Checks and Balances

When in 1688 the last Jacobite sovereign, King James II, decided to ignore the laws of Parliament, he was promptly deposed, giving birth to modern British democracy and its English Bill of Rights for the citizenry. This revolution also made manifest the essence of the functioning of a political system and its cardinal guarantee of stability: checks and balances.

If a certain politician or interest group abuses this, it is because they can: if there were effective checks and balances, they could not. Checks and balances are the essence of a democratic system of separation of powers. Their existence implies that each of the branches and levels of government possesses limited prerogatives and depends on the others in order to operate. None is effective in itself, but all work together as a whole: when all entities –Congress, the Presidency, the Judicial Branch, the states and municipalities- recognize their limitations and mutual dependency, the system achieves a harmonious operating capacity. In Mexico, we have many powers with the capacity for obstruction, but nearly none with true equipoise. Perhaps the sole exception, albeit incipient, would be the counterbalance that exists between the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) and the Electoral Tribunal of the Judicial Branch of the Federation  (TRIFE).

While de facto equilibria existed that curbed the worst excesses, or at least rectified them after the fact, the PRIist political system was never characterized by checks and balances. The concept was unintelligible for a structure founded on centralization of power and the force of control and imposition. Had there been checks and balances, we might have observed a more seamless transition: as in Imperial Rome, the excesses of the system –from student repression to economic crises and corruption- became propitious elements of the collapse because there never were, as in XVII-century England, balancing factors that impeded abuse and excesses.

As of 2000, we entered into another stage of national development, in which we ended up in the worst of all worlds: without controls, without equilibria, and without checks and balances. Few nations have achieved a democratic transition without violent turmoil. It is impressive to look at the few that have accomplished this in a nearly imperceptible manner, but the contrary is more common: the old mechanisms of control, which, at any rate, allowed for some functionality, break down, but democratic checks and balances do not evolve. The difference between what there was formerly and what is not yet consolidated is vital, because as our current reality illustrates, there are many impediments to getting things done, but no mechanisms that oblige one to do things without falling into abuse, without extravagant expenditure, and with accountability. When there are no checks and balances, Congress can vote against the president, but the latter possesses no instruments to force Congress to act. Similarly, unions and state governors do not account for the quotas of their confreres and constituents, or for federal monetary transfers.

The absence of checks and balances preserves the status quo and paralyzes the country. Among the many proposals for changing this situation, few are constructive or visionary: instead, the petty and mercenary prevail. What is significant is that the actors in the political system recognize the existence of the problem, but have not known how to solve it. Instead of taking the bull by the horns, they have frequently resorted to the creation of autonomous entities(as if this were synonymous with impartiality or capacity to deliver) or to artificial solutions -imposed coalitions or majorities in congress- as if the capacity to govern could be legislated. What’s needed is a structure of checks and balances that makes it possible to govern while annulling the potential for proliferation of so-called “de facto powers”.

The key lies not in autonomy or an imposed majority, whatever the method, but rather, in the existence of checks and balances, and this can only arise from a great national-level debate resulting in negotiations on the structure of power.  And this, in turn, will only happen when all of the actors come to recognize that no one can function without the legitimate concurrence of the other. This may require another alternation of parties in government or a new crisis, but what is inexorable is that paralysis (and/or abuse) will persist until effective checks and balances are constructed. This is the reality of a society that has decentralized power and that nothing, except for an authoritarian regime, will change.

An effective system of checks and balances obliges everyone to cooperate because everyone knows that their functioning capacity depends on how everyone else functions. This is the basis of the political arrangement that Mexico must procure: one that responds to the most plebian and banal of human realities.Mancur Olson, an American scholar, wrote* that in nations with developed check and balance mechanisms, obstacles of economic growth are minimal, inasmuch as everyone would be affected by their very existence: in these cases, the most self-serving interest in the entire citizenry endeavors to eliminate restrictions to growth, because citizens lose out every time a bureaucrat or a private interest benefits from these restrictions. Everyone knows, says Olson, that prosperity tends to generate conditions for the development of democratic political systems; however, he notes, the opposite is equally so: democracy tends to favor prosperity.

Independently of the way in which an eventual political arrangement, its foundational element will be required to reside within the structuring of an effective checks and balances system. Although there are many models that can be studied, successful countries have constituted mechanisms appropriate to their circumstances: there are no prefabricated touchstones. Rather, the key lies in the negotiation itself: in the interaction among actors who suffer from and endure the absence of this type of mechanism, and of recognition by current beneficiaries that they themselves could, any day now, be on the other side of the table. Alternation creates opportunity, but only political accord can construct a lasting system.


Once this recognition is attained, creative solutions will begin to emerge that are appropriate for Mexican reality and that will shape the mechanisms of equilibrium for the federal powers as well as for governors. The important thing is not the form, but its functionality.

Building a country that works will require agreements that make possible the existence of checks and balances. For this, we may have to wait until the politicians are worn thin from the abuse of their opposite numbers. That’s the thing about development.

*Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist and Capitalist Dictatorships