Ever since its Independence in 1821, Mexico has enjoyed two periods of high growth with political and social stability: the Porfiriato (1876-1910), and the decades of the hard PRI, between the forties and the end of the sixties. The common denominator was the centralization of power and the vertical control that the president exercised from above. Both eras were successful for a while, but the two collapsed, each for their own reasons and circumstances. But the memory of the successful period of each of them left a trail of memories, myths and nostalgia to which later generations referred with longing. The current moment is not different.
The electorate was not timid in its judgment about the past decades: the mandate received by the president-elect is overwhelming and involves a transparent and transcendent message. Citizens, who for two decades opted for weaker presidencies through divided governments, now gave a clear and forceful mandate to the future President López Obrador. The question is what to do with it.
Of course, AMLO has a clear idea of what he wants to do with it and all his statements, appointments and movements to date lead to the construction of a scaffolding of control that seeks to rebuild the strong presidency of the sixties to exercise a full command of general issues, especially about the economy. Looking at the sixties makes sense: that is when that old political system reached its peak in terms of economic success, combining investment in infrastructure organized from the government, with the productive capacity of private investment. It was then that projects like Cancún were cooked, the southeast of the country was electrified and several of the main highways that, until recently, were the only ones that existed. The nodal point was that, although there was corruption, the ability to concentrate forces and resources was enormous.
The memory of that era, like that of Porfirio Díaz half a century before, constitutes an enormous attraction for a government that intends to change the direction of the country’s development; so much so that, at least in thrust, the intention of the outgoing government was not very different. But it is important to recognize that those two eras of high growth with stability ended badly because they were unable to resolve the contradictions inherent to their own strength.
The case of the Porfiriato is evident due to the simple fact that that system was inextricably linked to the person of the president and followed his natural cycle of life. The Porfiriato was born and ended with Porfirio Diaz because there was no institutional mechanism -or the disposition- to build a peaceful succession and, since no one is permanent, both the rise and the decline were marked by the character’s biography. The contradictions between the needs of the country and the limitations of the person were exacerbated: the result was the Mexican Revolution.
The era of the hard PRI ended for different reasons. In some sense, as Roger Hansen argued, the PRI was nothing but the institutionalized version of the Porfiriato. That system did not end with the wear and tear of a person, but because of the lack of flexibility that inevitably accompanies – and characterizes – centralized control. The cycle begins with all the virtues of new ideas, positive expectations, good disposition and the promise of solving, once and for all, the core problems of the country, but then the power is concentrated, the former openness disappears and the vices and excesses of the people in power dominate the panorama. Success in terms of economic growth generates new sources of power; new needs that are not tolerable for those who control; and, thus, inevitably, explicit or implicit challenges to the system, as occurred with the student movement of 1968.
The end of the PRI system was not as thunderous as that of the Porfiriato, but it was equally catastrophic because it inaugurated the era of financial crises -1976, 1982, 1995- that impoverished the population and destroyed the incipient middle class again and again. All the virtues of the PRI era collapsed when trying to satisfy, artificially, all the bases and clienteles of the system, all of which provoked the hecatomb that, in spite of so many necessary reforms, has not truly concluded.
In this context, the question of centralizing and controlling for what is not idle. It clearly makes sense to centralize power to avoid the dispersion and misuse of public resources, focus spending and control actors such as the governors who, naturally, have a centrifugal propensity. Although such a scheme entails risks (because decisions are too concentrated), the benefits of greater achievements are evident. The problem is, as it was in the sixties and seventies, such a scheme is neither sustainable nor lasting.
The alternative would be to use the enormous mandate and the concentration of power to create institutions that give a new life to the country, a new political system that makes the virtuous circle permanent. Only a flexible institutional structure would avoid authoritarian excesses and make it possible for the next government to transcend.