What Does It Matter

Many elections will be held today, but the citizen has good reason to ask what difference the result will make. Judging by the effort, resources, rhetoric, and animadversion that have freed up these processes, it would appear obvious that much lies in the balance.

Something transcendental must be in the works because all the coordinates of the political system have gone awry. Some months ago with the elections in Yucatán, the PAN appeared to have transformed itself into the new PRD, disputing the electoral results as if it had no memory. Despite calling into question the presidential candidacy, which gnaws at it, the PRI has joined forces for these elections because it entertains the hope that today will mark the beginning of its return to power. The PAN and PRD parties, enemies par excellence (since 2006), have tried everything to stop, even in modest measure, the PRI. The conclusion, in positive mode, is that perhaps Mexican democracy is robust because it erodes and dilutes the rigid traditional barriers among parties and issues an invitation to its actors to experience novel forms of association and collaboration.

The results of today’s elections will deliver a tip-off on the standing that the parties occupy in the population’s electoral preferences, and, without doubt, will be read as a summons to the dispute that follows, i.e., the “big one” in 2012. The importance of suffrage today is huge for the states deciding who will govern them, and to a lesser extent, for the country in general. Beyond the symbolism that the aggregate results represent (who wins more, who loses less), today’s elections are yet another milestone in the process of political change and adjustment that Mexico has been experiencing for years and that has not succeeded in landing on the playing field of a better system of government or a more functional and successful country.

The problematic is more abstruse than would appear. Mexican democracy was ushered in with bells and whistles, but has not resolved fundamental problems, beginning with the most relevant: that of how to govern us. Ten years after the first alternation of parties in the presidency, all contingents proffer a recipe for solving the problem, but none gives the impression of attending to rockbed matters. For some, the solution lies in reconstructing the majority that previously allowed governing; for others, the important dimension is not governing, but rather a broad representation of the diverse political currents of the country in the Legislature. The problem, as we all know, is set into motion by the lack of legitimacy and not because of the absence of majorities, a situation that reminds me of the expression I heard some time ago from a studious Filipino: in the Philippines, he said, “there are no losers in the elections, only winners and those to whom victory was denied”. The problem in Mexico is not one of majorities or of representation, but one of legitimacy. The old political system collapsed because it lost its legitimacy. Despite having ample representation of all political forces in the legislative, legitimacy has not been restored. More of what there was before, or more of what there is now, is no solution.

In reference to Argentina, Guillermo O’Donnell stated that the electoral problem is not the Election Day itself, but rather, the circumstances under which it comes to pass, because this determines what is transcendent. In O’Donnell’s own words: “Within this context, losing an election is an unacceptable tragedy because it is no longer a normal mechanism of a representative democracy of the exchange of government, but because it is a symptom of the failure of this noble cause. Thus, elections must not be lost, and everything possible must be done not to lose them”. This would appear to refer to the  PRI and the PAN and the PRD. It doesn’t matter. Everyone believes that life as we know it will end today. And on election days to come. In this same interview, O’Donnell was asked what it means to lose an election: “If I am convinced that I am the bearer of a sacred cause, that I know the cause, and that some people share this in good faith, and if my good fortune is proven a thousand times… then this loss is the failure of the project that would have saved the Nation.”

If elections have not resolved the problem of the government, and, as we saw in 2006, not even that of legitimacy, the question is what’s next. Adam Przeworski, a U.S. academic, asserts that “democracies persist when all of the relevant political forces grasp that they can improve the situation only if they channel their claims and their conflicts by way of democratic institutions”. In Mexico, the political forces have played it both ways: on the one hand, they participate in electoral processes with fervor and conviction. On the other hand, however, they are always disposed to dispute the result, and, in too many quarters (including several states that contest the governorship today), violate not only the spirit, but also the letter, of the standing electoral law. Power in Mexico continues to be a zero-sum game, in which some perceive that they win everything and others lose everything. Thus, it is inevitable that the battle will be to the death.

This reality brings to mind the corollary of an article by Womack in which he affirms that “democracy does not produce, by itself, a decent form of living. It is the decent forms of living that produce democracy.” The question for us is how to develop these decent forms of living in which power is distributed, there is transparency in its daily operation, and there is accountability. The task is great and its complexity, even greater. But, as observed by Carlos Castillo-Peraza, the PAN visionary whose presence has been a great, missed, absence in his party’s governments, one must “resist the temptation to destroy what is imperfect in order to substitute it with the perfectly impossible.”

The risk today is falling onto the other side. Stalin noted that “I consider it totally irrelevant who will vote or not vote; what is extraordinarily important is who counts the votes and how.” We would have appeared to have overcome this  stage unqualifiedly, but that is not what is appreciated in the accusations and counteraccusations overheard in diverse Mexican states that celebrate today the most elemental of democratic rituals.

Are today’s elections, then, important? Today will be the hallmark of another stage in the growth process of the country. If one reads the history of countries that are now paragons of democracy, their advance was tortuous, violent, and complex, but, little by little, and irrespective of the experience and the costs, systems of decision and government were consolidated that are at present an example for the entire world. There is no reason to think that we are less able of achieving this, however great the stench of the old system, which has not yet disappeared. It remains present at every juncture, and even more so today.