Leonardo Valdés Zurita: Reflections on Elections and Democracy in Mexico

Publication Date: 
18 Sep 2013

Dr. Leonardo Valdés Zurita, President of Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), is this year’s international recipient of the Charles T. Manatt Democracy Award.

Since he took over Mexico’s election management body in 2008, he has worked tirelessly to make Mexico’s electoral system more representative and address issues that lead to the contentious 2006 poll. On an international level, he has worked to promote democracy by sharing expertise with election management bodies around the world.

As he prepares to leave his post, he answers some questions about his tenure and Mexico’s future.

From your point of view, what has IFE’s transition to an independent institution meant for Mexico?

This has been a great contribution to Mexico. In our country, the transition to democracy includes the creation of a competitive political party system, and free and fair elections. But most of all, creating trust among citizens in the impartial organization of elections. This is the IFE’s special task.

Please tell us about your career and how it led to your current role as President of IFE.

For many years, I worked as a university professor, specializing in the research of electoral systems around the world and in Mexico. As an academic, I was involved in projects to reform Mexico’s electoral law, becoming a close collaborator of the legislative institutions and the Federal Electoral Institute. In 1997, I had the opportunity to become IFE’s Executive Director of Electoral Organization. Here, I had the responsibility to organize the country’s first national election without the involvement of the government in the electoral process.

After that, from 1999-2005, I became a founding counselor of Mexico City’s Electoral Institute. As a result, my appointment as IFE’s President by the House of Representatives was because they choose a citizen and public official with good knowledge of political and electoral affairs and someone completely committed to democracy.

Please describe some of your goals and hopes as you took over the leadership of IFE, and please tell us how these have changed over time.

From the beginning, my goals and hopes were related to two main commitments: the first commitment was to implement the 2007-2008 electoral reform. This reform gave IFE 53 new functions, including a completely new political communication model for radio and TV; a new procedure for political parties and citizens to submit electoral complaints; and the power to oversee the use of public funding by political parties.

To meet these objectives, I focused on restructuring the Federal Electoral Institute. First, the executive direction of political parties received additional resources. In addition, the legal division received phones and training to address the new system for resolving electoral complaints. Finally, we created a new for the other side of the resources of political parties. Later, my goal was to organize the midterm electoral process of 2009 and the federal electoral process of 2012 for the election of the President and both chambers of congress.

We successfully achieved these goals. I can say I am satisfied as I am passing on a Federal Electoral Institute that has fully met its constitutional duties and has overcome its challenges.

Please describe the goals of the partnership between IFE and IFES.

The relationship between IFES and IFE has been close since the beginning. IFES is the main ally of IFE in the United States. In 1994, IFE’s first international event was a conference organized along with IFES and Elections Canada. Since then, we have organized training events for electoral officials from Mexico and other countries around the world.

IFE, in a very responsive manner and following the agreement of collaboration with IFES, has shared its electoral experiences with election officials from Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. By doing so, our goal to promote democracy worldwide is now reachable.

We have just renewed this partnership with a memorandum of understanding and you have already talked about one of the main goals – furthering democracy around the world. Aside from this objective, what are other main goals?

Our main objective has two main challenges for IFE, IFES and the inter-democratic world. First of all, through training and the exchange of experiences, those in charge of the organization of elections around the world will become more professional. Second, this assistance will help electoral authorities build a democratic culture and a civic culture through which elections and democracy will be consolidated.

What are some of the most memorable moments you have had during your tenure with IFE?

The first one happened before midnight on Election Day in Mexico, on Sunday, July 1, 2012, after more than 50 million citizens went to the polls to choose their President and congress. I went on national TV to communicate trends in electoral results. I presented the results offered by a quick count method showing the range of votes obtained by the four presidential candidates. This was achieved thanks to the support of an independent committee of scientific experts that projected results from a sample of about 7,500 polling stations around the country. This allowed us to have fast, accurate and transparent results. Before Election Day was over, we were able to inform the public – with certainty – the voting trends of the biggest election my country had ever experienced.

The second memory happened in November 2012 in Washington, D.C., during an Election Day breakfast with IFES President William Sweeney. Bill asked me to explain s the mandate, structure and operation of Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute in front of a very large delegation from the electoral authority from Indonesia in just a few minutes.

What would you like your legacy at IFE to be as you leave to pursue other opportunities?

The President of IFE needs to be committed to democracy not only in Mexico, but also worldwide. For that reason, what I consider a great contribution is the consolidation of the Federal Electoral Institute. I believe that IFE is now a reference for democracy in Mexico and also internationally. By sharing IFE’s experience, we improve our work in Mexico and contribute to other electoral authorities.

What are your hopes for Mexico and its democracy in the future?

I think our democratic life has consolidated. We now have a plural political party system, free elections at the federal, state and municipal levels and our population is well represented in the legislative organs. This has allowed us to move forward and reach the political consensus needed to reform our constitution and pass new laws for our country’s development. We must offer more and better education and health systems for all Mexicans, especially for women and young people. We need to develop our country, consolidate our industry, take care of our agricultural sector and offer well-paid jobs to all Mexicans.

This will be the time when our government and our representatives will work to find answers to the many significant problems we face in the country. I am convinced these solutions can be found through democracy and only democracy.

What does it mean for Leonardo Valdés to receive the 2013 Charles T. Manatt Democracy Award?

This is a great privilege. It is an award for the work done. However, it is also recognition of the IFE and Mexico. I celebrate the effort that millions of Mexicans, men and women, have made to consolidate our democratic life. The award is a shared honor with the many men and women of my country who have made enormous efforts to make democracy a viable project in Mexico.