The Flip Side of the Coin

Luis Rubio


All of the crises that Mexicans have experienced have been the result of a president who stopped doing his job or who did it badly. That is the price of a system centered on a sole individual: his moods, capacities, quality of his responses and errors determine the result for 120 million Mexicans.

The political system emanating from the Revolution constituted the institutionalization of the Porfirio Diaz system: instead of an eternal dictator, the presidents would be monarchs without the possibility of bequeathing their post, in the words of Cosío Villegas, but monarchs nonetheless. That regime conferred meta-constitutional faculties on those who would occupy the Presidency, which would serve for executing public power in discretionary fashion, making arbitrary decisions and ensuring the permanence of the status quo through loyalties and clienteles, effectively nurtured by corruption. The president, at the center of the power, having the public resources and the so-called “institutions” at his beck and call for his own purposes.

The great benefit of that system was the dexterity with which changes could be achieved when they were necessary, while the immense cost and risk lay in the inexistence of the counterweights that would impede costly errors. This system led to profound exchange-rate crises in 1976, 1982 and 1994-1995, all attributable to the evident mistakes of the individual occupying the Presidency at the time, but it also facilitated rapid recovery the next year under a new administration. In the same manner, while duly institutionalized countries take years to carry out reforms to attack their economies’ nodal problems (as occurred with the European ones in the past decade), in Mexico those reforms have always been adopted almost without batting an eye.

The point is that development and civilization entail costs, but the benefit lies in that the citizenry of these nations are not subject to the caprices, styles and capacities of whoever presides over governmental functioning. One can argue that the possibility of undertaking urgent reforms compensates for the risks of a poor government, but what would indeed be desirable would be for there to be no bad governments or for their capacity to make bad decisions to be limited by strong and independent institutions.

In the political arena it is common to hear expressions relative to the strength of the institutions. Ascribed to these institutions, the argument goes, are fundamental powers to limit the exercise of presidential power. However, the evidence does not justify those pretensions. One can observe how those institutions have been changed -or those responsible for them- each time the de facto powers, beginning with the Presidency, decide that they are not satisfied with their functioning: that is what happened with the Federal Electoral Institute and with the Commissions of Competition and Telecommunications. From this perspective, there is no reason to think that, within a scenario of pressure, the same thing would not take place with others such as the Supreme Court or the Bank of Mexico. It is not even necessary to speak here about the Congress and the Senate: one comment by the incumbent is all that is needed for them to act.

Mexico’s political regime is unipersonal and that implies effective powers over the institutions: a president with extraordinary faculties who, these days, is only limited by the personal capacities of he who flaunts them and by the international financial markets that very few in the world dare to challenge.

A unipersonal presidential system has its virtues but all of them depend on the capacities and integrity of the president. Governments that operate in this way depend on the zealousness, consistency, fortitude and character of the president. If the president falls short of the mark or refrains from doing his job, the nation pays the consequences. If the president utilizes the public resources to wager on the future of the country, it is the citizens who would benefit from or suffer the costs. When Enrique Peña Nieto fell asleep at the wheel after Ayotzinapa, the country froze, rendering possible the coming of a messiah. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

We Mexicans love to push the envelope, make illegal turns in traffic or double-park. It seems to us that it is improper, wrong or unjust for someone else to do this, but we think that we personally have the divine right to do it ourselves. That way of being is a faithful reflection of the political system, where the president entertains royal powers for behaving himself in the same manner, within the ambits of competence of his function. If we want the president to abide by the rules and the mechanisms of checks and balances, the citizenry itself would have to change its ways.

Every six years the country goes into a trance due to the inherent danger that a madman, a destroyer or a person postulating a radical change will assume the presidency. However, rather than our focusing on underlying problem –the excessive faculties of the Presidency- all lights are trained on the supposed or real defects or positive characteristics of that person. Mexico’s problem is not that this or that individual is good and deserving of the opportunity of being president, but rather that there are no effective limits in case that individual turns out to be not so deserving. Even of López Obrador does not recognize it, Mexico, and he himself, are in urgent need of a new regime sustained on successful checks and balances.