Some politicians use periods of upheaval to pursue their own political interests. When Mexico’s democracy was in danger, Ruth Zavaleta Salgado, one of the founders of Mexico’s Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), did the opposite. She took a stand in support of the rule of law, risking her political career for the good of her country.
In 2006, Felipe Calderón and Andrés Manuel López Obrador were locked in a highly contested presidential election. After a recount, the country’s federal electoral institute eventually declared Calderón, a member of the National Action Party (PAN), the official winner. Obrador supporters filled the streets of Mexico City in protest, and Obrador, the candidate from Ruth’s party, called for the formation of an extralegal shadow government. The election drove a wedge through Mexico’s government institutions, so much so that members of the Chamber of Deputies hurtled angry insults and even brawled with one another within the Chamber itself.
Ruth was newly elected to the position of President of the Chamber of Deputies, a role similar to the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, when Calderón was set to give his first address as president in September 2007. The members of her party expected Ruth to exploit her authority to keep Calderón from speaking and his government from functioning.
But Ruth saw things differently. “In my opinion institutions had to be functional in order to strengthen democracy,” she says. A true public servant, she felt that using her position to benefit party over country went counter to the long-term interests of Mexico’s democracy. In a country where political parties had typically been stronger than the institutions of government themselves, Ruth had come to Congress determined to improve the legislature’s stature and standing.
“From the moment I got in, I worked towards Congress demonstrating that it was a dignified place, that it was an institution that was going to strengthen democracy,” she says. “It was better to make decisions alone and to favor society as a whole rather than to submit to what the party was asking of me.”
For holding fast to her convictions and for being willing to work with Calderón, Ruth was viewed as a traitor by her PRD leaders who supported Obrador. Subjected to harassment and intimidation throughout her term as President of the Chamber of Deputies, she resigned in 2009 from the party she had helped to found. Ruth left politics and took a position overseeing women’s access to the vote with Mexico’s Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judiciary.
Supporting women and indigenous communities has long been close to Ruth’s heart. Her political career grew out of her work as a housing advocate for the working poor displaced after the devastating Mexico City earthquake in 1985; she went on to become a District Representative for the municipality to which those who had lost their homes had been transferred.
Ruth is also a member of Mujeres en Plural, a group of former female politicians who aim to elevate more women to political leadership in Mexico. She is about to receive a PhD in Law, with a dissertation on the role of the legislative branch in creating a functional democracy, and is running for a seat in the Chamber of Deputies in Mexico’s July 1, 2012 election as a Green Party candidate.
Ruth is proud that her actions and example as President of the Chamber of Deputies have inspired others. “It was the best thing that could have happened in my life,” she says, “that I could be a role model for colleagues in the other [Mexican] states—not only women, [but] also for men.”