Mexico is a federal republic consisting of 31 states and a Federal District. During much of the twentieth century, Mexico was ruled by authoritarian governments under the control of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionaro Institucional-PRI). The PRI exercised hegemony over the political system while observing formal democratic procedures, such as regular elections, tolerance of opposition parties, and political campaigning.
Mexico's political system historically has concentrated power in the executive branch. By exercising strong leadership over the PRI party apparatus as well as their extensive constitutional prerogatives, Mexican presidents wielded formidable influence over public policy. Since 1997, however, when the first opposition-controlled Congress in Mexico's modern history was voted into office, a more balanced relationship among the branches has developed. Following a series of political and electoral system reforms, the PRI lost its seven-decade monopoly on the presidency in the 2000 elections. The development of a three-party system at the national level has led to a more even distribution of power and has given rise to coalition-style politics. Mexican federalism has historically been weak. State and local governments rely heavily on the federal government for revenues.
Mexico's formal government institutions are defined by the constitution of 1917, which is widely regarded as an expression of popular will that guarantees labor and civil rights, electoral democracy, and national independence. Inspired by both socialist and classical liberal political philosophy, as well as by earlier Mexican constitutions, the drafters prescribed a federal republic with separation of powers, recognized a broad range of political and social rights, and treated many matters of public policy explicitly. Key provisions include Article 27, which, before being amended in 1992, imposed stringent restrictions on the ownership of property by foreigners and the Catholic Church and declared national ownership of the country's natural resources; and Article 123, which affirms a variety of labor rights, including the right to organize and an eight-hour workday, and provides for the protection of women and minors in the workplace. Constitutional amendments may be passed with a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the federal Congress and ratification by a majority of the state legislatures. The constitution has been amended extensively since 1917. Major amendments include the granting of women's suffrage in 1953, the easing of nationalist restrictions on foreign investment in 1992, and numerous electoral system reforms during the 1980s and 1990s.
The federal executive branch is headed by the president and 18 cabinet-level ministers (secretaries). The president holds the formal titles of chief of state, head of government, and commander in chief of the armed forces. Presidents are elected directly by a simple majority of registered voters in the 31 states and the Federal District. Presidents serve a six-year term (sexenio) with no possibility of re-election; there is no vice president. If the presidential office falls vacant during the first two years of a sexenio, the Congress designates an interim president, who, in turn, must call a special presidential election to complete the term. If the vacancy occurs during the latter four years of a sexenio, the Congress designates a provisional president for the remainder of the term. The president has sole authority to appoint and dismiss cabinet secretaries-except for the attorney general, who must receive the consent of the Senate.
The bicameral Congress is composed of a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies. The Senate's 128 seats are filled by a mixture of direct election and proportional representation (96 by direct election and 32 by proportional representation from party lists). In the lower chamber, 300 deputies are directly elected to represent single-member districts, and 200 are selected by a modified form of proportional representation from party lists in five multi-member districts of 40 seats each. Senators are elected to six-year terms, and deputies serve three-year terms.
On this basis, the Constitution establishes two especially relevant provisions regarding the composition of the Lower Chamber. No political party may have more than 300 Lower Chamber members elected by both principles, that is, relative majority and proportional representation. Thus, if a political party may aspire to the absolute majority of seats (251) due to its electoral performance, the law prevents it from reaching the qualified majority (two thirds of the total seats) required to approve constitutional reforms by the party itself.
All members of Congress are barred from immediate re-election but may serve nonconsecutive terms. The powers of Congress include the right to pass laws, impose taxes, declare war, approve the national budget, approve or reject treaties and conventions made with foreign countries, and ratify diplomatic appointments. The Senate addresses all matters concerning foreign policy, approves international agreements, and confirms presidential appointments. The Chamber of Deputies oversees all matters pertaining to the government's budget and public expenditures. Each legislative chamber has a number of committees that study and recommend bills. If there is disagreement between the chambers, a joint committee is appointed to draft a compromise version.
The judicial branch is divided into federal and state systems. Additionally, justice of the peace courts are available at the municipal level. Federal district courts exercise broad jurisdiction over federal crimes and writ of injunction (amparo) suits and civil controversies regarding the enforcement or application of federal laws or international treaties, among others. The rulings of federal district courts may be reviewed by collegiate and unitary circuit courts and by the Supreme Court. The federal judicial system is organized into 29 circuits, encompassing 172 collegiate circuit courts, 62 unitary circuit courts, and 285 district courts. The Supreme Court is made up of 11 justices (including the chief justice). The court holds biennial sessions in which it is divided into two chambers: Civil and Criminal Affairs and Administrative and Labor Affairs.
Supreme Court justices are appointed by a two-thirds vote of the Senate from among a list of candidates submitted by the president. In the event that two-thirds of the Senate cannot agree on an appointee, the president may fill the vacancy without Senate approval. Justices serve a single 15-year term without the possibility of reappointment. The chief justice is elected from among the sitting justices by a collegial vote of the membership. He or she presides over the court for a term of four years. Chief justices may not serve consecutive terms but may be reelected by their colleagues during their 15-year tenure on the court. District and circuit judges are appointed by the Federal Judicial Council, a quasi-independent judicial branch agency chaired by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The seven-member council is in charge of carrying out judicial career laws, overseeing judicial functioning, and selecting judges at all levels below the Supreme Court. In addition to the chairmanship, three seats are occupied by judges appointed by the Supreme Court, two seats by notable judicial scholars appointed by the Senate, and one seat by a presidential appointee. Except for the chief justice, all council members serve a single five-year term.
Each of Mexico's 31 states has its own constitution modeled on the national charter and has the right to legislate and levy taxes other than interstate customs duties. Following the federal organization at the national level, state and local governments also have executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The state executive branch is headed by a governor, who is directly elected for a six-year term and may not be reelected. State legislatures are unicameral, consisting of a single Chamber of Deputies that meets in two ordinary sessions per year, with extended periods and extraordinary sessions when needed. Deputies serve three-year terms and may not be immediately reelected. Legislative bills may be introduced by the deputies, the state governor, the state Superior Court of Justice, or a municipality within a given state. Governors appoint the justices of the Superior Court of Justice with the approval of state legislatures. These magistrates, in turn, appoint all lower state court judges. Municipal governments, headed by a mayor or municipal president (regente) and a municipal council (ayuntamiento), are popularly elected for three-year terms.
Mexico's judicial system is largely derived from Spanish and Napoleonic civil and criminal codes. The most powerful juridical instrument is the writ of amparo (literally, "refuge"), a writ of injunction that can be invoked against acts by any government official. The trial system consists of a series of fact-gathering hearings during which the court receives documentary evidence or testimony, after which a judge in chambers reviews the case file and issues a final written ruling. The record of the proceeding is not available to the general public; only the parties involved have access to the official file and then only by special motion. The law provides for the right of the accused to attend the hearings and to challenge the evidence or testimony presented. The law also guarantees the right to an attorney, although in actual practice the understaffed public defender system is characterized by low professional standards, and, as a result, most indigent defendants are inadequately represented.
In June 2008, the president signed into law legislation reforming the federal legal system to introduce public, oral trials and guaranteeing to defendants the presumption of innocence. Following its passage by both legislative chambers, a constitutional amendment was approved by a majority of Mexico's 31 state legislatures. (Approval by 17 state legislatures is required for the amendment to become law.) Implementation of the reform is to be completed by 2016.
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