Power For What?

Luis Rubio

All presidents believe that they are destined to change the world. Very few, in fact nearly none, achieve this. However, this proven fact has never served to convince presidential hopefuls and less so those who have already reached the topmost office and feel themselves to be omnipotent once there. But the problem does not reside in the desire to change the world, legitimate in itself, but in the fact that the majority of presidents believe that the mere fact of sitting in the chair carries with it a change in the reality. History demonstrates that this is not so: power is not to be preserved or accumulated but employed because there is nothing more futile, nothing more ephemeral, than presidential power.

My impression of four decades of observing eight Mexican presidents is that when a president assumes office and, above all when he consolidates his power, he feels that the world owes him a living and that he’s “got it made”. Nothing can thwart his triumph and the only thing missing is for the reality to begin to evidence a radical change. History illustrates that dreams of grandeur are just that: dreams. All the rest is hard work. Unfortunately, very few presidents perceive that power is to be employed, thus few accomplish their task.

Years ago I visited one of the Tutankhamun and The Golden Age of the Pharaohs exhibitions. No group of sovereigns ever enjoyed the illusion of such great power. Ramses II reigned for 66 years: judging from the images of power, the pyramids and the colossal monuments at Luxor and Abu Simbel, the power was enormous; but nothing at all remains of all that. All that power vanished and all that is left, centuries afterward, is a poor country with few opportunities for development. On leaving the exhibition I remember having pondered the futility of power, the impotence that, in the last analysis, it represents.

It didn’t go much better for Napoleon Bonaparte. In the summer of 1812 he led an army of over one million that marched toward the gates of Moscow.  Three years later he was found wasting away his life on the Isle of Elba. In 1940 Hitler commandeered the most powerful army in the world; in 1945 he complained that only Eva Braun and his dog remained faithful to him. At the end of his life, according to the story told by his personal physician, Li Zhisui, Mao Tse-tung was a pathetic figure who no longer inspired even the least authority. History is saturated with powerful and frustrated men.

It is instructive, and sobering, to observe that, in the last decades, the only Mexican president who is prominent for having survived the opprobrium of history and the population’s generalized reproach is the least ambitious of them all. The sole president who has won the respect of the population is the one who devoted himself body and soul to a set of limited but realistic objectives: he saw to the problems of the moment, leaving dreams of grandeur and historical transcendence in the closet. Ernesto Zedillo could perhaps have taken aim at something grander but, with the perspective permitted by time, he is the only one who achieved what he proposed and is widely recognized for that. It’s no small thing and less when compared with the rest.

The grandeur of power is not found in symbols, appearances or gratuitous acolytes, but in the results of its exercise. As the saying goes, the most difficult year of the Mexican presidency is the seventh because that’s when reality sets in. It is at that moment when the recent ex-president starts to look out at the world as it is and not how he imagined it. Presidents who stand out are those who can look back and see at least one respectable legacy. Of the eight that I have watched closely, only one passes the test. History would suggest that it is imperative to learn from the past the need to assess power with humility, as something temporary and in the last instance, ephemeral. Power is not what is possessed but rather what is done with it.

The point is not to deny the value or transcendence of power, but to observe its limitations as well as its possibilities. A powerful president can do immense good, but also immense harm. Those who are successful accept the reality as it is and employ their power to cull every possible benefit from it. In this era of the world and of Mexico, reality is measured by two very simple things: the degree of the institutionalization of power and of the society and the growth of productivity. It might appear sophomoric to reduce the entire gamut of presidential power into these two elements, but this concerns something that is by no means trivial: these are the factors that could transform Mexico. A president who exerts a favorable influence on these would transform the country and, with this, would acquire the legacy that was impossible to come by for seven of the eight last presidents.

Institutionalization of the country is a promise that goes back to Plutarco Elías Calles, the first president who understood the need to procure it but, like a little child who knows what shouldn’t be done but does it anyway, he preferred to reap the benefits of power, whether or not ephemeral, to that of institutionalization. Institutionalizing implies limiting the president’s powers, which is why nearly none of them has promoted it. The paradox is that only a powerful president can drive an agenda of institutionalization forward.

It is sufficient to observe the painful spectacle offered by entities such as the IFE, the IFAI and various economic regulatory organisms to recognize that the country has not achieved institutionalization of its main executive functions. We presume that we have but we all know the flimsiness with which these have been constructed. The obvious temptation would be to abolish the concept and ordain trustworthy sacristans. What should be done is to name civil servants who are dedicated and committed to the State, not to the government. Irreproachable persons not single-mindedly devoted to fretting about their name and covering their back, but solely committed to the success of their institution and function. Persons who don’t back down in the face of pressure from the higher authority.

In the economic ambit one doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that the success factor is denominated productivity. Everything that contributes to its growth should be welcome, everything that hinders it should be eradicated. The keys to productivity are competition, elimination of obstacles, less bureaucracy, simplification, zero preferences (and discrimination, whether positive or negative). All the rest impedes the growth of productivity, the factor that enables raising the population’s incomes.

Institutions and productivity. That’s what power is for, if the president really wants to transcend. It might seem like a small thing, but it’s everything, much more than a president ever could imagine in his freshman year.