the final version of the constitution. Ricardo Pascoe, an independent candidate for that congress, is also wary of an initiative that, unlike most other constitutional processes, did not arise from social demands or public movements, but rather from an “obscure pact” between Mayor Mancera and President Peña Nieto.
“On the one hand there will be an important portion of society who will be offered this set of liberties, and this is something very positive,” Pascoe says. “But on the other hand, the government will continue to ravish the urban landscape with developments that result from highly corrupted dealings among private constructors and people in the government who are getting absurdly rich. Most of these projects do not have the authorisation of the local communities in the best scenario, and in the worst, they stand against their will.”
According to Pascoe, one of the most important topics for the constitution to address is the need to decentralise the city’s government. Under the current structure, 80% of the budget is controlled by the city’s central government, and only 20% is exerted by what will now be local municipalities.
According to a nationwide survey by the , almost 50% of the population thinks Mexico lacks real democracy. In a corruption index published by Transparency International, , alongside Armenia, Mali and the Philippines. A poll published by the same organisation stated that 75% of participants think corruption is on the rise – with political parties and police perceived to be the organisations most affected by corruption.
Despite being the 15th largest economy in the world, 45 million Mexicans live in extreme poverty. A 2015 study conducted by found that 1% of the population holds 21% of the country’s wealth, that 38% of the indigenous population live in extreme poverty, and 61% of students in public schools do not have access to a computer.
Amid such an environment, the announcement of the long-awaited political reform, in addition to a change of name for the city (from Distrito Federal to Ciudad de México), has paved the way for the city to reflect on everything from reducing the minimum age for participating in elections (from 18 down to 16) and introducing a limit on the carbon emissions of some industries, to strengthening the city’s judiciary and creating a mechanism to incorporate the 49% of the adult population in Mexico City that today lives on the informal side of the economy.
In addition to the list of responsible for the first draft, the current administration unexpectedly launched , a digital tool designed to promote participation by allowing citizens’ initiatives to be proposed . It will also help to convey the inhabitants’ opinions on the city’s most pressing problems – pollution, corruption, traffic and insecurity.
Through this platform, proposals have been received regarding animal protection, rights for the LGBTI community, and the need to impose a minimum percentage of green areas per inhabitant.
According to Alan Grabinsky, manager of Plataforma Constitución CDMX, the site has received more than 70,000 visits, while the “Imagine Your City” survey – which also receives input from stands located in the subway and other popular spots in the city – has attracted .
“Representatives of the expert group preparing the draft constitution have already held meetings with three citizens who each managed to collect more than 30,000 signatures for their respective petitions,” Grabinsky explains. “This is a historical moment for the city, because it is the first time the government will have responded to a citizen initiative conducted by a digital platform like Change.org.”
But despite this democratic and open streak, the new constitution also has a more authoritarian face. Forty of the 100 members of the congress that will decide its content are directly appointed: six by President Peña Nieto, six more by mayor Mancera, while the higher and lower houses of federal parliament will each appoint 14 members.
The other 60 members of the assembly will be elected on 5 June, among them some independent candidates who managed to reach the entry bar of some 70,000 signatures. But this too has proved controversial; an investigation by the journalist Héctor de Mauleón suggested that the vast majority of the candidates who chose to run without the platform of a political party resorted to unlawful practices such as presenting signatures of dead or imprisoned people. In the end, managed to formally register their candidacy.
“Mancera wants to be the mayor who managed to conduct the political reform of the city,” Pascoe says, “but it’s not evident that this will result from a thorough debate. This is one of my biggest concerns, that the breakthrough of the figure of independent candidatures will come in an election that will be highly disdained by the citizens. I find this extremely worrisome.”
Every day, it seems, a new report or column is published that adds another controversy to this already confusing and controversial process. Mayor Mancera, meanwhile, seems more concerned with the possibility of running in Mexico’s 2018 presidential campaign than with establishing a new regulatory frame for a city plagued by corruption, insecurity and pollution.
Mexico City appears to be in the middle of an historic opportunity to put a stop to the ubiquitous impunity and corruption long associated with its political systems. Instead, it can take the exercise of government closer to its citizens. But this is something that won’t come easy, if it comes at all.
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