The story is familiar. The U.S. and Mexico, two neighbors with a fraught history and a vast discrepancy in wealth, are on divergent paths, with one country on the road to success and the other mired in a quagmire of self-inflicted setbacks. You’d be forgiven for assuming it’s Mexico that is struggling. After all, the U.S. has typically outperformed its southern neighbor and served as a role model of political and economic performance. But now, those roles are being reversed. While Washington careens toward a government shutdown and the possibility of a devastating default, Mexico surges ahead with one of the most productive periods of reform in its history. Today, it’s Mexico that can teach the U.S. how to govern, not the other way around.
The recent success in Mexico is due to the Pacto Por Mexico, which is an agreement between the three main political parties to work toward 95 long-sought reforms. The agreement, which has essentially created a coalition government, covers issues ranging from breaking up telecom monopolies and opening up the oil sector to private investment, to the creation of a national electoral agency and the reform of teacher evaluations in public schools.
The Pacto Por Mexico is noteworthy not just for its accomplishments but also for the simple fact that it exists at all. Mexico uses a federalist, presidential system of government like the U.S., which lends itself to the separation of powers and gridlock rather than the coalition-style governing of a parliamentary system. But after nearly 15 years of obstructionist politics that severely weakened the federal government and contributed to the outsized drug violence plaguing the country, the three main parties realized they all shared a common interest in the revitalization of the state and pledged to cooperate.
Unveiled the day after Enrique Peña Nieto was inaugurated as president in December, 2012, the Pacto Por Mexico signifies a clean break from the past in more ways than one. To begin with, Nieto is the first Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate to win the presidency since the National Action Party (PAN) ousted it from its 71-year dictatorship in 2000. Nieto campaigned on the promise of a changed PRI, one that rejects its authoritarian past and offers a new generation of leadership. The Pacto Por Mexico proves he meant what he said.
Second, the Pacto Por Mexico represents a complete 180-degree change in inter-party relations since the last presidential election in 2006. In the aftermath of that election, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the candidate of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), refused to acknowledge the victory of PAN candidate Felipe Calderón, and organized massive street protests that paralyzed the capital for weeks. While López Obrador, who ran again in 2012, challenged the results of last year’s elections as well, the PAN did not join him in his legal dispute and after Nieto’s victory was upheld, Obrador left the PRD to form a new party, thereby freeing the PRD to cooperate with the newly elected president.
The result has been a period of remarkable legislative accomplishment that has solved some of the most intractable problems in Mexican politics, captured the market’s attention, and drawn a glowing comparison to the partisan rancor dominating the political discourse in the U.S.
Furthermore, it has broken down the long-standing assumption that in the U.S.-Mexican relationship, it is always Washington who sets the example and Mexico who follows. The Pacto Por Mexico disposes of this outdated frame of mind and instead suggests that at least for now, it is Washington that can, and should, learn from its southern neighbor.