Evidencing corruption or tackling it?

Revista R – REFORMA – July 09, 2017

The dilemma is as follows: evidencing the corruption and impunity or tackling them. This is not wordplay but a political standpoint. In a hypothetical scenario, it would be possible to differentiate between those that propose or emphasize one type of action over the other, according to their perception on what is possible. Those that are sure of the prevailing decay, tend to be activists and prefer public scandals as a way to create a breeding ground to tackle the core issue. On the other hand, those that know the insides of the beast know very well that there are endless mechanisms, all of them perfectly established and renowned, which make corruption possible. The former are political activists; the latter tend to be auditors, managers and pragmatic politicians. The decision on how to face this issue is deeply political and entails real consequences in everyday life of both society as well as politics.

Let us start with the obvious: everything in the country seems designed for corruption to flourish. The institutional rules are defined in such an ambiguous and discretional manner that it is always possible to unmercifully punish a perfectly legitimate and adequate action when it is convenient for a given politician. In brief, corruption is not a product of chance but of an implicit design that makes it possible and everlasting. If it is to be eliminated, the rules that enable it ought to be modified. On the other hand, if the goal is political, corruption will not end: as suggested by the examples in this chapter, it will simply continue to mutate.

Regarding corruption, the relevant question is not moral but practical. If assuming that there is an equal number of honest and dishonest individuals, then the key is not the people but the environment and institutions that limit their acts. If this was not the case, we would have to accept that the morals of an individual determine the possibilities of corruption of an activity or public post and we would immediately fall in the lack of definition that a lot of PRI members referred to when they said: “do not give me anything. Just put me where everything is”. It is obvious that the issue is not about morality but opportunity. The question is what creates the opportunity of corruption.

Corruption flourishes under two evident conditions: darkness and discretionary powers. When there is no transparency and clarity on the processes taking place in a specific state or region, its public officers have plenty of opportunities to take advantage of the situation. In other words, the existence of decision spaces that are not subject to public scrutiny becomes an opportunity for dishonest public officers to use the circumstance in their benefit or that of their cronies. A similar thing occurs when the legislation or regulations ruling the functioning of a public company or a government entity grants their workers with discretionary powers so vast that they enable all kinds of interpretation when making a decision. That way, when authorities have the power of approving or rejecting a petition, permit or acquisition without a scrupulous analysis or procedure and without having to provide any kind of explanation, then the possibility of incurring  in situations of corruption is endless. In addition, this possibility is increased when there are no sanctions for violating the regulations (including, for example, the lack of transparency, even if it’s enshrined by law).

The point is that corruption does not emerge from a vacuum.  The rules that regulate the decision-making process are the ones that create or prevent the existence of opportunities for corruption. If this is blatantly obvious, then the way to end corruption is with the rules of the game (whether it is in the judicial framework or in the way decisions are made) that will make arbitrariness impossible: that is to say, that they provide the authorities with the necessary, but no so ample, discretionary powers, that will entail a substantial change in regulation.

There are four ways in which it would be possible, at least in principle, to break the vicious circle of corruption and impunity in Mexico. The first is by ending the incipient democracy that the country has been experiencing. This is precisely what President Putin did in Russia: in only a few months, he ended the direct election of Governors and returned to the old system of centralized appointments; later on, he cornered the Parliament, limited the opposition and took control of the internal processes. By recentralizing power, the Russian President built new institutions, strengthened the police forces and obtained a widespread popular support. Although the current Russia is nothing like the old communist system, the democratic system of the eighties was quickly vanished; and, not least importantly, these actions had popular support.

A second avenue for tackling the problem is modifying the power structure that lives off the ambiguity inherent to all of the political system, an ambiguity that favors ample discretionary powers and which border in complete arbitrariness. If Mexicans truly wanted to end corruption and impunity, this would be the best alternative.

A third idea for breaking the vicious circle is to change the power apparatus, ceding, in altruistic fashion its sources of power and financing. As this will not occur, the question is whether society can force a change within the power structure. That was my proposal in A Mexican Utopia, where I argued that the President should lead this change, albeit knowing it would not happen. In fact, in the following book, The Problem of Power, I analyzed why that was an impossible task: given the structure of interests and privileges in the country, the notion of attempting a transformation “from within” was quite naïve.

A fourth line of action, subscribed by a large group of activists, is often based on publicly displaying the issues rather than analyzing them.  Its goal is not to change – amend, correct or solve the problems – but change the system altogether. Indeed, there is a growing number of organizations dedicated to constructing institutional solutions in aspects such as transparency and accountability but they are the exception: the line that separates the institutions that base their work in a serious analysis and propose solutions from those led by activists advocating exposing and fighting cases that they consider, without analyzing, to be examples of corruption, is a thin one. Generally, activists base their activities in the abuse of information and they follow precooked political agendas in their protests and publications. Some of those that follow this line of action have a clear goal, others think that public scandal is an acceptable way to carry out the necessary changes. In any case, the problem of this strategy is that it is based on the principle that it is not possible to change or improve the current system but that it is necessary to eliminate it. This way, either consciously or not, it’s about political movements rather than projects dedicated to tackling the current problems within the available institutional frameworks.

These four alternatives ask the obvious question of whether the change in the country can come from society. The evidence suggests that, for whichever reason, some discussed before, Mexican society has shown severe limitations in its ability to lead transformative processes; some polls commissioned by Mexico’s National Electoral Institute[i] even suggest that this society is particularly passive, although, with time, nothing prevents this passivity from changing, especially with a growing perception of freedom and a bigger appearance of corruption. Rather, activists have become more important due to the lack of a society that is willing and capable of organizing and acting on its own. Thus, there remains the key disquisition on how can society make its own rights worthy in an era of competition and democratization. It is not a trivial dilemma.

The Mexican political system was built to pacify the country and to reward the winners of the Revolution. The system that emerged from it achieved both goals but had the effect of being frozen in time, preventing its natural evolution, in pace with the growth and development of both society as well as the economy. Corruption, impunity, informality and other problems mentioned in this chapter are symptoms of a political and legal system specifically designed to favor certain sectors of society, to pick winners (and, unavoidably, losers) and, thus, became a structural obstacle to the existence of strong, independent and permanent institutions. That is to say, in the heart of the arbitrariness that makes corruption and impunity possible – and needed – lies a power structure benefitting from it and which sees no reason to alter the established order.

The Mexican society has reached the conclusion that corruption and impunity are the two great evils that cause violence, unproductivity and discomfort. There is no doubt that these phenomena have changed Mexican society and have granted it with a sense of militancy and restlessness that did not previously exist. The question is whether these elements could become a catalyst to transform society and turn into a real factor for political change in Mexico.