Shooting oneself in the foot

“Politics according to John Kenneth Galbraith, is the art of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.” The problem for President Calderon is that in the absence of a government strategy, he is unable to distinguish one from the other. In its early years, his administration sowed what they could but now that he is approaching the final stretch he hesitates and confuses his responsibilities: to be party or to be government?


A question of this nature would not be relevant in a consolidated democracy where institutions are strong and are beyond the inevitable vagaries of individual or party interests. A developed country can overcome the mistakes of a president or the vicissitudes of a crisis. The nations that have not reached that stage are more fragile and require extra care; this is why, for example, a European premier or an American president have no qualms about promoting their parties and successors while in our country that constitutes a fundamental violation of electoral laws. When nations have managed to build strong institutions, men go into the background. Not so in countries like ours where every act and every decision entails consequences.


The current debate is about the potential removal of Fernando Gomez Mont as Secretary of the Interior. In a presidential system, cabinet officials are appointed and removed by the person who appointed them and, therefore, respond to their choices and preferences: they serve at the pleasure of the president. From that perspective, beyond idle gossip, the decision to replace the secretary is only a purely administrative matter. However, current circumstances are far-reaching and warrant serious analysis.
There were two significant moments in the process that led to the current situation. One was when the government was negotiating the 2010 budget, and the other one when government and party discussed the possibility of joining PRD in an electoral alliance for several of the upcoming state elections.


Given the results of the past midterm elections, the PRI was in the privileged position of practically being able to approve the budget all by itself, something that would have left the government completely marginalized, almost with no discretionary spending, as happened to Fox in 2005. However, government and PAN negotiators in the House were very skilful and succeeded in reaching a consensus budget that was extremely close to what the president had originally proposed. Today we know that, in exchange for their willingness to act as loyal opposition, i.e., opposition that acknowledges the legitimacy of the government, the Secretary of the Interior offered the PRI that the PAN would not partner with the PRD in the 2010 state elections.


The second moment took place in the past two months when the PAN and the government debated the PRD proposal to jointly form an alliance to contest the state elections in Oaxaca, Sinaloa, Puebla, Hidalgo and other states. The theme of the government’s commitment not to form an alliance was discussed in public and it was no secret to anyone except, apparently, to the president.


In abstract terms, an alliance with the PRD to try to win some governorships held by the PRI has an impeccable logic, if we were talking about an era prior to 2000. Everything was fair game when the opposition’s only goal, of all parties, was to defeat the monopoly of power (i.e. PRI) and, even under such conditions, the PAN won in 2000 without alliances. As a citizen, I deplore the continued absence of competitive conditions in various states of Mexico: the PRI has managed to preserve oppressive power preserves and a level of control that only benefits the local chieftains. The issue today is that the PAN is just not any party, but the ruling party and the central responsibility of government is to govern and more so in a country with weak institutions.

Certainly, part of the duties of a government committed to democracy should be to strengthen institutions, fight chiefdoms and develop institutional and legal frameworks for the benefit of the citizens. However, forming an alliance with its main rival to defeat its main counterpart and partner in the important issues of governance of the country constitutes an unequivocal irresponsibility. It is understandable that the PAN wants to defeat the PRI in its bastions of power, and it is entirely legitimate that the PRD propose such partnerships to achieve this. What is not reasonable or logical, is that the government risk the stability of the country for the sake of an electoral adventure which, by the way, could also end up losing the elections.


Back to the individual in question. The secretary is being accused of having committed the government in a decision that was not up to him to make but one about which no one complained of when it went well (i.e., when the budget came out as the president wanted). A secretary is not a mere employee: if making choices that are clearly responsible in terms of his or her institutional mandate involves the risk of being accused of insubordination, then no person would work for this government. An official can only function when the goals are clear and so is his or her responsibility. The risks are infinite when there are no margins to make a decision and when the objectives are unclear, contradictory or, worse, when they fluctuate.


In a country characterized by weak institutions, individuals become crucial and their word essential.  More importantly, in the absence of a government strategy, the daily and systematic political operation, of which the Secretary of the Interior is responsible, becomes fundamental to avoid a shipwreck. So, basically, what Mr. Gomez Mont is being accused of is fulfilling his responsibility to maintain stability and help the government to survive.


Over the coming months we will have the opportunity to observe, first, if the electoral alliances were fruitful, at least in terms of having won some governorships for the PAN and the PRD. Then we will have to assess whether the cost in terms of the daily political operation and governance were worthwhile. But the turning point will come at the end of this year when next year’s budget is negotiated, as it will surely be then when the PRI decides how to respond to the unfulfilled promises. Entering the crucial year in which presidential candidates will be nominated, the PAN may end up on the defensive and without discretionary spending capacity. All this due to the lack of strategic vision and for a few alliances of doubtful viability.


Jorge Luis Borges used to say that Peronism was neither good nor bad: it was simply incorrigible. Every political party is what it is, but the PAN seems unable to understand that government and opposition are two entirely different things.