What Is the Problem?

Luis Rubio

Any solution must always address a specific problem. However, one of the peculiarities of Mexico’s political life rests on the propensity to turn into mantra half cooked ideas that do not necessarily respond to the problem that needs addressing. Such is the case in the presidential elections’ second round or runoff.

The runoff in France was the product of two rounds of reform after the Second World War -the Fourth and Fifth Republics-, which resulted in a process of trial and error regarding the specific conditions of that country. Copying the mechanism does not guarantee that the problems that Mexico faces will be solved.

The political reform of 1977 had a precise, specific and clearly defined objective: it sought to incorporate into the world of institutions a segment of political life that, for decades, had existed under the cloak of clandestine life. On not engaging in formal participation in the political institutional framework, diverse forces of the Left had become radicalized: some had opted for the guerilla path and, even, terrorism. The objective of the reform was, in consequence, very clear and very simple: to bring into the fore, and to legitimacy within a formal political existence, all those forces living in the underground. The reform was a great success.

The electoral reform of 1996 was more diffuse because it attempted to solve diverse problems at one and the same time. On the one hand it endeavored to create consensual and transparent mechanisms of access to power. On the other hand, it procured the creation of conditions for a political transition, that is, for an eventual defeat of the PRI. There does not necessarily have to be a contradiction between these two purposes, but the reform only solved the first part of the equation, giving rise to the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) and establishing rules for the political parties to interact compete and entertain the same possibility of acceding to power.

What that reform did not solve, as is patent today, twenty years later,  was the structure of the government: it did not occur to any of the parties -government and political forces- that a change in the rules of access to power could be enormously disruptive to daily life, for example, in security matters.  Likewise, it was not considered that the country had maintained its (declining) stability thanks to the centralization of power in the presidency and that, when the PRI was defeated, that power concentration would disappear, engendering a crisis of governance.

What we are faced with at present is a chaotic situation in security, absence of checks and balances, above all at the state and local levels, and the inexistence of institutional mechanisms to make public officials accountable. That is, we have a governability crisis: what there is does not serve to solve the problems currently afflicting the country, ranging as they do from security to the regulation of the economy.

In addition to the latter, since 2006, Mexico has undergone a grave (and paradoxical) problem of legitimacy. Approximately one third of the electorate does not recognize the legitimacy of the electoral results, despite the exceptional solidity and professionalism of the administration of the elections and of the mechanisms of conflict resolution. The obvious question is: What would happen if the candidate favored by that crowd fails to join the second round? Unless one were certain that the legitimacy problem would end, the second round would not solve this essential problem.

In this manner, we have two problems and now a magic solution. Advocates of a runoff argue that the second electoral round will solve all the problems and that, on adopting it, we would enter into a political nirvana. However, the second round comprises a possible solution to a problem, not to all of the problems. Thus, it is indispensible to define what the problem is whose solution is quested after. The political reforms of 1977 to date have attempted to solve the problems of the political parties, but not the one about 99% of Mexicans who daily experience the consequences of the dreadful system of government.

The second round deals with the problem of perception: a triumph with 29% of the votes is not the same as one with 51%. If the problem is one of legitimacy –that is, of the acceptance of the electoral result by all Mexicans (and the certainty that this stands for all)- then the second round is the most fitting response.  On the other hand, if the problem is one of the institutionalization of power –that is, of establishing counterweights to future presidents so that they, by such means, are unable to act capriciously, and making the Congress accountable to the citizenry- then the second round may or may not form part of the solution, but it would have to include many other elements. In one word, there is no magic solution or silver bullet.

On the other hand, if the problem is one of governance, solving it should be the objective. The incipient Mexican democracy finds itself in problems because it has an electoral system that is much more advanced than the system of government.  It is urgent for Mexico to undertake a reform of the government so that the elected officials work for the citizenry, solve the problems and create conditions for development. None of that is of an electoral nature, nor would it be fixed by a runoff. It is imperative to start by defining the problem well. Will continue.