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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lobbying as Democracy

There are many indicators of how Mexico is changing. But one of the best, and least noticed, is the emergence of lobbying.

Lobbying is a profession many people love to hate. But the practice of the profession - the competition of ideas and interests on roughly equal footing for a politician's ear and vote - is one of the key barometers of a country's democratic openness.

In Mexico, no true lobbying industry existed while the country was a rigid one-party state with a weak Congress and all-powerful president. But just as the government has evolved over the last two years, so has lobbying emerged as a respectable and open profession.

The public-relations firm Burson-Marsteller has created a government-affairs division in its Mexico City office. Sylvia Hernandez, former tourism secretary, has started her own firm. So has Maria Emilia Farias, a former congresswoman and daughter of an ex-governor. And Jose Antonio Crespo, a newspaper columnist who is one of Mexico's leading political scientists, has also formed a firm.

A number of social-activist groups have begun lobbying as well. Among them is El Consorcio, Mexico's first feminist lobby.

Before this, what passed for lobbying was a series of perverse customs that grossly favored the powerful. Business associations, for example, simply met with their friends or relatives in the executive branch - the only branch that mattered. Those with money but without connections could hire a coyote that, for a fee, got you in to see an important bureaucrat whose doors were usually shut.

The poor and powerless had to resort to marches or hunger strikes to pressure the government. Thus, downtown Mexico City was brought to a halt almost weekly by people marching through its streets. One group brought an elephant to a demonstration.

From this kind of public pressure grew the only lobbyist available to the poor: the social leader.

The Mexican government frequently co-opted these social movements by buying off their leaders, with money or, more often, political careers in the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. So a caste of compromised lideres sociales emerged whose power derived from bargaining with the needs and loyalty of their followers.

Things began to change in July 1997: For the first time in 70 years, the PRI lost its majority in the Chamber of Deputies. Until then, Mexico's Congress had done little but rubber-stamp presidential proposals. Congressmen were known as "levantadedos" - finger-raisers - and cartoonists portrayed them as asleep in their chairs with their hands raised, voting "yes."

But after 1997, the chamber became a real legislative body. Opposition-party members, unwilling merely to take orders from the president now that they had a combined majority, began to enact their own legislation. The chamber emerged as a powerful force in Mexico's political life. Almost overnight, more people had to be persuaded of a law's merits before it could pass. Hence the need for real lobbyists.

Nor is it just Congress that has changed. Grass-roots and nonprofit groups are better organized and more active. The media is freer than it was as recently as five years ago.

All this is reflected in the services provided by several of the new lobbying firms. Apart from lobbying Congress, they also offer "public strategies" - comprehensive approaches to influencing newly awakened sectors of Mexico. Now, even the PRI faction of the Senate has hired a firm to help develop its first media strategy. The PRI is so insulated from the demands of constituents that most senators have never had to deal with the media before.

Most important about these changes is that they measure the formation of a new political culture in Mexico.

Lobbying and democratic give-and-take are radical departures from the authoritarian political customs formed by 70 years of one-party rule. Before, discipline and obedience to the president were expected from those in the system.

But now, a new political culture that values negotiation and consensus building. Lobbying is the essence of this. Yet, as a democratic barometer, lobbying also reflects how far Mexico has to go.

Since legislating was for so long an empty exercise, many Mexicans are unfamiliar with how laws are made and how Congress works. They often have no idea who their congressman or senator is. Burson-Marsteller regularly holds seminars on how to lobby a divided Congress for its clients. The nonprofit Citizens Movement for Democracy has published a lobbying primer and web site to help other grass-roots groups get started.

Meanwhile, Mexican lobbying will continue to evolve in step with the country's democratic development. "You're talking about something that's new," says Gustavo Almaraz, a former senator who is a partner in the lobbying firm Grupo Estrategia Politica. "About the only thing we can count on in the future is that we'll have more clients."

Sam Quinones, a free-lance journalist, contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.