President Enrique Peña offered to “move Mexico.” I doubt that his definition of movement is the one that occurred on the first of July, but there is no doubt who is responsible. In a presidential system as centralized as Mexico’s, where everything works around the president, the presidency constitutes, for good and ill, the heart and compass of the country. The trust among citizens -and that of savers and investors who need certainty to save and employ their money in productive ways- depends on who holds that office. It is the president that establishes the direction the country follows.
When that sense of direction disappears or the person occupying that office ignores the elementary factors of its function, it ends up being rejected by the citizenship and, when that happens, the whole country goes into catatonia. President Peña arrived with great plans and a huge arrogance to restore the imperial presidency of the sixties, but among all those big plans governing was not one of them. Major reforms were approved by Congress, but citizens did not see any improvement in the things that mattered most: security, incomes and jobs.
What the population saw was a distant president, frivolous and always unwilling to explain and convince; no wonder he’s ending as an example of everything the population despises: impunity, corruption and bad government. Worse, he used the resources of the presidency to persecute a candidate, favor his favorites and take revenge on his enemies. He never understood that governing in the 21st century consists of explaining, leading and convincing citizens, who have access to as many sources of information as the president’s. When the president abandons his responsibility to lead in a country so centralized and without checks and balances, the country gets into trouble. Enrique Peña did not understand his role or the moment of Mexico.
From the moment those 43 students were killed in Ayotzinapa, the president abdicated his elementary functions: he disappeared from the map, creating a vacuum that was filled with diligence and foresight by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who is today president elect thanks to his decades-long work and strategic clarity. It is not necessary to be in agreement with his proposals and positions to recognize his extraordinary ability and work to achieve what the citizenship granted him the first of the month.
Candidates win for their ability to convince citizens of their project and personality, but presidents are judged by the way they respond to and handle the unexpected. Some presidents grow up in the face of adversity, others are daunted. In serious and developed countries, the president is important in terms of advancing a specific government agenda and to the extent that he or she succeeds in convincing the population and legislative bodies of the relevance of their proposals. But those leaders are limited in their capacity to affect the life of the population in a dramatic or excessive way. In Mexico, a presidential error can lead to a financial crisis in a matter of seconds or it can cause a political crisis of enormous magnitude. Examples abound of both circumstances in our recent history.
The paradox of Enrique Peña was that he advanced the agenda he offered until he ran out of projects, but it was his insistence on showing that he alone was in charge and in control of the country (something that decades ago is impossible) only underscored his mistakes and failures. The reality is that no president can control everything but, rather, in this convulsed era, he is often nothing more than a hostage of circumstances over which he often has little influence, as is now the case with the NAFTA. What makes a president distinct and successful is his ability to respond to difficulties: the leadership he deploys matters more than the problem itself because proper handling makes it possible for trust in him to emerge or, vice versa, to vanish. Peña abdicated his responsibility even before concluding half his term and, worst of all, did not know how to respond to Trump’s insults, something that AMLO will surely enjoy doing, even with the potentially enormous risks such a course would entail.
The issue of his white house and then Ayotzinapa marked this administration definitively. From that moment, his luck was marked. But the president insisted on making things worse.
It is incomprehensible to me that a president will dedicate himself to complaining about the voters, but this president did it without hesitation and, worse, repeatedly. His advertising campaign of “Stop Whining” (ya chole con tus quejas) will go down history of presidential arrogance. But it got worse: the earlier campaign was followed by a new edition: “do the accounts right,” as if voters are always dumb. Over the years, I have listened to many politicians, in Mexico and elsewhere, complain about the electorate, which in general they consider, almost universally, as an obstacle and a bunch of fools; however, until these campaigns came to light, I had never seen a politician tell his citizens what he thinks of them. What happened on the first of July Peña has only himself to blame.
With our vote, Mexicans are responsible for electing a ruler. The lack of effective checks and balances creates a presidency with excessive powers, making dependent the collective well-being on a person’s mood and ability. A presidency like that is about to end, while a new one, hopefully better, starts anew.