The Essence of Democracy

Luis Rubio

At the “Speakers’ Corner” in London’s Hyde Park, something very peculiar happens: a few people get up on a bench and commence to rant and rave against the government, the Queen, the European Union, Trump and any other target that occurs to them. The key is the bench, which (figuratively) removes the person who insults from the English soil: that permits one, in the British tradition, to exercise full freedom of expression without there being complex rules in this respect. That is, the opposite of Mexico’s legislative style which is always geared to regulation and control (like the electoral code), pretending this makes Mexico a democracy through and through.

Instead of regulations, the English have traditions: from the wigs worn by judges on assuming the role of independent authority, separated from the personal, to the inexistence of a written constitution, despite their continual references to their constitution. The explanation for this lies in the history: while democracy in Mexico is something recent, English democracy began with the sealing of the Magna Carta in 1215. That has generated a lengthy saga of practices that transcend the law because they are understood to be the essence of the life in society, thus of civilization.

The majority of democratic nations do not enjoy the long history of democracy of the United Kingdom, but they have achieved a similar stage in that they have adopted the practices as their own –in written fashion or in daily undertakings- which make them democratic. When Felipe González assumed the presidency of the Spanish Government in 1982, the sparse democratic experience of that nation had dated only from a few extraordinarily convulsive years of the two Republican eras to the end of the XIX century and in the thirties of the XX century, followed by the rigid Franco dictatorship. When he won the presidency, Felipe González understood that half the population was euphoric with his victory, but that the other half was terrified. His answer was to strengthen the checks and balances inherent to the rule of law; to contain his most radical elements; and to move his office from the party headquarters to the house of government. His objective was to create conditions to govern with the recognition, if not complete support, of the whole of the population. His success in cementing Spain’s transformation speaks for itself.

The contrast with Mexico could hardly be greater. Rather than assuming the new democratic era in which, from at least the nineties, Mexicans have incurred in in legislative terms (although the first political reform dates from 1958), the political evolution in these last decades has been reluctant, capricious and replete with frequent reversions. Mexican politicians, of all parties, have preferred to be part of the game than to change the reality. An “ancestral” politician once told me that what is important is not whether the glass is half full or half empty, but to be inside the glass. It is with that sagacious philosophy they have pretended to govern Mexico.

Mexico’s great lack lies in the non-existence of a functional government, but the latter cannot be built because there is no statesmanlike vision, that disposition of constructing a future instead of preserving the past. And that is the same for individuals as well as for the political parties: what is important is not the institutions but to be on the inside of them in order to exploit them for one’s own interests and those of their backers. The behavior of the Morena contingents in the Congress over the past few weeks does not bode well.

In this context, it is not by chance that the sum and substance of politico-legislative life consists of buying time and making concessions as a tactic for nothing to change. Independently of their virtues and defects, legislations such as those in matters of corruption and of the General Prosecutor, are perfect examples of legislative conduct devoted to building appearances that do not change the essence, something akin to the villas that Potemkin edified as a façade for the Czar for him to believe that everything was functioning like clockwork. The traditional modus operandi has not been guided by democratic rules or accountability, because what has mattered is adherence to the dictum of Lampedusa: everything should change for everything to stay the same.

The problem today is that incredulousness no longer permits such great simulation, which goes a long way to explain the recent electoral result. It also creates an extraordinary opportunity for the incoming administration. The Peña administration is experiencing the contempt of the population, a product of its own actions, but also due to a long political tradition that conceives the government as a space to plunder. The president elect has promised a change –a transformation- that alters political life in the country. Time will tell whether the rear-view mirror is good enough for that.

We Mexicans are reaping what our politicians have sown but what they do not want to put into practice: a civilized manner of acceding to the power and exercising it, simili modo, in the government and in the opposition. The new reality of power presents an extraordinary opportunity to the new government, but particularly to the opposition political parties: to assume themselves as the check on presidential power as it befits them. As Felipe González illustrates, the essence does not reside in the laws, but in the willingness to create a new civilization. The imposing electoral result creates an opportunity not only for the new administration, but for the whole country: to put things into practice more and to regulate less, which is what civilized nations do, and which renders them democratic. And makes them governable.