Regime Change

Mark Twain said that “the first part of life consists of the capacity to enjoy without the chance; the last half consists of the chance without the capacity”. The same is true of governments. In 2000, the first alternation of parties in the government took place, but there was no change in the country’s institutional structures. In technical terms, there was no regime change. This was the first major error of Vicente Fox and the main cause of the permanence of the old political structures, the vices, and the encumbrances for development. What is taking place at present is something like a second opportunity, this time in the states of Oaxaca and Puebla. What their new governors do not accomplish at the outset they will not accomplish at all.

When Fox arrived at Los Pinos, the PRI was an inherent component of the presidential system. The organizations and structures that comprised it worked in coordination with the presidency and served as a mechanism of transmission and control. The interests represented by the party possessed vehicles by means of which they influenced and pressured the presidency. The system was corrupt, authoritarian, and frequently conflictive, but was also highly functional: it allowed for control, kept (almost always) the worst excesses within bounds, at least within the normality established by the “unwritten” rules, and maintained a semblance of order.

Fox’s arrival changed the system’s quintessential equation: on losing control of the presidency, the PRI became orphaned and began to experience distinct degrees of upheaval. The “divorce”, to put a name on it, between the PRI and the presidency changed the reality of political power in the country and unleashed forces that had not been witnessed since the Revolution. The power flowed from the presidency to the governors and the political parties. At the same time, many of the organizations that, in greater or lesser fellowship and synchrony, had worked in connection with the PRI, acquired a life of their own, becoming factors of autonomous power, but now without institutional moorings, that, for better or worse, in the past acted as checks and balances. Thus arose the so-called “de facto powers”, whose sole interest was their own. Suddenly, the resource disappeared that diverse presidents had employed to discipline these powers, the paradigmatic example of which was the “quinazo”: a change of leaders without changing the system.

When he took office, Fox had the opportunity, at least hypothetically, to negotiate an agreement with the PRIists, a meeting of the minds that could have translated into a new institutional structure. Even before the beneficiaries of the political change were to take notice of the implications of this, the PRIists were terrified of being incarcerated, à la the old system. They feared that the government would resort to authoritarian tactics to take control of the governmental apparatus, and that they would conduct themselves as had any of the former governments. Had they foreseen the effect of the loss of executive power, the brand-new PANist government could have negotiated from a position of strength: levering themselves up on the fear of the PRIists being sent to jail, redefining the nature of the political institutions, and changing the fate of the nation once and for all.

What happened is history. Above all, the new government (2000) possessed no insight, nor did it have a complete understanding of the forces that had been unleashed. In second place, in-fighting in the Cabinet concerning how to proceed ranged from the Jacobin positions of those who proposed inquisition-oriented truth commissions to judge (and, doubtlessly, to condemn) the old regime, to those who abrogated for maintaining the status quo. Unfortunately, there was no long term, institutional vision, capable of transcending the opportunity in order to take advantage of it in an exceptional manner.

The new governors of Puebla and Oaxaca cannot ignore Fox’s experience and its consequent cost. On assuming their function, they will encounter a scenario not very distinct from that which Fox found: an encumbered PRI, one saturated with interests that systematically wreak abuse and an incommensurable history of corruption. Some members of out-going administrations will be fearful (as illustrated by the sudden search for impunity by the Oaxaca state’s finance secretary’s attempt to become a member of Congress), but many have become emboldened by the way that any vestige of institutionality imploded with the arrival of Fox.

The situation creates an extraordinary opportunity to redefine the nature of politics in two of the most unprogressive and corrupt states of the nation. The new governors could spell out literal and absolute partings of the ways to those with accounts pending, but not in the manner of the old PRI, which despite the passage of the years, never stopped being the Obregonist party: “no one can resist a cannonade of fifty thousand pesos”, in other words, permanent corruption. Instead of attempting to buy peace, the new governors could propose a novel institutionality and open the floodgates for the rest of the country: new rules to which all submit for drawing a line in the sand with respect to the past.

The options, at least the conceptual ones, for the new governors are very simple: purchase peace and pretend that theirs were traditional elections (like the PRI of always); try to keep the ship afloat (like Fox); or provide a definition for a new institutional arrangement. No one in the country has attempted the latter, but it is what the country requires: new rules and a government ready and able to make them stick. Many will demand revolutionary justice (“jail to the corrupt”), but this world require a credible judicial system. Should they attempt this course in te new reality, what would most probably occur is that this path would end up in a “michoacanazo”: all show without a happy ending, squandering the great opportunity for transformation.

The true alternative is to redefine and specify the rules of the game: to establish a new institutional framework, based on the citizenry and not on corporations or party organizations, and an ideal legal framework for a society that proposes to transform itself. The exchange would depend on what the prevailing real powers are of a mind to do: if they accept the new rules and submit to them, their past will be free of any charges; if not, the law will be applied to them with no looking back. Meanwhile, the new state governors would have a sword of Damocles at hand, inclined to use it at the least provocation.

The new governors arrive in their states with an untold number of debts to those who supported them. They would do well to remember how Fiorino Laguardia broke with all of these the day he began his term as mayor of New York: “My first qualification for this great job is my monumental ingratitude”. It is imperative to start somewhere.