On September 6, 2023, the results of the nationwide popular polls were tallied to select the next presidential candidate for Morena, Mexico’s incumbent party. Just hours before the results were announced, prominent candidate Marcelo Ebrard voiced concerns about the integrity of the counting process, calling for a complete restart. He pointed out a “worrisome” 14.4% incidence of cancelled ballot boxes in Morena’s main survey. Ebrard also accused the use of police force to prevent his supporters from placing their ballots. Furthermore, he argued that Morena had operated on a clientelist structure which conditioned citizens’ social benefits to promote support for his rival. His plea was dismissed by party leaders, who proceeded to declare Claudia Sheinbaum as the winner.
Mexico’s political history under the single-party dictatorship of the PRI famously included a tradition called dedazo, in which the incumbent president handpicked the next presidential candidate. As a party representing a new political promise – ‘La Esperanza de México’ – Morena has sought to distinguish itself from the PRI. Leading up to Sheinbaum’s nomination, both Morena and its leader, Mexico’s incumbent president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, had vowed not to replicate such a practice. However, due to the vote’s perceived irregularities, Ebrard accused Morena of mimicking the methods of the old authoritarian party. Indeed, Sheinbaum had long been seen as the protégée of Mexico’s President and a favoured candidate within the party. The swift and unanimous support for Sheinbaum among party governors following the poll count – despite Ebrard’s objections – further ignited suspicions about the party’s commitment to a transparent candidate selection process. On September 10, Ebrard formally appealed for the party to acknowledge process inconsistencies, but the party leader simply responded by reaffirming Sheinbaum’s candidacy.
Under Mexico’s electoral legal framework, political parties are responsible for selecting their candidates through internal procedures. Whatever procedure a given party chooses signals how they want to project their image to potential voters. If Ebrard’s allegations are verified, Morena’s procedure in the 2024 presidential candidate selection will struggle to be considered free, fair and democratic. Furthermore, the party might prove to have disrespected the rights of citizens who participated in the poll. It may even result in a violation of campaign rules established by the INE (Mexico’s national electoral institute), and consequently a misuse of public funds designed to support parties’ campaigns.
These issues raise questions about the legitimacy of Mexico’s electoral system. Did Morena’s presidential polls violate Marcelo Ebrard’s right to seek political office, protected under Article 35 of Mexico’s Constitution? Crucially, what this right entails is not entirely clear cut, neither in law nor in literature. Consequently, this article explores current international legal frameworks and insights from political theory and comparative politics to develop a conceptual account of what the right to seek political office is. I argue that the right to seek political office is not composed of a single claim, but rather of three. If Ebrard’s allegations are true, one of these claims has indeed been violated, which we can call the right to candidacy.
The right to seek political office is referred to using varied terminology, across different contexts. The Mexican Constitution refers to this right as a “right to be eligible to run for all elected positions” (my emphasis). Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms dictates that every citizen has a right: “to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.” Notably, there is no reference in the United States Constitution to a right to seek political office, not even in terms of protection against discrimination, as is the case with the right to vote in 14th amendment. However, the right to seek political office is understood, at least by some courts, to be a protected constitutional right.
Moving to the international level, the American Convention on Human Rights guarantees a right to “vote and be elected”. The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights currently upheld by the African Union (AU) states more generally that all citizens have a “right to participate directly in the government of their countries”. In addition, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination protects “the right to participate in elections-to vote and to stand for election on the basis of universal and equal suffrage.”
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) itself does not explicitly include the right to seek political office. Instead, like the African Chapter, it encompasses in article 21 a more general right to “take part in the government of his country directly or through freely chosen representatives.” However, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified in 1976, does explicitly include this right. Article 25 of the ICCPR states that “[e]very citizen shall have the right and the opportunity […] without unreasonable restrictions: […] to be elected at genuine periodic elections”.
The right to seek political office is reflected in political theory, although the topic itself has received little treatment. John Rawls includes “political liberty (the right to vote and hold public office)” as one of his ‘basic liberties’ protected by the first principle of justice. Charles Beitz explicitly claims that Rawls is referring to the “right to run for office”. Beitz himself uses that language to carry out his analysis of the right, or the parallel terminology of the “right to contend for office.”
To date, the most comprehensive comparative study on the right to seek political office is that conducted by Louise Massicotte, André Blais and Antoine Yoshinaka (2004). The authors themselves highlight the challenges of determining what constitutes “the right to be a candidate”, particularly the ongoing changes within electoral laws across nations and the inherent ambiguity of certain provisions within these laws. The lack of unanimity in the use of terms indicates that the right to seek political office protects three related (but not identical) claims. Considering the challenge of comparing all existing laws and legal definitions, we can alternatively examine the various meanings implied by the different terms associated with the right.
Across legal documents, different formulations refer to the same right, despite their different literal meanings. Indeed, there is little reason to assume that when a country’s constitution mentions that citizens have the right to “be elected for office” they imply that they are entitled to be elected and hold a political office. Constitutions do not explicitly claim that citizens have a right to ‘be qualified’ for electoral office. Rather, they suggest that citizens should be eligible, even if they are never actually elected. Neither the UDHR nor Rawls imply that every citizen is entitled de facto to ‘take part in government’ or ‘hold’ political office. Instead, the ‘right to seek political office’ across both literature and legal documents can be disaggregated into two interconnected claims:
- The right to be acknowledged by pertinent political actors and mechanisms as a potential contender for a political office (‘The right to candidacy’). This is citizens’ entitlement to ‘the opportunity’ to pursue a candidacy, rather than the claim to ‘hold’ an actual candidacy.
- The right, conferred through legitimate channels, to participate in the electoral race as a ‘candidate’ for a particular political office (‘The right to be elected’). In essence, this entails being recognized as a member of the ‘official’ pool of nominees or candidates from which voters will make their selection on election day.
- The right to assume a government office when legitimately selected as the victor in an electoral contest (The right to ‘hold office’). In contrast to the previous two, this claim does not pertain to the right to an opportunity to compete for a candidacy. Rather, it encompasses the entitlement for taking the place itself.
The right ‘to hold office’ is paradigmatically violated through coups d’état as well as in some cases of electoral fraud. That is, those who hold the right ‘to hold office’ by lawfully winning an election, are deprived from it in such circumstances. It is this type of violation that, I argue, Ebrard has faced in Morena’s candidate selection process. Yet, if we take his allegations at face value, he was also denied a free and fair competition for office. Beyond a mere mismanagement of the electoral process, Ebrard was confronted with a violation of his claim to stand fairly and freely, not for office, but for a candidacy. Indeed, his purportedly illegitimate loss in the party’s nationwide poll tampered with his opportunity ‘to be a candidate’ in Mexico’s 2024 presidential election, at least as Morena’s nominee. In other words, his opportunity for the opportunity to fairly run for Mexico’s presidency was not respected.
Given their autonomy in selecting candidates according to their own rules, Mexico’s parties face no penalties for such actions from external right enforcement bodies. This renders the protection of the right to seek political office susceptible to violations. Ebrard’s plea ended up being somewhat recognized on November 13th, when the party acknowledged that some failures had occurred within their internal procedures. Yet, these ‘failures’ were not considered grave enough by the party to warrant repeating the selection procedure.
Note: This article reflects the views of the author and not the position of the DPIR or the University of Oxford.