Strong State?

Luis Rubio

The great myth of Mexican politics is that there was in the past a strong and competent government that successfully guided the national destiny and that the only thing lacking is a return to that idyllic past for all our problems to be solved. The reality is that the “old regime” was an authoritarian system that imposed order and, for a good number of years, imposed an economic policy in keeping with the times and successful in that regard, but that ended up creating a crisis. The combination of political stability and economic growth allowed for development, until the crisis undermined the system’s legitimacy and cast open Pandora’s box. The great but weak state ended up producing crisis, violence and the dislocation that characterizes Mexico today. Mexico needs a new State, not the reconstruction of one that was neither successful nor one that can even be recreated.

The return of the PRI has generated much nostalgia for the old system and has revived the notion that the country’s success depends on the will of he who governs. Unfortunately, what is involved is an institutional, not an individual, challenge. The old system worked under internal and external conditions that are inexistent today where the population feared, not respected, the government. In reference to a similar process in present-day Russia, a few years ago Martin Wolf wrote that “The KGB-state is incapable of understanding that fear and respect are antitheses, not synonyms.” What Mexico requires is a new institutional structure that permits enforcing the law possible, maintaining order and constructing a new political reality. An effective government can be instrumental in achieving this, but the key resides not only in that things function but also in the development of institutions –checks and balances- that confer upon it legitimacy and permanence. The alternative would be sheer effectiveness without modifying the essence. While not proposing this as such, it is what the past two governments tried and, judging from the result, failed to accomplish. Independently of their ability, their main problem lay in accepting the status quo and making it their own. The challenge today is to transcend the (indispensable and welcome) efficacy in order to achieve a strong institutional foundation from which emanates a strong, functional and effective State. As well as democratic.

The difference between an effective and institutionalized government is enormous. An effective government can impose order, modify the terms of the system’s functioning, and carry out diverse reforms. The best and most successful example of the latter is without doubt former Mexican president Carlos Salinas. His government proposed the transformation of the country’s structures and achieved the redefinition of the relations between the government and the groups now denominated “the de facto powers” and imposed a series of reforms that breathed life into the economy for the ensuing decades. However, as successful as this was, it also unearthed the limitations of a project based merely on effectiveness it lasts as long as it lasts, summarily collapsing because everything depends on one person commandeering an authoritarian government. This was worse yet when his own actions undermined the power of the structures devoted to supporting the system.

An institutionalized government implies constant negotiation, the power of persuasion, conflict and permanent complexity. That is what we have witnessed in the legislative ambit and in the relations between the states and the Federal Government in the past few years. It is to be expected that this same dynamic will characterize the relationship with the “de facto” powers: the Mexican National Educational Workers Union (SNTE) is the most obvious, but surely not the last. The Peña-Nieto government has assumed the responsibility of pacifying the country and of creating conditions for economic growth. Both are necessary but will not be sufficient if these do not entail a radical transformation of the nature of the government itself.

That is where the relationship between the Executive and the other branches of government becomes crucial, but very particularly with regard to the opposition parties. The Pact signed in December is an excellent beginning but insufficient, as illustrated by the internal crisis produced by the participation of the PAN and the PRD. That crisis revealed another of the myths of our current reality: in Mexico we have not achieved the institutionality from which there emanates a loyal opposition, a term implying that a party recognizes the legitimacy of a government’s origin although it competes head on in the electoral realm.  Some politicians  –beginning with the signers of the Pact- are operating in this manner, but others advance agendas that evidence them as disloyal in the previously noted sense, if not inclined to adopting anti-institutional strategies.

These realities derive from two processes. The first has to do with the peculiar nature of the political transition that, on not being the product of a broad political agreement with precise definitions of objectives and processes, allows each political actor to define it as best suits himself. The second is the product of old political rivalries that decades of electoral competition have proven insufficient to resolve. One of these is that which dominates left-wing politics, where the exPRIists, now in the MORENA movement, have become the main source of disloyal opposition. The PAN is not far behind: its current divisiveness brings to light the discord between its constituents born into anti-PRIism par excellence and those attempting to construct a new politico-institutional foundation.

The government could take advantage of (and even foster) these divisions and rivalries to construct temporary coalitions and promote the confrontation of one opposition cadre against another to advance its agenda. The question is whether this would afford permanence and transcendence. The example of the reform era of the eighties and nineties shows that that this could be a functional strategy, but one that is short-sighted and liable to engender crisis. The alternative strategy would imply submitting the Executive to the rule of law, something that has never existed in Mexican history. In the era of the Magna Carta, Henry de Bracton wrote that “The King is under the Law for it is the Law that maketh him a King”. To accept this premise and to convert it into a principle of action would entail not only a revolution of conceptions, but also the opportunity to construct a political system with long-term viability.

According to Fukuyama, the three components of a modern political system –and a precondition for a flourishing capitalist economy- are a strong and competent State, subordination of the State to the rule of Law and accountability to the citizenship. The new government has demonstrated that it is capable of achieving functionality and efficiency in its daily undertakings. Now what’s missing is its advance toward consolidating the foundations of a modern country.