Fallacies and Realities

Luis Rubio

The majority of arguments in favor of the second electoral round or runoff in Mexico are sustained on a fallacy of Mexico’s realpolitik, while simultaneously ignoring one of the reasons why the second round could be a significant solution: everything depends on the question that is being addressed. The fallacy resides in the notion that a legislative majority guarantees governance; the opportunity lies in the elimination of the incentives that today propitiate grotesque campaigns such as the most recent one that characterized the state of Mexico.

The most frequently claim brandished for the second round is that of obtaining legislative majorities that permit governing. However, President Peña demonstrated that the existence of a legislative majority is not a necessary condition: all of his reforms were approved by a coalition of legislators of various parties, nearly always with the integral vote of the (then) three most prominent political forces. That was not achieved thanks to a keen and convincing substantive debate, but rather to a costly but successful “spending spree,” old style legislative vote buying. That is, in Mexico’s reality, skillful, power-oriented politicians find it easy to build legislative majorities.

In the recent elections we were able to appreciate an enormous distortion of our much-buffeted democracy: we have a Rolls Royce electoral system, including a governing council and the office of electoral fraud, that does not get its hands dirty with even the suggestion of a formal complaint, but a reality of dirt roads full of potholes and mafias in their stomping grounds on which campaigns are waged. This terrain is fertile for the proliferation of strategies geared to provoking fear, lies, manipulation and intimidation that procure the generation of a vote that is useful for preserving the status quo. The clash of the reality on earth and the easy life at the higher echelons of the National Electoral Institute (INE) is flagrant, nullifying the supposed arbiter and engendering incentives to protest.

From this perspective, for the purists of the electoral system and the promoters of the second round of elections, the country’s core problem lies in “a democracy without democrats,” that is, a dysfunctionality that has led the parties to systematic abuse, to approve laws that they know they will break, to take no heed of campaign expense limits and, in a word, to behold the government as spoils of war and not as a responsibility. That is, the problem is one of culture.

Years ago, the political scientist Guillermo Trejo evidenced the fallacy of this argument: “The functioning of democracies is a problem of effective institutions. Cooperation and governmental efficiency are not the product of individual virtues, but instead of a system of checks and balances that provides incentives for the good functioning of State institutions. The problem is not finding a Mexican Roosevelt, Churchill, Mandela, or Adolfo Suárez. Madison knew it: ‘If men were angels, no type of government would be necessary.’ But since no society is governed by angels, but by men and women with interests and passions, the Federalists devised an effective formula: institutional arrangements to oppose human ambitions. The formula is simple:  rather than await the advent of great statesmen, the objective is to provide incentives so that those in government, even the worst of the ruffians, will guarantee the Rule of Law and be accountable, for the sake of their own interests.  It is not, then, a problem of wills, as we are prone to saying, but one of incentives. It’s not Freud, it’s Madison”.

Therefore, unless another electoral reform is undertaken that does not lead to solving the problems of Mexico’s reality, the key question is what is required to develop incentives that favor different behaviors.  The fundamental problem is not that our politicians are oblivious to the problem, but that they do not see why a system that has been so good to them should change. Consequently, the issue is one of power: the society versus the privileged individuals of the political system.

It has been forty years since the first electoral reform and we still have not achieved the construction of a political system capable of delivering the obvious and essential: proper governance and accountability. In France, the Fourth Republic made its appearance after the Second World War, in 1946, but it turned out to be dysfunctional. In contrast with our politicians, the French decided to devote themselves to correcting the errors of that system and in 1958 they inaugurated the Fifth Republic, which has ruled them ever since. If we were to copy one of their mechanisms (the runoff), we should perhaps understand the context within which it was built and the full scaffolding that integrates it.

The only reason why I believe that a second round might make sense is that it would eliminate the benefit, thus the incentive, to manipulate, buy votes, fabricate surveys and attempt to promote or castigate candidates in the interest of inducing voters to abandon their preferred choice in favor of (or against) the party-in-power, the so-called “useful vote.” When there are two rounds, the campaigns are cleaner, the parties seek to obtain the maximal vote possible and there is no benefit for negative campaigns.  The second round can solve this problem, but not all of the problems. Everything depends on the incentives.

The key question ends up being what the citizenry can do to change the incentives of the politicians.